If robots took our jobs, could they do them?

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The Science Museum’s major new Robots exhibition is hailed as the ‘greatest collection of humanoids ever assembled’, but it fails to take up the question everyone is asking: will a robot take my job? Joseph Choonara looks at the reality of automation under capitalism.

Robots are taking over. At least that is the impression given by the mainstream media. Headlines in recent weeks include: “Robots Could Replace 250,000 Public Sector Workers” (Independent), “Amazon To Open A Giant ROBOT-Run Supermarket Staffed By Just Three Humans” (Daily Mail) and “Give Robots ‘Personhood’ Status, EU Committee Argues” (Guardian).

Given the extraordinary hubbub about robotics today, the Science Museum has chosen a slightly odd angle for its new Robots exhibition. The display of over 100 robots — “the greatest collection of humanoids ever assembled” — focuses on the question of how humans recreate themselves in mechanical form.

In this sense, robots can be placed in the context of a long history of automata, stretching back to a clockwork monk from the 16th century, which could raise a crucifix and rosary, and beat its chest in contrition.

The Enlightenment brought a growing interest in such curiosities, reflecting both attempts to place human biology on a scientific basis and new technological developments accompanying the rise of early capitalist production that could create ever more elaborate mechanisms. One of the highlights in the Science Museum’s exhibition is the late 18th century Silver Swan, usually on display at the wonderful Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, County Durham. Mark Twain, who viewed the swan in Paris, later wrote of its “living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes”.

However, grace and living intelligence are not really features of the contemporary exhibits, some of which here offer limited interaction with the public. Instead most of the modern robots on display occupy the “uncanny valley”, a term coined in the 1970s to describe that uncomfortable zone in which something is both human enough and inhuman enough to be unsettling. The wriggling animatronic baby on display near the entrance to the exhibition is a particularly repulsive instance.

Sadly, as with most of what can be seen in the Science Museum these days, the viewer will learn little about science — the museum has always been more focused on technology. What is most interesting about robots is not so much how human they look as what they can and cannot do.

My first encounter with a robot came when I toured a large printworks to discuss relocating the production of Socialist Worker some years ago. The robots in question were effectively trolleys that moved rolls of paper around the factory floor. They were pre-programmed to move along certain routes but, as for intelligence, their most impressive feature was stopping a few feet before they bumped into anyone. Terminator, it was not.

At a recent talk on the question of robots at Middlesex University, both the speaker, Martin Upchurch, and the members of the audience stressed the limitations of contemporary robots. The most well-known instances are within the car industry, where robots have long been used, although some manufacturers, such as Mercedes, are now shifting back towards human labour. Here many contemporary efforts revolve around creating “cobots”, which can coexist safely alongside human workers, who provide the creativity and adaptability that industrial robots still lack.

Of course, things would be very different if some future breakthrough in artificial intelligence created the possibility of robots “thinking” like humans. If robots learnt to reproduce themselves independently of humans, creating, raising and nurturing themselves and further robots outside of the capitalist workplace, just as humans do, it would represent a genuine transformation of the social relations of capitalism.

Fantasy

At the moment, though, this remains a distant fantasy. There is little evidence that artificial intelligence is even approaching this level of sophistication — not just because of a lack of sufficient computational power in the quantitative sense, but qualitatively too. There is no evidence that even the most impressive computers think in the distinctive way that humans do. Computers are very good at some tasks that humans struggle with, yet as is clear from this exhibition, getting them to walk on two legs in the manner humans learn to by the age of two is an immensely difficult challenge.

The fear of robots displacing humans is part of a pattern that goes back to the dawn of capitalism.

The Luddites, a group of early 19th century weavers in England, smashed up automated textile machinery that was ruining their livelihoods. As Marx wrote in Capital, “It took both time and experience before the workpeople learnt to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and to direct their attacks, not against the material instruments of production, but against the mode in which they are used.”

Leisure time

Marx hits on an important point. In a rational world workers would have no problem whatsoever with automation. In such a world it would ease the conditions of those who labour by increasing their leisure time without undermining their ability to meet their material needs. In practice, under capitalism, automation means throwing a section of the working class out of work and often making those who remain work harder to keep up with the machinery.

Capitalist social relations ensure that the paradise of increasing leisure time that the development of the forces of production makes possible cannot be realised without revolutionary change. However, the more gloomy predictions sometimes made by left wing commentators, that automation would ultimately lead to the collapse of employment and perhaps even the death of the working class altogether, have also not been realised.

As long ago as 1933 the US economist Stuart Chase wrote that as “the automatic process continually displaces the manual worker” there will be “nobody to organise” in the factories. The left wing French theorist Andre Gorz predicted this in his Farewell to the Working Class, written in 1980, which envisages the emergence of a “non-class of non-workers” expelled from production. The journalist Paul Mason echoes some of these claims in his PostCapitalism, published two years ago.

Yet the reality is that waged employment globally, despite unprecedented levels of automation, is at record levels. Wage workers have replaced own-account farmers and peasants as a majority of those engaged in work around the world for the first time in history.

In Britain, too, employment is at its highest ever level, close to 32 million. While jobs have been shed in manufacturing, as automation has allowed production to take place with fewer workers, employment in the service sector and the public sector has grown — along with new areas of work to design, maintain and repair the modern machinery used in manufacturing. This is little consolation for those thrown out of established industries, especially those later in life, who find themselves unable to adapt to new jobs or unwanted by employers. But the long-term evolution of capitalism shows how predictions of irreversible mass unemployment as automation takes hold often go awry.

Commentators on the current phase of automation suggest that it is now in the service industries that robots will replace labour — caring for the elderly, teaching children, working in retail, cleaning houses and offices, or even journalism. Already the writing of the most simple types of stories in the financial press has been automated — though this is an innovation of computing rather than robotics per se. This does not generalise well to other areas of journalism, beyond the routine day to day movements of stock prices. It will, I suspect, be some time before a robot replaces me as a columnist.

However, even if the predictions were to be proved correct, and the pattern of capitalism creating new needs and new markets over the past two centuries ended, it would spell considerable dislocation and crisis for capitalism. In part this is because of the shocks to demand as workers lose their jobs. More fundamentally, automation also ultimately undermines the long-term profitability of capitalism as the living labour whose exploitation generates profit is squeezed out — a point made by Michael Roberts in this magazine last year.

Erupting

There is no smooth path to a completely automated economy under capitalism without huge crises erupting as employment, prices and profit rates are pushed to ever lower levels. As Marx put it in one of his early writings, “If the whole class of the wage-labourer were to be annihilated by machinery, how terrible that would be for capital, which, without wage-labour, ceases to be capital!” It is also unlikely that the working class would not, at some point, erupt in rebellion as such a process took hold.

The Robots exhibition is a fun (if pricey) day out for children and those curious to meet our supposed future robot overlords. But the most interesting questions about the development of robots are left largely unexplored.

Robots is at the Science Museum, London, until 3 September then touring