Robot Automation: the Denial of the East, the Panic of the West, and the Question No One Wants to Answer

We’re becoming obsessed with the idea of robots taking our jobs.

And by “we” I mean primarily western countries like the United States, the UK, and Australia where daily headlines in the mainstream press trumpet the end of life as we know it as robots rise up to take our jobs and render us useless (The Rise of the Useless Class).

The very idea that the work that has defined us and our purpose in life can be done more efficiently by algorithms is not only horrifying to Westerners, it’s spiraling us into a collective existential crisis. How will we define our value, justify our existence, and get money to support ourselves and our families when robots outnumber us in the workforce?

According to a new study published by Udemy this month (Workplace Confidential: The Real Story Behind Stress, Skills, and Success in America), more than half of American workers are more stressed now at work than they were a year ago (no kidding), with 43% of survey respondents saying the primary cause of stress was fear of losing their job due to Artificial Intelligence technologies. The age groups most stressed about being replaced by AI are millennials and generation-Z. While the second leading stress factor for employees, according to the report, is the pressure to learn new skills due to shifting responsibilities and feeling “underskilled.”

The report underscores what most of us already know and, apparently, fear: robots really are coming for our jobs and we are woefully at a loss as to how to prepare for this transition. Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve freaked out over technology replacing us (The First Time America Freaked Out Over Automation. It was the late 1950s, and the problem was solved quickly).

But in the East, in countries like China and India, the reaction to robot automation (which I’ll refer to as “robomation” hereon) appears to be quite the opposite of the West’s (if not, muted entirely), which is ironic considering the first tidal wave of robomation will happen in factories in the East that produce much of the goods we consume in the West, though maybe not surprising.

Recently, I saw Complicit, a documentary film that made its US premiere at the International Human Rights Film Festival. The movie tells the story of migrant workers in large Chinese factories who are contracting deadly diseases as a result of working with dangerous chemicals (chemicals that have long since been outlawed in most countries in the West).

“Complicit” film trailer.

Despite being harassed by the Chinese government and sometimes ostracized by their own communities, the factory workers fight hard and risk everything for acknowledgment of wrongdoing and compensation from Foxconn, their employer and the largest manufacturing company in the world (responsible for producing most of the world’s mobile technologies including Apple and Samsung devices). It’s a struggle that appears to have no end, and no immediate resolution for the workers.

During the post-screening Q&A, I had a chance to ask the filmmakers, Heather White and Lynn Zhang, who impressively managed to gain unprecedented access to Foxconn factories in China and their workers, a question that had been burning in my mind as I watched the agonizing stories of factory workers living and dying in anguish and fighting for basic dignities in factories:

“What do the factory workers, who you interviewed for this film, think about Foxconn’s plans to replace 30% of its human workforce with robots by the year 2020 (just 2.5 years from now) and how did that shape the narrative for this film?”

The theater fell silent. Both directors and the moderator stared blankly at me for a few a few moments. I could see the directors struggling to answer my question, and to understand how it relates to their film.

Complicit directors, Heather White and Lynn Zhang

To me, it was a very relevant and rather obvious question.

Last year, Foxconn replaced 60,000 workers with robots in one of its factories in Kunshan, China, in what it announced would be an aggressive overhaul to fully automate 30% of its entire, global manufacturing workforce by 2025. This is no small thing when you consider just how big they are.

Foxconn is the largest manufacturer in the world, employing over 1.2 million workers in factories throughout the East. Kunshan, where Foxconn began replacing humans with robots last year, is the manufacturing hub for the electronics industry in China. In 2016, Kunshan (which has a population of over 2.5 million with over two-thirds being migrant factory workers) announced that it would aggressively accelerate its growth and efforts to decrease its population by focusing on robomation (particularly after a factory explosion in 2014 killed 164 workers). They began handing out 2 billion yuan in annual subsidies to support local manufacturers who install robots on assembly lines to replace humans (to be clear, the goal is to actually replace humans).

Of course, Foxconn’s move to cut their Kunshan factory human workforce was met with enthusiastic approval by the local government:

“The Foxconn factory has reduced its employee strength from 110,000 to 50,000, thanks to the introduction of robots. It has tasted success in reduction of labour costs. More companies are likely to follow suit.” — Xu Yulian (head of Kunshun government “publicity department”)

Foxconn has received questions and criticisms about the potential negative impact of its plans to automate its workforce. What about the hundreds of thousands of people who will become unemployed?

Foxconn’s official response to BBC News:

“We are applying robotics engineering and other innovative manufacturing technologies to replace repetitive tasks previously done by employees, and through training, also enable our employees to focus on higher value-added elements in the manufacturing process, such as research and development, process control and quality control. We will continue to harness automation and manpower in our manufacturing operations, and we expect to maintain our significant workforce in China.” — Foxconn Technologies Group

This is like a woman saying she’s going to maintain her virginity after she has children.

Foxconn factory line.

Watching this film, it’s hard to see how Foxconn’s robot automation plan will magically “enable” many of their poor, uneducated factory workers soon-to-be replaced by “Foxbots”, to become skilled enough to work in areas like research and development. It’s also tough to see how there will be enough of those R&D type of jobs to accommodate the number of people who are being replaced by robots. The math just doesn’t add up and neither does the colorful and optimistic explanation Foxconn gives. For the residents and factory workers of Kunshun (and other cities like it in China that are built and supported the by manufacturing sector), the writing is on the wall.

To be clear, China needs to automate their workforce to remain competitive (as much as every other country, if not more so). Foxconn and other manufacturers are being crippled by labor disputes that turn into global PR disasters, labor shortages and the rising costs of labor. Few people would argue that robomation must and will happen. Robomation is the future, and the future is, surprisingly, now.

Meanwhile, in India…

Unlike China, where there seems to be an expressed lack of concern about automation job displacement, there is at least an acknowledgement that there’s a looming mass unemployment problem due to robomation in India. But there aren’t yet substantial programs and education in place to help Indian workers to transition over the next several years. That’s pretty much the case everywhere in the world — even in the West.

India been slower to automate factories partially because of their labor laws which force companies with more than 100 employees to seek permission by the government before firing any employee. A manufacturer in India can hardly send in the robots when they face such legislative hurdles replacing human labor. Still, the writing is on the wall for India, the same as it is for the rest of the world.

In a great overview of the magnitude of the challenges facing India in their transition to robomation (Going, Going, Gone: Automation can lead to unprecedented job cuts in India), the inevitability of mass unemployment, even as more and more people in rural areas enter the workforce today and Foxconn is building more factories in India to employ millions of people, is likely even with conservative estimates.

“There will be a visible change in the next three to four years; the first major effect will be seen in manufacturing, IT and ITES, security services and agriculture. We predict that by 2021, four out of every ten jobs globally would be lost because of automation. And of these, one in every four, will be from India.” — Pankaj Bansal (Co-Founder and CEO of PeopleStrong, India)

The article hints at the need to train workers more aggressively in robotics, 3D printing, machining, mechatronics, or technology combining electronics and mechanical engineering (specifically in manufacturing). But it appears that, at least in these early days, retraining the Indian manufacturing population would be a lot like pushing a boulder uphill. One executive, Sandeep Maini (Chairman of Maini Group) sums up the problem bluntly, “Unless you create a paradigm shift, it will be a challenge. The minimum level of education must increase. Second, those who are not studying beyond Class X, will have no jobs left.” While another executive who appears even more worried (if not panicky) sounds a louder alarm:

“India doesn’t have the foggiest idea of what is happening. India requires a vision to handle automation. We are going through a bulge where the largest numbers of people are going to enter the workforce over the next five years. We are peaking. Now, with the threat of automation, we are in a mess.”

The struggle may not be here yet, but that doesn’t make the problem any less real or less daunting.

Back to My Question

What do the factory workers you interviewed for this film think about Foxconn’s plans to replace their entire human workforce with robots by by 2025 and how did that shape the narrative for this film?

In the video below, Heather White and Lynn Zhang answer my question.

Heather White’s Answer

“For me it’s a little hard to imagine that Foxconn would be making a fundamental transition to using robots away from what currently is an entirely handmade phone because there’s been a lot of discussion around the increase in labour costs in the Pearl River Delta over he last few years and even discussion around the labour shortage. And, as a result, Foxconn, with the help of the Chinese government, has brought in over 300,000 student workers who’ve been forced to work in the factors as a condition of receiving their diplomas and they’ve complained about it a lot. There’s quite a bit you can read about it on the internet about how their supervisors are actuallly their teachers and how they’re subjected to the same long hours as adults and exposure to toxic chemicals. Even Chinese laws protects teenagers from being exposed to any type of toxic substances.
So, to jump from bringing in students — 300,000 of them because they felt like they had the labor shortage — to immediately going to robots is just hard to imagine. So, I’m not really sure we’re going to see it play out like that but it’s definitely of concern because they have over a million workers so it would be very surprising if they eliminated their entire workforce. We’ll just have to keep an eye on it.” — Heather White

The Robomation River of Denial

Both filmmakers’ response to my question, and particularly White’s inability to “imagine” something that is literally already happening right before her eyes, and Zhang’s belief that the robomation transition won’t happen for 10–20 years, was shocking and indicative of a problem far bigger and potentially more destructive than mass unemployment. Now, it was my turn to be stunned into silence and befuddlement.

How can a film that documents the labor struggles of Chinese migrant factory workers completely omit any mention of the technology that is currently replacing those very workers en mass? How and why are talented filmmakers, who spent over two years of their lives researching and documenting the struggles of Chinese factory workers, in denial of this and of the idea that there’s a looming threat to factory workers?

Watching the workers in this film fight long and hard for safety in the workplace, I couldn’t help but to think that, while they are courageously fighting a battle, they are oddly unaware that they’ve already lost the war. Many of them will all be replaced. And soon, if Foxconn has its way.

Hosts of Asia Pacific Currents podcast.

One of my favorite podcasts is Asia Pacific Currents (hosted by Jiselle Hanna and Pier Moro), which covers “stories and issues from the Asia Pacific region with a labour and grassroots perspective” including interviews with labor activists.

For the most part, the hosts (based in Australia) report on labor disputes between manufacturers and factory workers who are fighting for fair wages and safer working conditions. Every week, as I listen to the hosts recount how factory workers in other parts of the world are fighting (literally to the death) for their jobs, I wonder how these same factory workers are going to respond to eventually being replaced robots.

While it certainly isn’t the most pressing problem for these workers right now, I‘m waiting patiently, with each passing week and month, for the hosts to begin discussing robot automation and how factory workers should begin to prepare themselves for NEW jobs in the NEW robomation economy. So far, at least as long as I’ve been listening to the show, they haven’t addressed this.

What are we going to do with them?

The work that is needed to get people, governments and systems on the same page and up to speed to stave off potential catastrophic fall-out from robomation is daunting, to say the least. Every country has its own unique labor problems and culture (and we all fluctuate between the two extremes, denial and panic, as a natural part of coming to terms with a new reality we can’t fully define).

But one thing that should be agreed upon, at this very moment in time, is that governments around the world need to begin to work aggressively on educating and upskilling their manufacturing workforce now.

The good news is, there is a lot of wonderful opportunities for companies and employees to seize upon in this transition we’re undergoing. But opportunities, alone, is not enough to save people. Opportunity plus immediate action is a start.

The Workplace Study I mentioned at the top of the post indicates glimmers of hope peaking through the otherwise dire report:

— 42% of the workers surveyed have even invested their own money in professional development;
 — 58% use company-provided training and professional development to alleviate stress
 — 54% are doing meditation and/or physical activity to help them alleviate stress

Although over 50% of the employees in this study admit that the fear of losing their job to AI is their number one stress-factor at work, they are taking their mental-well being and careers into their own hands and being proactive (panic be damned!).

Most promising and exciting, is the rise of micromanufacturing (smaller manufacturers that usually only employ 50 people or less that supports their local ecosystem). Unlike big factories, micromanufacturing focuses on fast and agile production and producing made-to-order, on demand products. The American Small Manufacturers Coalition, there are more than 270,000 small manufacturers across the country as of 2015.

While it’s hard to imagine most people being upskilled from factory work to highly technical jobs, it’s very easy to imagine displaced workers creating their own mini-factories and working within their communities to seed and grow more opportunities like this. It’s more than possible, it’s inspiring!

So, whether we panic or wade deep in the waters of denial, the fact is, we are far from helpless and hopeless. But we ARE helpless and hopeless if we don’t begin to discuss this topic and to show people how to find new ways of thinking about what they’re going to be doing in five years.

In an interview with Technology Review (China is Building a Robot Army of Model Workers), Yasheng Huang, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, asked a question that was even more on point than my question to the filmmakers — a question that none of the governments or companies pushing for robot automation has yet to answer:

“You can make the argument that robotic technology is the way to save manufacturing in China, but China also has a huge labor force. What are you going to do with them?”

What are we going to do with them?

It’s the question that causes a room to fall silent, that confused the directors of Complicit, and that stumps us all. It’s time we begin to address and answer this question across governments and business sectors now. Or we will most certainly pay the price for it later.

I’d love to hear how others are thinking about this and to facilitate discussion on it. If you have any suggestions or thoughts on this, please leave them in the comments below.

[UPDATE: the day before I published this post mentioning India’s reaction to robot automation, the NY Times published the following article: Indian Technology Workers Worry About a Job Threat: Technology]