Robots at your service
We are entering into a second industrial revolution, the era of automation. This time it is not man’s muscles that are to be replaced and extended but rather man’s brains
Though the above statement appeared in a book published in 1952, the underlying sentiment is not altogether modern. The chilling thought of man the creator threatened by his own creation is echoed for example in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, published in 1817.
But the early nineteenth century was the era of the Luddite riots when workers protested not against automation—the word was first coined in 1946 by Del Harder, an executive with the Ford Motor company—but mechanisation. In the 1950s however, when a survey was carried out in Detroit asking people whom or what they feared most, automation came second in the list behind ‘‘the Russians.” But what exactly is automation and what is the nature of the threat it is supposed to represent? In an article in the New Scientist (12/2/81) Peter Marsh explained.
Every activity has three essential elements: power, action and control. When control is exercised by a mechanical device it is called automatic or self-acting.
An example is the pressure cooker (invented in 1680). But automatic is not the same as automated. For something to be described as automated requires that it has at least one of three additional features. It must firstly make use of a “systems approach” whereby things are made by passing them through successive stages of a manufacturing process without human intervention. Secondly, the device must be programmable, that is, able to do more than one kind of job. And finally, it must have the capacity to receive and process feedback information through sensors to adjust its routine according to changes that occur around it.
On the basis of this analysis Marsh defines three broad technological revolutions that have taken place over some two and a half centuries (roughly the time capitalism has been in existence).
The first of these was the Machine Revolution (1750-1860). It brought about big advances in both the “action” and “power” elements of activities such as textile manufacture. Next came the Scientific Revolution (1880-1920) characterised by the growth of science-based industries such as chemicals and electrical goods. It was followed after the second world war by the Computer Revolution which has greatly extended, and is continually extending, control over the processes of manufacturing.
Some indication of the tremendous strides that have taken place in the world of computers can be seen from the following:
One authority has observed that the first computer sold in 1950 filled a room yet it is now possible to buy a micro-computer with a lot more capacity which is 30,000 times smaller. At the same time the cost in 1950 adjusted to present values was £1 million, whilst the equivalent micro-computer today is £200. Because there are no components there is very little to go wrong and thus the possibilities of failures and breakdown which cannot quickly be restored by replacing the relatively cheap silicon chip, are very small. The micro-computer is therefore very reliable. (Management Accounting May 1981)
The job of a computer is to interpret a series of binary digits, which in the earliest computers were represented by cumbersome and inefficient thermionic valves, which were superseded by the electronic switch or transistor. Yet a further development was the integrated circuit, which enables all the electronic components of a whole computer to be contained on a tiny wafer of silicon: the silicon chip or micro-processor. But already a successor is within sight: the Josephson circuit, which will make computing thousands of times faster by utilising the super-conductivity of certain materials at temperatures near absolute zero.
In the fifties the first “automation scare” was at its height. Subsequently, concern subsided only to reappear recently. Last year, for example, a confidential Labour Party policy document captured the headlines by arguing for a “socialist planned economy” (more state managed capitalism) to meet the challenge of the micro-chip.
But what justification is there for this renewed concern? Marsh offers four reasons why “1980-style automation will have a bigger effect on work than the first computer controlled factories”. The first is the growth in the number of computers. In 1960 there were a mere 10,000. Today there are around 700,000 “big” computers costing more than £10,000 as well as tens of millions of smaller ones based on micro-processors.
Secondly, the technical advances in micro-electronics have enormously increased the versatility and scope of computer technology. The significance of the chip is in its size: it is not only cheap and fast (messages don’t have far to travel) but can be used in places where a computer could not be accommodated before. As a result the purpose of computers is no longer simply to store, manipulate, retrieve and organise masses of statistical information. Increasingly they are used in control, monitoring, regulation and automation.
The emergence of the industrial robot neatly illustrates the point. A robot is defined as a mechanical arm which is controlled by a computer. Of the 8000 world robot population in 1980 almost all were “first generation”—big, clumsy, expensive devices used mainly for such work as welding and paint spraying. The newer lightweight “second generation” robots now being produced can manipulate items with amazing precision. An example is the PUMA made by an American company, Unimation, which costs £20.000 and can position things to within 0.1mm.
One reason robots have hitherto made little headway in Britain is the low wages here compared to mainland Europe. As an article in the Guardian explained: “We are in a curiously inverted trap; low labour costs depress the necessity to use advanced technology which in turn decreases the rate of development of technology itself.” (22/11/79). And as the same article pointed out, Britain does not have an overfull order book nor an insufficient workforce to cope with it. Not that the absence of an “overfull order book” signifies that people’s needs have been satisfied; true to its absurd and contradictory nature, capitalism is in a slump, intensifying the poverty it compels workers to endure in an age of potential plenty.
But the growing dexterity of robots together with their declining costs in relation to labour costs, make them an increasingly attractive proposition. Indeed, according to statistics from the US car industry, the total cost of the human worker is now $19 an hour while that of a robot is $5.40 an hour (Guardian 19/5/ 81.) And there is another factor to take into account. While automated equipment may work all the anti-social hours an employer may want and not go on strike, it does have a drawback; it cannot be sacked should the state of the market render its loyal services redundant.
The information occupations (secretaries, typists, clerks managers) are thought to amount to 65 per cent of the working population so that even moderate improvements in productivity could bring about unemployment levels in the region of 10 to 20 per cent unless offset by compensatory increases in demand in these and other activities. By comparison, the impact of new technology on employment in manufacturing is expected to be relatively small. The overall consequences are said to be comparable with the industrial revolution. (New Scientist 26/4/79)