Robots Create ‘Technological Unemployment,’ Increase Profits


According to a report from the World Economic Forum, disruptive labor market changes, including the rise of robots and artificial intelligence, will result in a net loss of 5.1 million jobs over the next five years in 15 leading countries. Transnational corporations are constantly building state-of-the-art high-tech production facilities while letting go millions of cheap laborers who cannot compete with the cost efficiency, quality control, and speed of delivery achieved by automated manufacturing.

This development is not unusual in the developed countries. The Nissan car plant in Sunderland, UK, is producing over 500,000 vehicles each year, more than any other factory in Europe. But it is employing just 6,000 people, thanks to advanced robotics. This pattern is occurring not only in the industrialized world, but even in developing nations. New technologies are transforming the manufacturing process, creating “technological unemployment.”

In Asia also, panic over the dangers of artificial intelligence and the increasing use of robots is widespread. In Singapore, many firms use robots for a variety of services. For hotel guests, robot waiters work long hours, deliver food and drinks and even take the elevator to hand over toiletries to them. The company behind the robot is going to supply it for more than 10 firms in this year. At KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Singapore, with a robotic bottle-dispensing system, robots are loading, picking, assembling and labeling medicine bottles, replacing many of the manual tasks and saving around 8,760 man-hours a year.

Japan is the world leader in robotics. Japan’s nine automakers produce more than 12 million cars a year, with fewer than 600,000 workers. Some Japanese companies are moving their manufacturing back to Japan into automated factories. It is predicted that Japanese-owned factories would produce a finished automobile in less than eight hours in the coming years.

A Japanese firm plans to open the world’s first fully automated, human-free farm – which means robots will do almost every job from watering seedlings to harvesting crops. Spread, a Kyoto-based company, intends to start operating the farm by 2017 with an entire staff of robots and expects to produce 30,000 heads of lettuce a day.

These facts vindicate the data from many sources, which suggests that one in three workers in Asia would be replaced by new technology and robots within the next 10 years.

When sophisticated computers were introduced, the Nobel laureate economist Wasilly Leontief said: “The role of humans as the most important factor of production is bound to diminish in the same way that the role of horses in agricultural production was first diminished and then eliminated by the introduction of tractors”. This kind of process is now unfolding in Asia also.

In agriculture, the new sophisticated computer-driven robots may soon replace many of the tasks on the land, transforming the modern farm into an automated outdoor factory. Even now, in the lands of Israel, one can see the self-guided machines traveling on tracks laid out between rows of plants, spraying pesticides on crops. Israel has moved to advanced robot farming, giving up employing Palestinian migrant labor. And, this kind of farming will affect the economic prospects of the more than 30,000 Palestinians who have been employed during harvesting season.

In many Indian factories, robots and automation are carrying out low-skill tasks. In Chennai, southern India, Royal Enfield motorcycles are being painted and lacquered by giant robotic arms in the factory. Robotic machines move at twice the maximum speed of a human limb, day in, day out. On the paint line at Royal Enfield Motors Ltd’s plant, only a few workers are employed. Four robots can do the work of 15 human painters toiling across three shifts.

Robot installations in India grew 23% in 2013 from the previous year, with annual sales hitting a record 1,900, as per the latest figures available from the International Federation of Robotics.

With the aim of profit-squeeze and capital accumulation, many corporations would retain a small group of highly skilled tech workers and the rest of the job would be handed over as the piecemeal, transitional work with piece rate wages. Such piecemeal works require long hours of work drawing only meager income.

One cannot oppose the productive technological change. But big corporations are introducing destructive technological change, aiming at reducing labor costs and increasing profiteering. Some kind of automation is desirable, wherever it replaces arduous work, full of drudgery. Use of new technologies may free women and children from household tasks within households and local communities in Asian countries. And, advance of technology in biotechnology and other areas is necessary to improve the quality of human life.

However, the greater surpluses generated in these more productive activities should be used for creating more employment intensive avenues. Since the working of neoliberal markets would always throw up mass unemployment, the states have to intervene effectively through some effective measures such as increased public spending.

The strong movements of working people with correct perspective on new technologies could be able to force the governments to take policy measures to check the ‘technological unemployment’.

N. Gunasekaran is a political activist and writer based in Chennai, India.

From The Progressive Populist, Ap

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