Robots don’t kill workers, do they?

Posted: 2 February 2017 in Uncategorized
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Actually, robots do kill people.

A 21 year old external contractor was installing the robot together with a colleague when he was struck in the chest by the robot and pressed against a metal plate. He later died of his injuries, reports Chris Bryant, the FT’s Frankfurt correspondent.

While we certainly need to be aware of industrial accidents associated with robots, what we really need to be more concerned about is the relationship between the use of robotics and the metaphorical killing of workers via the elimination of their jobs.

Richard Baldwin [ht: ja], president of the Centre for Economic Policy Research and Editor-in-Chief of Vox (VoxEU.org, which he founded in June 2007), appears to agree:

Technological advances could now mean white-collar, office-based workers and professionals are at risk of losing their jobs

But, he argues, those who expect Brexit or the kinds of protectionist policies advocated by President Trump to bring back manufacturing jobs are sadly mistaken.

I think he’s right. Blaming international trade and immigration for the precarious plight of the working-class within advanced nations is wrongheaded.* Moreover, as Baldwin explains elsewhere, “We shouldn’t try and protect jobs; we should protect workers.”

However, the mistake Baldwin and other technological optimists make is to treat industrial robots (and their contemporary extensions, such as telepresence and telerobotics) in a purely instrumental fashion, as both inevitable and technically neutral. Just like the ubiquitous NRA bumper sticker: “Guns Don’t Kill People, People Kill People.”

As Bruno Latour (pdf) has explained, the NRA “cannot maintain that the gun is so neutral an object that is has no part in the act of killing.”

You are different with a gun in hand; the gun is different with you holding it. You are another subject because you hold the gun; the gun is another object because it has entered into a relationship with you. The gun is no longer the gun-in-the-armory or the gun-in-the-drawer or the gun-in-the-pocket, but the gun-in-your-hand, aimed at someone who is screaming. What is true of the subject, of the gunman, is as true of the object, of the gun that is held. A good citizen becomes a criminal, a bad guy becomes a worse guy; a silent gun becomes a fired gun, a new gun becomes a used gun, a sporting gun becomes a weapon.

And much the same is true of robotics. Employers are different when they have access to robots. They are another subject because they can reconfigure production by purchasing and installing robots; and robots are different objects when they enter into a relationship with employers, who stand opposed to their workers.

So, as it turns out, “it is neither people nor guns that kill” people. And, by the same token, it is neither employers nor robots that kill workers and their jobs. Responsibility for the action must be shared between the two—the employers who utilize robotics to increase productivity and raise profits, and the robots that are engineered, produced, and then sold for particular purposes, like transforming jobs and replacing workers.

So, yes, we shouldn’t try and protect jobs. Instead, we should protect workers. But the only way to protect workers is to create institutions for workers to be able to protect themselves. Leaving the European Union and electing Trump won’t do that. They are merely empty promises. Nor, as Baldwin presumes, will leaving robots in the hands of employers and expecting government programs to pick up the pieces.

It is still the case that most people are forced to have the freedom to attempt to sell their ability to work to a small group of employers, who have the option of using robots to replace them—across the globe—if and when they deem it profitable.

What that means is: robots and their employers do kill workers. Because of profits.

 

*And, as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (pdf) warns, “the increased use of robots in developed countries risks eroding the traditional labour cost advantage of developing countries.” That’s another reason to be cautious when it comes to facile predictions that the combination of globalization and robotics will be an unqualified advantage to workers in the Global South.

Comments
  1. While that is one stance over at CEPR, a second comes from Dean Baker, who is dismissive of automation as a key source of workers’ job loss, instead insisting trade is the real culprit. (See, e.g., two recent columns http://cepr.net/blogs/beat-the-press/painful-nonsense-on-trade, and http://cepr.net/blogs/beat-the-press/the-bureau-of-labor-statistics-hasn-t-heard-about-automation)

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