Robotics: a dilemma for workers today


During a time when workers face the threat of outsourcing and even slave labor, it was a point of interest for Marshall Brain, author of Robotic Nation, to examine a situation in which robots are claiming a sizable chunk of growing industries in the world. Brain is also the founder of How Stuff Works, a website that examines how social, cultural, and scientific things function.

Brain told MSNBC that by 2013, there will be 1.2 million industrial robots working throughout the world, and even now, robots are doing everything from analyzing documents to filling prescriptions.

The University of California, San Francisco Medical Center recently launched a completely robotics-controlled pharmacy at two of its hospitals. The robots pick, package, and dispense doses of pills.  Jon Roth, CEO of the California Pharmacists Association, responding to the introduction of prescription vending machines in some California clinics said removing pharmacists from the process "could at best result in suboptimal therapy and at worst result in dangerous therapy."

Meanwhile, journalists may want to mark computers as coming contenders, because a startup called Narrative Science  has software to actually create machine-generated stories, especially for covering baseball and softball events. After a game, scorekeepers email game data that is then processed and arranged into a cohesive story within minutes. What implications this will have for experienced, creative sports writers remains to be seen.

Robots have long been a feature in factory work.

Recently, controversial technology giant Foxconn announced it would replace its workers in China with a million robots in three years to cut rising labor expenses. Tasks the robots will perform include spraying, welding, and assembling in factories.

Foxconn is the worlds largest maker of electronic components and also the largest private employer in China. It supplies all the big name companies including Apple Inc., Nintendo, Nokia, and But allegations of bad practices include not only price fixing, but also harmful and dangerous working conditions, even resulting in worker suicides.

What happens when a robot takes a job away from a living person?

According to Martin Ford, a contributor to The Fiscal Times and author of The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology, and the Economy of the Future, machines are doing little to solve the massive jobs crisis in the U.S. today.

A growing problem, he said in a recent blog post, is that, "At some point, we're going to get to where machines stop being tools for workers and become workers in their own right. Without an income, people can't participate in the economy. The current situation we're in could really drag on and while we're waiting for the job market to recover, these technologies are going to continue to accelerate, and it'll be more difficult to get [our] jobs back. It will be like running up an escalator that's going down."

And yet, on the other side of the picture, there are many positives to new technological developments, many of which have helped people in recent times.

In 2007, a steam conduit exploded beneath a New York City street, killing one person and injuring many others. Officials said that steam mains underground were not inspected on a regular basis because doing so often means digging up the street. However, robotic probes could detect corrosion or damage to steam pipes without having to dig up the ground.

Furthermore, said a report from Microsoft's research blog, robots are extremely beneficial in search-and-rescue missions, or in disaster situations. They can explore areas that are too dangerous for humans to be in - one important and obvious example being the nuclear power plant disaster in Japan,where robots were sent into damaged plants to test radiation levels, and to remove rubble in disaster areas after the tsunami.

Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has written several books and studies the impact of technology, particularly robotics, on society. She told The Chronicle of Higher Education that she felt concerned that robots were increasingly taking roles in lines of work that she believed only humans should fill.

For Turkle, it all comes down to a simple concern that we, in allowing technology and robots greater control, are regressing as humans.

"We talk about spending hours on email, but we, too, are being spent," Turkle concluded. "We have invented inspiring and enhancing technology, and yet we have allowed it to diminish us."

Photo: A humanoid robot named TOPIO, playing ping-pong at the 2009 Tokyo International Robot Exhibition. Humanrobo/Wikipedia 


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  • Will workers control technology to benefit everybody or will the capitalists control technology to benefit the richest 1% of 1% of humankind? Technology is a tool. Whether it benefits everybody depends on who controls it. I am not opposed to all technology, though I think nuclear weapons should never have been built. The history of the ILWU gives us some guidance. The leaders knew they could not stop huge cranes and containerized freight. They knew technology would result in many jobs being lost. But they worked out contracts guaranteeing good jobs with many benefits for the remaining workers. They built a powerful independent union that is significant today, that inspires us today.

    Posted by Butch Taylor, 09/15/2011 10:03pm (4 years ago)

  • really good information. unfortunately, it seems none of the comments or quotes from others mentions cutting work hours so working people could have some quality time with family and social events. Let's bring out the creativity in all of us!

    How long do we have to wait until the majority of scientists get on board with the future of the industrial world.

    wage peace

    Posted by Gabriel Falsetta, 08/22/2011 12:18pm (4 years ago)

  • Jean van Heijenoort, who served for seven years (1932-1939) as Trotsky's secretary and bodyguard said little about logic or mathematics in his memoir With Trotsky in Exile (1978). In an essay written in 1948 "Friedrich Engels and Mathematics" (a companion piece to "A Century's Balance Sheet" which he proclaimed Marxism a failure), he ridiculed Engels', and by implication Marx's and Trotsky's, conception of logic and mathematics. We know, of course, that computer programming is based upon Boolean logic and its application (electronic relay-switching circuitry) and computer memory based on binary arithmetic. Upon abandoning his political activites, van Heijenoort became a mathematician and formal (mathematical) logician. Let me admit that I was a doctoral student of van Heijenoort, and that I taught mathematics and formal logic. I understand that formal logic and and dialectical logic are typically understood by non-dialecticians to be two different "animals" at best, and antithetical (pun intended) to one another at worst, rather than conceiving of formal logic (A = A) as a static fragment of the dynamic dialectical logic. Having made this admission and with my background, I should like to point out that, the last time I taught an intermediate formal logic course, my students had taken an computer-aided introductory formal logic course, as a result of which they learned, in doing mathematical proofs, which rules to apply, but, since the computer did the actual applications of of the rules for them, they never learned themselves how to apply the rules, or how the rules worked, and which rules to use when and in what sequence. In other words, the computers did their thinking for them. Now, on the relevant issue of this article: (1) if workers do not understand the operations of the tools (in this case computers -- robots or automatons), they will easily fall prey to those who do understand the inner workings of those robots; and (2) if all work is being done by automatons rather than human workers, how will those humans who do not learn how to run the automatons ever find employment, except perhaps at the most menial slaves? And in that case, who is going to be able to buy all the products which the automatons produce?

    Posted by Irving, 08/19/2011 9:49am (4 years ago)

  • Automation can and should be a blessing to humanity, freeing people up from the drudgery of mindless labor and providing the leisure for real creativity. But it wont happen under capitalism, where lack of a job means squalor, starvation and death. Socialism now! Come on, people, off your asses and into the streets!

    Posted by John Whiskey, 08/18/2011 11:03pm (4 years ago)

  • I just read that a non-human DJ will take to the airwaves next week in San Antonio!

    What are people for?

    Posted by Barbara R., 08/17/2011 5:26pm (4 years ago)

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