From the TUC

What are robots for?

27 Jan 2017, by in Economics

It would seem digitisation is occurring, at a greater or lesser pace in different countries. There are ever-more sophisticated computers, robots and advances in AI. Whether we are on the tipping point of a fourth industrial revolution, is a pertinent question.

Digitisation could have both positive and negative consequences for workers and society. We should consider carefully how humans want to use technology, and ultimately where we want robots to work – if at all.

I started off this series of blogs querying the extent of digitisation in the UK. Key issues are the need to:

  • address the share of wealth between workers and owners of robots;
  • increase productivity in the current low-wage economy in order to increase wages.

Who owns the robots?

A key question is who owns the robots? My last blog considered ‘hollowing out’ of the labour market, and that hollowing out is already occurring due to the increase in low-skilled jobs stimulated at least in part by technological change. Haldane refers to how hollowing out could result in pressures to reallocate income from rich to poor, from owners of robots to workers (who work with the robots).

A recent IMF paper by Berg, Buffie and Zanna also looks at the potential economic gains that could be made through robotisation. In addition, they examine the possible inequalities that could result, with falls in the wages of workers, despite an increase in output. “With falling wages and rising capital stocks, (human) labour become a smaller and smaller part of the economy”. Hence most of the income goes to owners of capital (the owners of the robots) and skilled workers who cannot easily be exchanged for a robot.

If technology is used negatively it could result in further hollowing out of the labour market, unemployment, lower wages and societal separation. If there is increased robotisation and adverse use by owners this could exaggerate further in future.

Instead, technology has to be used positivity to empower workers, with increased productivity and workers’ wages. A paper by Freeman suggests that workers who are displaced by new technology should own part of the capital. This would enable leisure time not unemployment. This argument about the potential gains for workers is rather limited in the debate about robotisation.

With the increased use of digital technology, now and in future, good collective agreements between unions and employers to protect workers’ pay and rights are central to working arrangements. My colleague Tim Page discusses the fourth industrial revolution and how the German workplace model is a key model for empowering workers.

How do humans stay ahead of robots?

Ultimately we should consider what we want from technology. There are mixed views about whether robots can ever replicate human consciousness and human interaction.

While we are making huge advances in AI, for example in the application of robotic technology in medicine, we should also question what we want from its application so that humans use robots to enhance our lives.

Klaus Schwab, Founder of the World Economic Forum who runs Davos said that the

Fourth Industrial Revolution may indeed have the potential to “robotize” humanity and thus to deprive us of our heart and soul. But as a complement to the best parts of human nature—creativity, empathy, stewardship—it can also lift humanity into a new collective and moral consciousness based on a shared sense of destiny. It is incumbent on us all to make sure the latter prevails.

I have asked here “how do humans stay ahead of robots?”, but is this the right question? Should it in fact be “what is it that robots can do and what do we want them to do?” In the developed world where we have an ageing society, for example do we want eldercare to be done by robots? And do we want people on lower incomes to be shut out of the economy and society as jobs are increasingly automated? These are issues that Unions will need to consider as we continue this debate.


Further reading:

This is the third in a series of blogs considering the extent of robotisation and its impact. Also read:

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