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May 2014

Article Series: The Positives and Negatives of Automation (Part 1)

This is the first article in our series on the positives and negatives of automation. As a manufacturer of automation machinery, we feel that it is our responsibility to be forthright about the controversies and questions that are a part of the industry. We provide these articles in an attempt to have a more informed customer and partner base, and in so doing, we hope to encourage a healthy dialogue on many of these topics. Rachel Greenberg writes marketing and technical content for Automation GT.


If automation is causing so much of a stir, why choose it? 

At Automation GT, we have noticed a recent trend in articles debating the nature of the relationship between automation and job loss. This subject comes up with some frequency in the world of automation, and though we have written and referenced articles on the topic before, we felt that it was worth performing our own attempt to take an honest look at the pros and cons of automation, and the ways that manufacturers can automate intelligently and responsibly.

This will be a series of six articles in which we will explore the history of automation, the theories and debates about automation and job loss, and the future of automation. Though this may be a controversial topic with many of our peers and clients, we think that the controversy around it means that as a culture we have not resolved our feelings on it, and so in the hopes of proceeding responsibly with technology, we want to make it clear that we are invested in getting all of the information, and hope that everyone else with a stake in the industry will become informed as well.


Why automate in the first place?

Historically, it has been thought that there were three types of jobs that were most appropriate for automation: jobs that were dangerous, dirty, or dull. Though there is lots of evidence to suggest that technology in these fields helps people improve their efficiency and leads to higher wages for employees who are not replaced but rather have their work supplemented by technology, there is still lots of concern about what happens to those who do lose their jobs to machines. This is the bottom line of the argument: are we automating to improve the output of our workers, or are we automating because it is cheaper than people?

Today, the automation of factory jobs is more likely to impact the lives of those living in developing countries than in developed countries. In fact, rates of employment in factory settings in both China and Brazil have gone down recently, though numbers have been similar in the US and Japan. In countries where jobs are difficult to find as it is, this degree of job loss can be critical.

However, the reason robots were created was to obviate the use of what is in effect slave labor. In the earliest history of automaton theory, Aristotle proposed that if we had autonomous machines (as Hephaestus and Daedalus are said to have created), we would have no need for slaves. In fact, the word “robot” itself comes from the Polish word for “serf,” “slave,” or “laborer” (though the play from which the word originated questions the wisdom of using these types of machines).

Those working for minimal wages and living in deplorable conditions are not markedly different from slaves. Thus, the use of automation should obviate the need for slave labor, but until we have provided these people with a means of financial stability, we have not tackled the root of the problem. It is evident that something bigger is deeply wrong if people are forced to cling to their dangerous and grossly underpaid work out of fear that the alternatives are worse.

Some theories suggest that with more automation, manufacturing processes become more efficient and cost-effective and ultimately produce a wealthier nation. According to the compensation theory, the more automation we implement, and the wealthier a nation becomes, the more high-level jobs will become available. That is, automation doesn’t remove jobs, but merely shifts the kinds of jobs that are available to people .

Proponents of this theory suggest that as factory jobs are automated, companies should offer training in software development, management, and engineering so that displaced employees can move up in the company. However, theorists predict that within the next thirty years, 80% of all jobs could be automated, including many of these higher level jobs. In fact, as Colin Lewis points out in response to Joel Mokyr’s idea (that, as in the Industrial Revolution when the top 3-5% of laborers who were skilled made the difference in financial success, so here we will be able to offer higher-level positions to employees to keep our automated factories running efficiently), in reality it was only a minority of laborers in the Industrial Revolution who had the training and ability to keep their old work or find new work. So here, there will be limits, especially in developing countries, for what work people will be able to find. And for people who live paycheck to paycheck, there is no time to spare in waiting for manufacturers to decide on, design, and implement training programs.

Recently, Bill Gates caused some stir with his assertion that an increase in the minimum wage would force manufacturers to automate. Whether in America or elsewhere, people should not have to choose between joblessness and underpaid backbreaking labor, though as Gates asserts, right now that is the reality of the situation.

Part 1: Why automate in the first place?

Part 2: Who’s afraid of a little automation?

Part 3: How far up the ladder can automation go?

Part 4: How do we keep people employed? Or shouldn’t we?

Part 5: Addressing the concerns of the displaced

Part 6: How can we automate responsibly?