Robots - What are they good for?

"The political right is not blind to the rise of automation either and the same ideology that has already gutted industry in Britain once before will not see the need to manage automation to meet human needs"

For a long time, we’ve imagined how robots will change the world. Since the birth of modern computing and the post-war technological boom, we’ve had dreams of life with a little help from machines. From George Lucas’s C3PO to Stanley Kubric’s HAL 9000, imagining a life where language, travel and a thousand other tasks can be delegated to machines has given us a source of entertainment. Now, however, we’re having to face up to a more mundane reality.

Automation isn’t a new phenomenon and its impacts are both political and economic. When politicians make the case for ‘legitimate concerns’ about the threatening of jobs by immigration, they ignore that for decades the replacement of human labour by machines has been one of the world’s greatest drivers of job losses. Since 1979 over 7 million factory jobs in American industry have been lost, a huge decline in what for decades was a staple of employment across much of the country. A 2015 study by Ball State University's Center for Business and Economic Research found that 88% were due to automation and other labour reducing trends.

Yet instead, because it is easier to talk about immigration, free trade and outsourcing than it is about long term industrial strategies, politicians of all persuasions have ignored automations and technology for too long.

How then, does Labour make automation work?

It must be said that automation is not necessarily a bad thing. The removal of human beings from dangerous, menial and exhausting tasks is a positive and any political party seriously concerned with the wellbeing of workers should recognise this. The issue, therefore is what replaces this type of employment.

Some on the left have seen the coming of automation as a chance to reshape nature of work. The concept of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years. Yet while the concept of UBI is intriguing, it remains an end goal. We must ask how it might work but right now workers, and voters, need more immediate policies.

As Britain saw throughout the 1980s, when jobs are loss en mass from an area and there is no plan to provide new ones, people suffer. Free market theories that look elegant on paper do not, it turns out, trickle down.

Labour must therefore defend the rights of workers who stand to lose from automation, from those in manufacturing to those in finance. We must develop the infrastructure to support and retrain people in a way that also benefits the wider economy. Rather than haphazard support on a local level we need a national approach to how the nation goes to work. This should be coupled with a national strategy to increase the size of industry in Britain. Strategic industries should be retained rather than sold off and the opportunity to encourage automated, high productivity industry taken.

Automation is not for Labour to tackle alone. Working with Trade Unions to defend the rights of workers in at risk jobs is a crucial step. This can be done successfully, as the example of staff on driverless and semi-driverless trains in London’s DLR and Tube network shows.

It is vital that Labour begins to act. The political right is not blind to the rise of automation either and the same ideology that has already gutted industry in Britain once before will not see the need to manage automation to meet human needs. Without action we will find ourselves in a world where technology that could emancipate many works only for a few. 

Patrick Thompson is a Young Fabians member. Follow him on Twitter at @ PatchThompson92

 

The Young Fabians provide policy analysis for the left. If you are interested in campaiging for the Labour Party, and raising these issues on the doorstep, please volunteer at http://www.labour.org.uk/volunteering

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