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.
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