No “Rise of the Robots”

Let us imagine a museum from, say, the year 2100—the History of Work Museum. In it, work as we know it today is history.

Here we see the mythical full time worker, as he would have looked in his native habitat around 2016. Here we see an antique workplace beverage container, here an obsolete handheld tool, and finally, the rarest specimen of all, homo industrialis, colloquially known as “factory man.”

What the Museum illustrates is that work as we know it today has no future. This is the view that I want to very briefly present and evaluate in this talk.

One important contemporary trend is the intensification and prolongation of the working day to such an extreme that it pushes the limits of our bodies. I would describe this as working like a robot, because robots work with maximum efficiency and productivity and don’t have to deal with pesky bodily needs like food and sleep. They also don’t ask for higher wages or strike. But do you know who is even better at working like a robot? Robots, of course. According to many analysts, the future of work is their future, not ours. For no matter how hard and for how long we work, we’re still too fragile, too slow, and too expensive—especially in light of ongoing innovations in robotics and artificial intelligence.

I will now quickly show you three innovations that are representative of broader trends in automation.

(1). Meet Baxter, a robot created by the Boston-based company Rethink Robotics. Baxter differs from older industrial robots because it has what we would call in human terms “fine motor skills,” which means it can manipulate small objects, even fold laundry. Its arms have seven degrees of freedom, which means they move much like human arms. And Baxter is unique because it possesses machine vision, which means it can visually identify and react to objects in its environment instead of blindly repeating a programmed movement.

Baxter is ideal for jobs like packaging. Here we see Baxter feeding objects into a machine at a metal fabricating company in Wyoming. Along with another Baxter and some other machines, this robot works about 120 night hours a week, after all the humans have gone home. It never gets tired, never complains, never worries that it’s missing dinner time with the family.

(2). Meet Uber’s self-driving truck, shown here on its way to delivering 50,000 cans of Budweiser beer.

Uber's first commercial cargo

This 2016 voyage was the first time that a self-driving truck delivered commercial cargo. You can see the human driver observing from behind the drivers seat, but the truck used a number of sensors and a GPS system to drive 100 miles without human intervention.

(3). Finally, meet IBM’s artificial intelligence system Watson, which IBM initially designed to beat the world’s greatest players of the American trivia game Jeopardy.

Watson wins

Watson won easily, and its victory was impressive not only because it showed that a computer can analyze massive amounts of data faster than the best human minds, but more importantly, Watson did this while responding to natural language questions. Watson is now a cloud computing system that can be used in customer service. This is the Easy Button, a small device developed by the office supply company Staples that responds to natural language, as if you were talking to another person, sort of like Amazon’s Alexa.

IBM has also developed Watson for Oncology, which the company claims can recommend treatment for cancer patients with an accuracy that matches the best human doctors.

In sum, whether it’s manual or intellectual labor, manufacturing or service, low-skill or high skill, the latest developments in robotics and smart software appear poised to take over an unprecedented number of jobs. How many jobs, exactly? Frankly, I don’t know, partly because I’m not an economist, but also because even the experts don’t know. A recent McKinsey report claims that only about 5% of global occupations can be replaced by current technology. Another study by Oxford scholars claims that nearly half of total US employment is at risk. In other words, experts disagree—not only about how much work can be automated, but about whether automation will help to create new jobs to replace the old ones. Some predict mass unemployment, a collapse of effective demand, and stark class inequality; others see automation anxiety as modern-day Luddism, the movement of early nineteenth-century English textile workers and weavers who broke machines.

There is one thing I like about the Luddites. Their resistance to automation shows that they weren’t technological determinists. They didn’t assume that “Technology” is a magical force that drives history all by itself, and whose consequences we have to mutely accept. This is important to remember because I believe that the way we think about automation is far too deterministic. We don’t have to break machines, but we must break the hold of determinism on our social imagination. It is technological determinism that lies behind the idea of the “rise of the robots.” No, we are not experiencing the “rise of the robots.” We are experiencing the rise of research, development, and investment in robots. Robots aren’t deciding that they should be used to replace workers, people are. There is nothing automatic about automation. I cannot answer how many jobs might be left in the future, but I want to insist that if robots do radically transform work, it will be because certain people have decided that. In a sense, the question “how many jobs will robots take?” is a false one. Robots will not take jobs, certain people will give them jobs because they believe that the benefits of automation outweigh the costs.

In other words, the future of automation and the future of work is the future of decisions about what counts as human progress, about who gets to decide what counts, and about who must pay the price. I want to end this talk by inviting you to join this crucial debate. After all, that’s what distinguishes this institution from others of its kind: in St Gallen, we are in the business of producing graduates who are both specialists in their degree fields and, with the help of the contextual studies program, well-rounded critical thinkers.

We are not frozen in the Museum of Work…yet. We still have choices to make, norms and values to interrogate. The future of work is not already there ahead of us, waiting for us to arrive. The future of work is our work today.

Kickoff Days Keynote, St Gallen, Sept. 15, 2017.

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