October 2016        

Robots and us

Deirdre Uí Bhrógáin

Do you know those lovely, amusing robots that are trotted out on talk shows and science programmes to elicit our wonder and awe? Well, behind all the cosy fun and the evident awe of the presenters lies a devastating threat to the future of working people on the planet.
     It’s not that socialists are against the development of robots and automated services that can save us from back-breaking, tedious and repetitious work; but what happens to the people they replace? And who owns these robots?
     My blood went cold when I saw the widely distributed photographs of a supposed “empathetic” robot holding the hand of a woman who had just given birth in a hospital in Australia.
     Worse still is that states are not deciding what is to be developed and what is good for society. Alex Hudson, in an article for the BBC in 2013 headed “A robot is my friend: Can machines care for elderly?” wrote: “With the world’s elderly population growing rapidly, scientists are suggesting that robots could take on some of the burden of providing care, support and—most surprisingly—companionship.” He went on to say that the idea of using robots to care for the elderly is being trialled everywhere, from Singapore to Salford.
     When we have a society that believes that the elderly are a burden, we must fear for where it is going, and take action to put the development of automation and robotics within the control of civil society. The article by Hudson talks about the Mobiserv project—a consortium of eight European universities and “care companies” that has created a “social companion robot.” The fact that private care companies are paying for it shows what lies behind it all. The EU has given the project €8 million.
     A researcher on a project in Salford in England is creating “care robots” that, he says, “can help supervise people twenty-four hours a day.” And at the University of Birmingham Dr Nick Hawes has argued for their use, saying, “We’re trying to free up more of the staff time.”
     Japan is leading research into the development of “personal companion” robots, and already sales of this type of robot are rising. This is a very worrying development at a time when, according to official data, abuse of the elderly in that country is at a record level, having doubled since 2012.
     Neglect and mistreatment of the elderly are recurring themes in Japanese culture, a subject treated in such classic films as Tokyo Story (1953), and this technological “solution” is a further development of this attitude. We have seen here and in Europe recently the abuse of people in private care homes, and we must ask ourselves what type of society have we in the “West” that dumps people in them.
     Of course, developing automation and machines that improve mobility for the elderly, and in other strenuous tasks involved in their care, is to be welcomed; and, as the charities dealing with older people say, such advances are fine as long as they are not seen as replacements for human contact and companionship.
     The debate on automation is an old one. The term “Luddite” is now often used to mean ignorant people who are opposed to automation and to the forward-looking entrepreneurs and scientists bravely changing the world for the better. But the picture is far more complex than that. The Luddite movement of the early nineteenth century was active at a time when there was no regulation of trade and no rights for workers. By smashing the machines that replaced them they were attempting to preserve livelihoods and protect families from starvation and the workhouse.
     Similarly, automation today is taking away livelihoods, despite the fact that our society requires two parents to be working in order for them to be able to scrape a decent living.
     In recent months there has been chaos at the Ryanair desk at Dublin Airport as passengers are faced with checking in their own bags, most of them with no prior knowledge of this change. With no staffed desks open, there is upset and confusion. But, most importantly, where are the staff members?
     And of course Ryanair increases its profits. In cases like this we will be told that the workers will be employed somewhere else in a company. But look around any supermarket and see how many workers are on the floor, and how many check-outs have people behind them. Only so many people can be redeployed. Similarly, at railway stations there are often no people employed, and this of course is because of the requirement that state companies operate like private companies, instead of being for the well-being of the people.
     The policy of precarious on-call working hours makes it difficult to know how many people are employed and how many are just not asked to work again, so figures can be trotted out that answer the negative publicity.
     And of course we’re given positive and admiring news reports telling us about driverless trains, buses, and trams. But dock workers who have been replaced by robots, where one person and a computer can load and unload large cargo ships, find themselves in a lonely world with no colleagues to talk to or mix with socially. Workers in almost totally automated warehouses and factories talk of the same alienation and loneliness.
     And now we are told that in Dublin we will have driverless trams. Some people will say, “Great, we won’t have to pay for Luas drivers any more, and it will save money.” But what about the drivers?
     Researchers at the World Economic Forum predict that 7.1 million jobs “could be lost through redundancy, automation, or disintermediation, while the creation of 2.1 million new jobs, mainly in more specialised areas, such as computing, maths, architecture, and engineering, could partially offset some of the losses.” They go on to say that two-thirds of the job losses will be “concentrated in the Office and Administrative job family.”
     Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, adds: “Without urgent and targeted action today to manage the near-term transition . . . governments will have to cope with ever-growing unemployment and inequality, and businesses with a shrinking consumer base.”
     A study by Forrester Research, which describes itself as an “exclusive network of peers, analysts, and advisers connecting you with leading practices to accelerate business growth,” has predicted that within five years artificial intelligence will be so developed that it will replace workers. “By 2021, a disruptive tidal wave will begin,” its vice-president, Brian Hopkins, wrote. “Solutions powered by AI/cognitive technology will displace jobs, with the biggest impact felt in transportation, logistics, customer service, and consumer services.”
     When you see that the promoters of the new developments include a host of “care companies,” as well as Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Panasonic, and Toyota, you know where things are heading, given their record in dealing with their own employees.
     Most insidious of all is the use of robotics in drone warfare, where killing machines are controlled by whiz-kid operators, many of whom were recruited merely because they were good at computer games. Now they wreak death and destruction from afar on whole villages and cities in war-torn countries in Asia and the Middle East. It distances the operators from the horror that any right-thinking human would feel at killing so many people personally; and, as soldiers are increasingly reluctant to go to war in foreign countries and to get killed themselves, it replaces them.
     It is no accident that most robotic development is carried out within the military-industrial complex or is directly or indirectly funded by it. Robots are being made increasingly intelligent and can now make independent decisions; and, in the hands of unscrupulous governments and companies, they can destroy people.
     We have yet to feel the effect on society of dealing with automated services on a large scale. Think of when you get stranded in a large underground train station, or at an airport with masses of people rushing around, with nobody who has the time to stop for your question when you are confused by all the options.
     All over the world there are farmers, fishermen and small traders who are pushed out of their livelihoods by the present form of society, while large corporations are taking over vast areas in Asia and Latin America, decimating forests, sweeping up the fish in the oceans with massive trawlers, and farming with automated machinery. People are committing suicide in large numbers because they cannot support their families, and yet automation is developing at an accelerating rate.
     When large corporations are allowed to do this now, what of the people when automation increasingly replaces workers? We will be expendable, just as millions of people are expendable today in so-called underdeveloped countries.
     So what is the answer? The solution is not easy; but there is only one way in which automation can be a good thing for society: in a planned socialist economy, where a shift from traditional work is planned for and in which automation is used where and when it benefits the society at that moment.
     Capitalist greed ensures that each corporation pursues profits at the expense of the people, and it is a core principle that innovation by the brightest people will bring about the greatest advances in society. But look at the world today: we are facing extinction, with our planet ruined by pollution, and half the existing forms of life on earth are predicted to be gone by 2050.
     It is time for socialists to reclaim their position as advocates of the system that provides the best possible way forward, and to move on from constantly having to justify earlier attempts to establish socialism against ferocious capitalist assault. We should look to the future and say that any society that wants the good of all its people is far better suited to reaching a satisfactory conclusion on automation than one based on the greed of the top 1 per cent, and on the idea that wealth “trickles down.”
      A positive view of the world is needed to give people hope of change. This world is possible, and we should not get bogged down in analysing the latest economic stance of the Government, or in being forced to provide answers despite not having the power to fix the problems within this system.
     Socialists cannot fix this system: we can only help to mitigate the worst of its problems while fighting to raise awareness, get our message across, and mobilise at every opportunity to bring change: by joining unions, fighting public-service cut-backs, being active in local communities, and opposing big business ruining life wherever it occurs.
     It is important to see automation in relation to the economic development of each country. Under capitalism it is not about the well-being of people but about reducing costs and increasing profits.
     Socialism is the solution to problems of automation. Advances in technology must move in harmony with the well-being of the people, to allow people more leisure time but with adequate resources for living comfortably. The existing way is chaos and poverty for vast numbers of the world’s population.

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