“Don’t blame the robots!”

Pat Chapman-Pincher posted this on

There’s been an interesting thread running on Twitter lately on the topic of robots. “Robots” it claims “are taking our jobs”. It’s interesting, not just because it raises the debate about jobs going to robots but because it implies that something new is happening and that robots are in control of the process.

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Robots, at the moment, are another word for automation.

We are used to automation – it is what the Industrial Revolution was about. It had a profound effect on working life but its effect was to shift employment from the land to the factory. Industrialization in the medium term created jobs. Inevitably there were winners and losers in the short term but the rise in living standards and the advances in hygiene and medicine led to longer and more fruitful lives.

So we are used to automation that creates jobs, not destroys them.

Old-fashioned automation – by which I mean the sort of robots you see in car factories – is well understood. I call them old-fashioned because they are not very smart. They do one thing, they do it well and they do it endlessly with perfect repetition.

They are very good at something that human beings are not good at. We get bored easily (some of us very easily), we’re bad at repetition and we need to eat and sleep and take holidays.

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We’ve got used to these sorts of robots who produce cars at the Morris plant in Oxford with one tenth of the work force it had in the 1970s. We know how to manage them. We look on them as useful tools that are complementary to humans rather than as competition.

I am old enough to remember when computers came into the workplace and futurologists predicted that we would all soon be working four hour days because the computers would do all the simple work.

How wrong they were.

Computers did start to substitute for human beings but it took them 40 years to get where they are today. In the process a lot of slow and repetitive jobs have disappeared but a lot of others have been created.

I said in my last blog that when technology is first introduced, change happens slowly – and then suddenly very quickly. And this is beginning to worry people.

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Part of the worry seems to be coming from the sense that we are somehow out of control. There are some parallels to the “Polish plumbers are taking our jobs” debate. The reality is that robots are currently under human control. We make them, programme them and set them to work. They are not autonomous beings – not yet at any rate. Those who think they are have been watching far too much science fiction.

It’s humans who use robots as a replacement for humans because they are cheaper and better at some things.

Whether that is good for the economy in the short or long term is a debate that needs to be had – but don’t blame the robots!

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