IMAGE: Buchachon Petthanya — 123RF

Of robots and men

Society’s approach to the relationship between men and robots, taking the definition of robot as broadly as possible, tends to be somewhat apocalyptic: robots will steal our jobs and create a dysfunctional society where manual labor and tasks of little added value or the three Ds have been replaced: in short, a largely negative vision of the future.

And then of course there are those people who still ask whether we are really in the midst of a process of replacing people with robots? Of course we are. In fact, robots have been taking work away from people for many years.

The process began in the textile factories of Nottingham in the nineteenth century, and gave rise to the Luddite movement and the attacks on looms and machine tools of the time that were fast replacing skilled workers who previously carried out weaving and spinning, giving factory owners the opportunity to scale up their production and give rise to the modern capitalist system that we know today.

Using the Luddites and their destruction of machines that eventually ended up generating an era of much greater well-being, surplus wealth and significantly better living conditions for a vast majority of society as a symbol resistance to change is widespread. But such comparisons are of little use, and the fact is that rarely do workers — or economists — learn from the experience of others.

As early as a century ago, Henry Ford’s assembly lines and their ability to produce large numbers of vehicles on a previously unimaginable scale was attacked by labor unions and horse and carriage drivers who saw the new machine that had become popular, accessible to almost anyone, threatening their jobs.

The idea that the substitution of people by machines was wrong continued, despite the evidence that making things by hand in workshops or transporting goods and people by horse and carriage,was deeply anachronistic and utterly ridiculous.

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s Race Against the Machine shows that this time is different, because machines replacing more and more tasks, which means that, in one way or another, they will end up eliminating more jobs than they can create. Robots can already drive trucks and will replace truck drivers within the next ten years, while autonomous drones now fly legally in Israel, and are used to transfer laboratory samples between hospitals in Switzerland, while customer service employees are gradually being replaced by increasingly convincing chatbots, and the pizzas and hamburgers were order will be processed, made and delivered by robots.

Automation is taking place unevenly in some sectors and in some countries, and at the same time it is clear that workers will have to learn to work with robots. How can we prepare for a future in which machine learning and artificial intelligence will gradually be incorporated into more and more activities?

Everything suggests that Donald Trump’s ideas of preserving a few jobs in the extraction of coal in exchange for the health of the whole planet are deeply absurd and misguided. Fortunately, the prevailing the idea is that certain jobs are much better being replaced, and that countries will do much better by following a model in which they focus on infrastructure investments that allow them to incorporate technologies such as the internet of things, machine learning and artificial intelligence to improve the performance of the workforce and to maintain competitiveness.

Technology is eliminating certain jobs, but only technology can save the employment of future. This is something that China, already clearly destined to take over global leadership from the United States, understands.

Are the robots going to take our jobs? Yes, in many cases. But trying to avoid that process is only going to delay the inevitable. Actually, what the robots are going to do is make room for jobs that really make sense, for tasks that machines do not perform as well as humans in collaboration with machines.

Nobody can stop automation: doing so only increases the incentive for competitors abroad to manufacture more cheaply and better: jobs will not be saved by imbeciles determined to ignore changes already underway, those jobs are not coming back because they no longer exist: what will save workers is educational reform. The future is what it is: the continuing development of ever-better technologies able to help people work with them. Those of us who do not understand this will find ourselves in the unemployment line.

(En español, aquí)