Monday 10 December 2018

The robots are coming - but what happens to the workers they replace?

Amid minimum wage tensions in the US, former McDonald's chief executive Ed Rensi told the Fox television network: 'It's cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who is inefficient, making $15 an hour bagging French fries' Photo: Depositphotos
Amid minimum wage tensions in the US, former McDonald's chief executive Ed Rensi told the Fox television network: 'It's cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who is inefficient, making $15 an hour bagging French fries' Photo: Depositphotos
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

As A child, about this time every year, I'd go to the Big Smoke on a shopping trip with my mother. The highlight was lunch in a department store café, where a rudimentary form of automation operated.

Cakes and tarts lay ready-sliced on plates behind a bank of glass windows. Customers helped themselves by flipping open a window and carrying their selection to the till, where their first contact with a staff member happened. Presumably, other employees replaced food behind the scenes, but they were invisible.

The novelty of this self-service arrangement impressed me, and I always begged to take our meal break there. One day, predicted another customer in the queue, we'd insert coins into a slot to open the windows and there would be no need to pay someone at the till. How we all marvelled at such a Space Age scenario.

Little did we know those glass boxes with their cake occupants were the shape of the future - and humans would be taken increasingly out of the picture.

Automation has accelerated exponentially since its early beginnings, driven by the rationale of achieving efficiencies. End game is to cut costs, which also means the staff bill - minimising the workforce is part of the overall goal.

And so it is that jobs are being automated away. We're seeing it in Ireland, with unstaffed Dart stations and Luas stops, an emphasis on self-service in banks, and post office and garda station closures, among other examples. We're no longer customers, but end users - always a nuisance after we've paid over our money, as anyone who has rung a call centre will confirm.

Oddly, automation uber alles is happening with little by way of debate. I'm not trying to hold back the tide of progress. But it's mystifying that no attempt is made to weigh some of the cons against the pros.

Amid minimum wage tensions in the US, former McDonald's chief executive Ed Rensi told the Fox television network: "It's cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who is inefficient, making $15 an hour bagging French fries." Don't those workers pay taxes which help to run a country?

Meanwhile, the overseas labour behind many Apple products is already being transferred to robots. Chinese manufacturer Foxconn, which assembles the iPhone, replaced 60,000 factory workers with robots in one Taiwanese factory recently. If China - where labour is cheap - is investing heavily in a mechanical workforce, then artificial intelligence is about to become more prevalent.

Foxconn has been in the spotlight in recent years over questionable factory conditions, highlighted by a spate of workers committing suicide. It also manufactures iPods and iPads, as well as products for Sony, Microsoft, Amazon, Dell, Google and Nintendo.

Apple is planning to build a €850 million data centre in Athenry, Co Galway, as part of this push towards automation. Essentially, the centre will be a storage unit housing servers - few jobs will be associated with it once construction is complete.

Irritated by slow progress, the technology giant has asked the High Court to fast-track a legal challenge by objectors to avoid a delay of up to 18 months if a judicial review is granted. The case is listed for hearing on Monday. Clearly, a future that is light years ahead of what any of us imagined in that department store café of my childhood is here, right now.

Champions of automation insist the jobs eliminated first are boring and repetitive ones which leave humans miserable. In the long run, they say, more lucrative and interesting positions - for example in research and development - will open up. In the short term, however, jobs are vanishing.

And I note that swapping staff for robots saves companies from having to consider quality-of-life issues for employees, or interact with unions. Automating away jobs isn't necessarily the best way of addressing staff concerns. But it will happen in some cases. Transport sector workers look vulnerable, with a number of Dart stations now unstaffed and others likely to follow.

Harnessing automation to replace repetitive, mind-numbing tasks is useful, of course. But artificial intelligence cannot replace humans in every situation.

A balance should be struck against disadvantages to the community. If the default policy is to focus on price tag, without consideration for value, then something important will be lost.

A physical presence matters - in shops, banks, stations and so on. People are encouraged to do everything electronically, and sometimes it makes sense, but at other times, the savings don't outweigh the damage to customer relations.

And in reducing the number of jobs, we are also losing taxes from workers and adding to the social welfare bill.

Rural communities have been devastated by the loss of garda stations and post offices. Garda stations were a crime deterrent, the post office was a social hub.

A Dart station without attendants is certainly cheaper to operate, but not everything can be reduced to cost. Doesn't the human interaction matter?

At my local station, I've seen staff do much more than sell tickets: put down ramps for wheelchair users, throw salt on to icy surfaces, and give directions and local information to tourists. Staffed stations have basic first aid kits for emergencies, and are less likely to be covered in graffiti.

Unstaffed stations can become a magnet for antisocial behaviour, while some of those Luas stops can be lonely places, where waiting passengers feel unsafe.

The trend to replace people with robots is particularly relentless at large corporations, where the falling cost of buying and programming robots is regarded as more attractive than managing and retaining human labour.

Economic instability may result, but little attention is paid to that.

Economists have expressed concerns about how automation will affect the jobs market: a report from consultants Deloitte, in partnership with Oxford University, suggests 35pc of jobs are at risk over the next 20 years. Other researchers have predicted up to 50pc of jobs evaporating in four to five decades.

I'm not urging machine-breaking, as happened in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. But isn't it time we had a discussion about the kind of society we want to live in, and where we place value?

Irish Independent

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