The implications of automation

As robots replace more and more human workers, the world needs to work out how to transition to an automated economy without destroying society. 

Illustration by Kallum Best

Illustration by Kallum Best

Tian Yu suffered three spinal fractures, four hip fractures, and was paralysed from the waist down after she jumped from the fourth floor of her factory dormitory in 2010. She had been working for Foxconn, a hardware manufacturer for both Samsung and Apple products, for only 37 days. She was 17 years old.

Yu, who told her story to academic Jenny Chan, was one of 18 Foxconn employees — all aged between 17 and 25 — who had attempted suicide that year. Like many young people in China, she had migrated from her family’s farm home to the city for an opportunity to earn money. She was shortly hired by Foxconn as an assembly-line worker, and assigned a staff number that read like a machine serial code: F9347140.

There, she worked twelve or more hours a day with few breaks in a factory so large that it took over an hour to walk from one side to the other. “There seemed to be no way for me to say ‘no’ to overtime … Toilet breaks during the working hours are also restricted. I had to swipe my staff ID card at electronic readers at the beginning and end of my work shift. I had to ask permission from the assistant line leaders to leave my seat,” Yu says as part of Chan’s study, published in the Asia-Pacific Journal. Workers were under constant CCTV surveillance; they weren’t allowed to talk and were publicly ridiculed by managers for slight errors.

Yu felt lonely and exhausted. After a month of work there were problems with her pay and she spent frustrating, fruitless days trying to track down the money she was owed. “I was so desperate that my mind went blank,” she says. That was when she attempted to take her own life.

By 2012, over 150 Foxconn workers had taken similar action. The company decided to address the problem by installing “anti-suicide nets” at the bottom of their tall buildings.

The work environment for those in Foxconn factories are clearly inhumane in restricting socialisation, leisure, money, and sleep, thereby driving many to deep levels of despair. Greater worker empowerment, and serious labour regulation would be required to allow workers to thrive while also earning a wage. But Foxconn may be able to sidestep the issue of improving conditions over the coming years because, increasingly, this work is considered literally inhuman.

An industrial robot being trained at    Tianjin College of Mechanics and Electricity in China.   Mitch Altman/Flickr  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

An industrial robot being trained at Tianjin College of Mechanics and Electricity in China. Mitch Altman/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)


Earlier this year, Foxconn replaced 60,000 factory workers like Yu with robots. And, according to the BBC, China is now making heavy investment in robot technology, which may displace even more workers from low-skilled jobs such as factory work.

In many industries, robots are actually the perfect workers. Robots are very good at repetitive jobs, and although the initial technology might be costly, they’re much cheaper in the long-term. As ex-CEO of McDonalds Ed Rensi pointed out earlier this year, paying for a US$35,000 robotic arm to scoop fries into a bag is going to be much more cost effective than hiring an employee to do it inefficiently for US$15 an hour. He made this claim as an argument against increasing the minimum wage in the US, but his glib analysis points to the depersonalised, repetitive nature of much low-skilled work. Unlike humans, robots don’t mind doing the same thing over and over. They don’t feel the sting of indignity when a manager comes up to them to critique their fries bagging technique. Robots can work way more than 12 hours a day and don’t require any rest breaks. They don’t get sick, they don’t go on strike, they don’t need regular pay for a minimum standard of living — and they don’t attempt suicide out of desperation.

Factory work and fries scooping aren’t the only jobs where robots provide a viable alternative over humans. The Boston Consulting Group has predicted that, by 2025, either robots or smart software will replace up to 25% of jobs: “Big improvements in the cost and performance of robotics systems will be the catalysts. In several industries, the cost and capabilities of advanced robots have already launched rapid adoption.” Taxi and long-haul truck drivers may one day be replaced with self-driving cars; some human hospitality staff have already been replaced by robot waiters in China; sports and finance journalists may have to watch out, as informative pieces are already being regularly produced by the Associated Press without humans; and even doctors may, at some point, find themselves at risk of displacement, or at least working with robots as colleagues, because robots are great at trawling through reams of medical data and identifying biological abnormalities.

The better and cheaper robot technology gets, the more likely it is that workers globally will find themselves displaced. This has its benefits — gone, at least hopefully, will be the days where corporations through lacklustre regulation and lust for money are incentivised to mistreat workers. But there may be problems too. Humans may just invent ourselves out of our own jobs and render more people economically redundant if we don’t think strategically about the implications of robot technology. People need jobs to earn money and to live. Perhaps a job in a Foxconn factory is better than abject poverty. And few would argue that professional work in industries like medicine is bereft of reward.

Robotic workers are already more efficient than human workers for many tasks — and society needs to grapple with the implications of this.   PEO ACWA/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Robotic workers are already more efficient than human workers for many tasks — and society needs to grapple with the implications of this. PEO ACWA/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


It might be instinctual to approach the prospect of a robotised economy with fear. When, in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, the robot HAL, who is programmed only to bring about the success of the space mission, turns on the humans around him in his relentless pursuit of his algorithmic destiny, we’re reminded that sometimes the things humans create can take on a ‘life’ of their own and reach beyond our controlling grasp. James Cameron's The Terminator provides an even more dystopian vision of technology threatening human life to the point of near-extinction. These stories are hyperbolic, but they tap into a real fear of the power of things we don’t understand, alongside what might happen if humans were to be rendered redundant.

However, robot technology is actually one of the few things in the world that’s under human control. We build the machines and develop the programs. And just because the technology is there, doesn’t mean we have to use it. Increasingly, governments internationally are recognising their responsibility to regulate the use of robots in their many possible applications — the market availability of the self-driving car, the use of robots in warfare, and defining when it’s okay to displace workers with robots. First, we have to acknowledge the serious potential for robot technology to change our work life, then we all have to have a conversation about what changes are acceptable.

We aren’t used to having these conversations. Technology often seems to evolve faster than our ability to philosophise about its transformative implications. Our lives were mediated by Facebook before we wondered whether they were better off as a result; the atom bomb was unleashed with little consideration for the generations of people who would be affected by the blast; procedures like organ donation after brain death, stem cell therapy, selective abortion, and many others take place despite considerable debate over when life even begins and ends. How robots figure in our work lives can’t be an issue where our minds follow the innovations — we need to have done the thinking first.

In June, the European Union published evidence of anticipating the changing role of robots. The EU Committee on Legal Affairs released a draft report which states: “ that humankind stands on the threshold of an era when ever more sophisticated robots, bots, androids and other manifestations of artificial intelligence (“AI”) seem poised to unleash a new industrial revolution, which is likely to leave no stratum of society untouched, it is vitally important for the legislature to consider all its implications.” The EU report notes that robots have the power to increase overall production and efficiency and wear the burden of unsafe tasks but may increase the social burden of unemployment. It articulates the need for nations to examine social welfare and income equality arrangements as Switzerland has done recently with their public debate about the basic income, paid to everyone regardless of earnings, to provide a financial buffer in the case of job loss (potentially as a result of technology). 

Many countries are now discussing basic income programs, in response to fears of widespread job automation.   stanjourdan/Flickr  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Many countries are now discussing basic income programs, in response to fears of widespread job automation. stanjourdan/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)


Companies using robots, suggests the EU report, also have to factor in the possibility of potential hacking of their technology and take steps to ensure data protection. They also will need to ensure the safety of robots in autonomous roles, such as caring for patients. Provisions would be in place in case robots became more intelligent than we’ve anticipated so far, and even in the unlikely event that human existence could be threatened by robots. For instance, if a HAL-type machine challenged humanity’s “capacity to be in charge of its own destiny", the EU would have some legislative framework to meet the challenge.

Most controversially, the EU report suggests that the most sophisticated robots should be defined as “electronic persons,” meaning that, like humans, they would have rights and responsibilities in the workplace. These robots may be listed in a central registry, and owners would be required to insure them in case they were held liable for any damage they cause. Employers using robots would also declare their resultant savings, which could be taxed. Under such rules, robots couldn’t simply take money out of the pockets of human workers, they would still need to make financial contributions which may go towards a more robust welfare system or efforts to retrain people to work in industries that still require humans.

Reuters has reported that some experts disagree with these suggestions. Patrick Schwarzkopf, managing director of the robotic and automation department at German engineering association VDMA, says: “We think it would be very bureaucratic and would stunt the development of robotics.” He does note, however, that self-driving technology is far enough along to require imminent regulation, and that workplace regulation of robots may eventually be prudent, but “that’s something that could happen in 50 years.”

Regardless of your opinions on the EU’s suggestions, it’s encouraging to see that governments are taking the prospect of robots seriously and thinking about the contingencies to protect workers and enhance society. Countries such as the Netherlands and Japan have undertaken similar groundwork. Both countries are optimistic about the role of robots in addressing labour shortages born out of their economies’ ageing populations and about the possibility of robots being able to meet increased demand for labour in the aged care sector. Japan is particularly enthusiastic about the role it might play as a nation, aiming to “make Japan as robot innovation hub in the world” and to become “a society with the highest level of robot utilisation in the world.”

Both countries also acknowledge that with opportunity comes technological and social challenge. Better training in engineering is required to keep up with global developments in robotics, and governments must address widely held fears about relying on robots. But in identifying the potential problems and opportunities related to robots in the workforce, Japan and the Netherlands are developing strategies to deal with their imminent reality — as all countries should.

An ideal future sees humans and robots working together, with automation improving every person's standard of living.   NASA/Flickr  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

An ideal future sees humans and robots working together, with automation improving every person's standard of living. NASA/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


The upside of a world in which a robot can do jobs traditionally thought of as “ours” is the potential that, eventually, the jobs that are left for us will be more human. Collectively, we could take better advantage of uniquely human skills. Creativity, empathy, leadership, persuasion, investigation, relationship management and coming up with a vision for what needs to be accomplished, are unprogrammable things that humans excel at.

Human jobs requiring human skills are jobs that tend to be better for us. As Sir Michael Marmot, Professor of Epidemiology at University College, London says in The Health Gap, secure, dignified work that’s free of coercion and fairly remunerated, that allows for work-life balance while providing opportunities for engagement and socialisation can decrease workers’ odds of becoming sick and increase their life expectancy. If there’s intrinsic reward alongside decent pay and conditions, then work can be a source of health and fulfilment.

There’s reason to be optimistic and embrace a future where robots work for us, or even act as colleagues. But we control the schedule in which a move towards a workforce supplemented by workforce happens, and we control what this eventual workforce should look like. No timeline, as yet, exists for job replacement as much of the relevant technology is still in development. But one day we’ll likely see bots stocking supermarket shelves, cold calling us on the phone, interpreting the results of our medical tests in hospitals, or even working away in an office cubicle adjacent to us. And despite our reservations, this might be a good thing.

Edited by Diana Crow