Robots: the workers of the future?

In today’s society consumers demand higher quality and lower prices, forcing manufacturers, suppliers and distributors to turn to automation to maintain their competitive edge; such as Uber’s driverless cars and Eatsa’s automated fast food service. Car companies are now using more robots in production, with the International Federation of Robotics predicting almost a double in the number of robots used in the UK from 2014-2016. Have we got ourselves WALL·Es, or are we breeding the new generation of Decepticons?

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better

From a consumerism perspective, there are obvious benefits that come from a robot workforce; precision manufacturing, increased productivity and less physical restrictions that we are impeded by. Basic needs such as rest and sleep are no bother to a robot. Human productivity is limited by working hours, adverse conditions and lunch breaks; robots can ostensibly work uninterrupted for as long as they’re needed to. Despite the fact that robot’s have a significantly improved efficiency compared to human’s, they also use the minimum amount of heat and light resulting in dramatically lower running costs compared to the wage of an individual worker. One example highlighted how a singular robot can replace two workers and save $3.5 million in labour and productivity costs.

Robots are most inclined to replace jobs which lack any need for creativity or technical excellence, instead working on mind-numbingly repetitive procedures or jobs that can be done by simple computational software. These sorts of jobs are mundane and require very little skill which often creates a low morale atmosphere amongst human workers. This will allow, and can even encourage people to pursue their dreams and reap the associated rewards that come from having a more rewarding job. Most passions are associated with a creative talent and 86 percent of U.S. jobs in creative fields such as music, graphic design, and art are not at risk from robots with even more jobs in the UK being in creative fields.
It’s very easy to see the word ‘replace’ and assume that this automatically results in an increase in unemployment, however that isn’t necessarily true. Fortune has reported that the demand for workers who specialise in robotics was swelling greater than demand can cope with, advertisements calling for this type of job increased 40 percent with further increases in demand for qualified robotics workers growing 13 percent by 2018. This is purely just a new sector that whilst taking away some jobs is creating a whole wave of new ones.

However take note, as some companies are against completely replacing the workforce. As mentioned before Mercedes are now putting a greater emphasis on what is being referred to as co-bots, where humans and robots work alongside each other to have the best of both worlds. Co-bots are currently at 5% of new robot purchases, however with their relative cheapness and the requirement for a humans creativeness in the workplace then an increase in co-bots seems inevitable.

From a utilitarian perspective, some might say that the majority would benefit from an all-human workforce. However, the possible benefits of a more efficient, cheaper automated workforce would spread much further and affect more people than the potential number of jobs that would be lost to this new method.

No-bot

This could be viewed from various viewpoints – starting with the working class. In the current pressured state of the economy, the availability (or lack) of jobs is a hot topic, given our human need for a source of income to fulfil our basic human needs ; it may seem that jobs are increasingly being lost, as a result of this robotic revolution: Deloitte noted that (between 2001 and 2015) approximately 90% of job losses in manufacturing and 71% in wholesale and retail were caused by this change – that’s a loss of 589000 jobs in the UK. This even extends to the public sector – AI “chatbots”, potentially discarding tens of thousands of administration positions in the NHS. Consider John Mill’s Harm Principle on this scale: employment holds a key to our well being, which is threatened by automation. That begs the question: is it morally right?

Although it can be argued that robots can do work more efficiently, nothing can replace human creativity. Robots cannot think and therefore cannot create anything new; they are bound by the simple instructions programmed into them. This limitation also applies to flexibility. If a company works on different types of jobs, it becomes difficult to reprogramme a robot every time a new job is required. This is evident from Mercedes-Benz, who bucked the trend and reverted back to using humans for producing the thousands of different spec S-Class models, making it possible to change assembly in a matter of days (instead of weeks).

Encompassed in our basic human needs is also our need to be safe. March 2017 saw the death of a maintenance technician in a car parts manufacturing plant in Michigan, due to a malfunctioning robot. Although this is very rare, the threat to manufacturing control systems is always a concern and can only be amplified when more systems are brought into the picture with a risk for more physical implications.

Looking at this from an ethical perspective, taking into account that if automation does continue to grow, then humans will be working alongside robots for some time to come. This, as previously mentioned, has safety issues; but when we expand this to an ethical perspective, what about when someone is at risk of injury? As humans we have the extraordinary ability to act quickly and without hesitation when needed. Robots do not have this same power. They have a stop button. Therefore, is it really ethical to place a robot in the workplace alongside humans where it could possibly harm others as well as be unable to help in a crisis. Furthermore, the idea from Polanyi’s Paradox that ‘we know more than we can tell’ suggests that we will see more of this happening in future, as the difference between man and machine becomes more prominent.

Group 69: Matthew Alexander, Meehad Shahriya, Fergus Taylor

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12 thoughts on “Robots: the workers of the future?

  1. Very interesting topic and a good read. It brings into question other political issues too, such as if mass automation replaced huge areas of the workforce, would a “robot tax” be necessary in order to help retrain workers who were displaced from work as a result? And would automation create even more disparity between the rich and the poor? Food for thought.

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  2. I understand that not all jobs will go if these co-bots become commonplace, however surely the idea is to improve efficiency, that will still result in redundancies which is likely going to be the less skilled workers. What if this job is all they could get and have no discernible skills that they can utilise? is there not an issue of low income, low skill jobs being replaced and as a result poorer people will have no jobs and become poorer? The government really needs to consider this before its too late.

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  3. Interesting, I work in the healthcare profession and I just don’t see it replacing people like me or doctors or nurses any time soon, but if it reduces workplace incidents in the more ‘menial’ jobs then I see it only as a good thing as everyone has talents that they would then be able to focus on. The only place I can see robots performing better than humans is where human to human interaction in non-existent, no-one wants to talk to a robot instead of a human.

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  4. Surely the UN must eventually create legislation governing this otherwise mass unemployment is inevitable, society cannot function without some sort of hierarchy and the most politically correct way to judge this is based on income, if the majority of the population end up on the same level (whether that be zero or even a universal basic income) then day to day life will have to drastically change and human history has shown change does not happen in a short time frame whereas the introduction of robots seems to be occurring almost overnight.

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  5. From a safety perspective, I personally think it’s a great idea to have robots do the more dangerous, more technical jobs. Especially in a flow production environment where there is no need for people to be present, robots should definitely be utilised. This shouldn’t mean that people lose their jobs though; jobs for those made redundant should be readily available. Is it possible for those people to be trained, for free, to fill areas in society where more people are needed?

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  6. This article brings up some interesting points I had not previously considered about robots in the workforce e.g. them not being help in a crisis, how difficult it is to reprogram them for different tasks etc.
    As robotics progress I would imagine some of these issues would become less prominent, making the positives outweigh the current shortcomings.
    Definitely a thought provoking read and easily accessible for people not in the robotics field also.

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  7. Very interesting, however, surely there is a necessity for the employment of workers in low-skilled jobs. There are many individuals unable to work in other areas. There should be a range of professions that have little skill focus in order to ensure a fair society in which the job market is not monopolised by the robotics industry. A major issue with an increase in robotics could be that, if automation became the norm, and employment became primarily within the robotics industry itself, there, eventually, would not be enough room within the sector for the amount of individuals wanting to pursue their career in the field.

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  8. I think it’s a disgrace that robots are taking over the world but can see the need for it. Mercedes is setting a good precedent and more companies should follow in their footsteps so less people are put out of jobs!

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  9. Interesting discussion with points brought in that are not often considered in these debates. I think that low-skilled workers should still be kept in those industries, though because of their minimum skill set, perhaps the work would be inhanced by these ‘co-bots’. Ultimately though it seems that the unpredictability of robots is too great for them to entirely dominate our work force.

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  10. I think not only are robots in the majority of labour intensive industries becoming more common, but also their involvement will become increasingly more important. As technology advances cars are becoming more complex, integrating more intelligent components and design and it is likely that robotics will be needed to carry out the increasing demand for intricate and complicated tasks. At the same time I also think that as technology progresses, robots will be more intelligent and become safer to incorporate into the workforce.

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