Robot density in the industrial sector is South Korea, which has 437 robots for every 10,000 employees in the processing industry, while Japan has 323 and Germany 282.
According to a report by the International Bar Association (IBA) the competitive advantage of poorer, emerging economies – based on cheaper workforces – will soon be eroded as robot production lines and intelligent computer systems undercut the cost of human endeavour and While a German car worker costs more than €40 (£34) an hour, a robot costs between only €5 and €8 per hour. “A production robot is thus cheaper than a worker in China,” the report notes. Nor does a robot “become ill, have children or go on strike and [it] is not entitled to annual leave”. The traditional workplace is disintegrating, with more part time employees, distance working, and the blurring of professional and private time, the report observes. It is being replaced by “the ‘latte macchiato’ workplace where employees or freelance workers in the cafe around the corner, working from their laptops.” The workplace may eventually only serve the purpose of maintaining social network between colleagues.
The report aalso estimates a third of graduate level jobs around the world may eventually be replaced by machines or software. The gap between economic reality in the self-employed ‘gig economy’ and existing legal frameworks is already growing, the lawyers note. The new information economy is likely to result in more monopolies and a greater income gap between rich and poor because “many people will end up unemployed, whereas highly qualified, creative and ambitious professionals will increase their wealth.” Among the professions deemed most likely to disappear are accountants, court clerks and ‘desk officers at fiscal authorities’. Even some lawyers risk becoming unemployed. “An intelligent algorithm went through the European Court of Human Rights’ decisions and found patterns in the text,” the report records. “Having learned from these cases, the algorithm was able to predict the outcome of other cases with 79% accuracy ... According to a study conducted by [the auditing firm] Deloitte, 100,000 jobs in the English legal sector will be automated in the next 20 years.”
The changes already transforming work and the future consequences is what it terms ‘industrial revolution 4.0’. The three preceding revolutions are listed as: industrialisation, electrification and digitalisation. ‘Industry 4.0’ involves the integration of the physical and software in production and the service sector. Amazon, Uber, Facebook, ‘smart factories’ and 3D printing, its says, are among current pioneers.
The report’s lead author, Gerlind Wisskirchen – an employment lawyer in Cologne who is vice-chair of the IBA’s global employment institute, said: “Jobs at all levels in society presently undertaken by humans are at risk of being reassigned to robots or AI, and the legislation once in place to protect the rights of human workers may be no longer fit for purpose, in some cases ... New labour and employment legislation is urgently needed to keep pace with increased automation.”
Increased mechanical autonomy will cause problems of how to define legal responsibility for accidents involving new technology such as driverless cars. Will it be the owner, the passengers, or manufacturers who pay the insurance?
“The liability issues may become an insurmountable obstacle to the introduction of fully automated driving,” the study warns. Driverless forklifts are already being used in factories. Over the past 30 years there have been 33 employee deaths caused by robots in the US, it notes.
The authors suggest that governments will have to decide what jobs should be performed exclusively by humans – for example, caring for babies. “The state could introduce a kind of ‘human quota’ in any sector,” and decide “whether it intends to introduce a ‘made by humans’ label or tax the use of machines,” the report says. The study adopts the military principle, endorsed by the Ministry of Defence, that there must always be a ‘human in the loop’ to prevent the development and deployment of entirely autonomous drones that could be programmed to select their own targets.
“A no-go area in the science of AI is research into intelligent weapon systems that open fire without a human decision having been made,” the report states. “The consequences of malfunctions of such machines are immense, so it is all the more desirable that not only the US, but also the United Nations discusses a ban on autonomous weapon systems.”
In the fully automated production system where robots would do everything, building themselves from scratch, supplying their own power and maintaining themselves, as there would be no human labour input there would be no value produced and so no prices, no wages and no profits either.
Such an economy is only a theoretical construct; in fact the theoretical limit to capitalism, as Marx pointed out in the ‘Fragment on Machines’ in the Grundrisse. This is the only place where Marx uses the word ‘collapse’ in relation to capitalism which he said would happen at the point where productivity was so high that the prices of units of commodity would be virtually zero and so would have been given away free. Obviously capitalism could not function on that basis.
But this point is a (very) long way off and in practice will never be reached, if only because political action would have put an end to capitalism, and its production for sale on a market with a view to profit, long before.
Built-in to the capitalist system is a drag on the use of machines. As Marx went on to explain:
‘For the capitalist, however, there is a further limit on its use. Instead of paying for the labour, he pays only the value of the labour-power employed; the limit to his using a machine is therefore fixed by the difference between the value of the machine and the value of the labour-power replaced by it.’
Under capitalism the immediate product of living labour is divided into a part that the capitalist firm has to pay for (wages) and a part that it doesn’t pay for (surplus value, the source of profit). This means that under capitalism a machine that would genuinely save labour – the time society has to spend to produce something – would only be introduced if it also reduced the total labour that the capitalist firm had to pay for, i.e. the dead labour incorporated in the machine and materials plus the living labour it employs. If this is not the case, then the labour-saving machine will not be introduced, as to do so would reduce the amount of unpaid labour that the firm extracts, i.e. the source of its profits. In fact, the lower wages are, the less the incentive to apply labour-saving inventions, and vice versa.
Marx gave some concrete examples to illustrate that under capitalism there is a difference between invention and application:
‘Hence, the invention nowadays in England of machines that are employed only in North America, just as in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries machines were invented in Germany for use exclusively in Holland, and just as many French inventions of the eighteenth century were exploited only in England … The Yankees have invented a stone-breaking machine. The English do not make use of it because the ‘wretch’ who does this work gets paid such a small portion of his labour that machinery would increase the cost of production to the capitalist.’
Mechanization, automation, robotization are all manifestations of the same trend under capitalism where, under the lash of competition, capitalist firms are driven to constantly strive to reduce the cost of production of what they are producing for sale, i.e. to increase productivity. But productivity does not proceed at the rate that some people sometimes mistakenly assume that it does because they take into account only the last stage of production.
What has to be taken into account is the labour that has gone into the production of a commodity from start to finish. So robots introduced at just one stage of the whole process will only have an impact at that stage. Which is why the increase in productivity in the economy as a whole has been at a rate of only about 2 percent a year, a rate that the capitalist economy can absorb.
In a socialist system where the resources of the planet have become the common heritage of all, there will no longer be any barrier to the robotisation of repetitive and boring jobs. Then, robots will ‘steal our jobs’ much more quickly than today and that will be OK, as there will be no harmful side-effects since access to what people need to live and enjoy life won’t be tied to working for a wage or salary. As Marx put it, ‘the field of application for machinery would therefore be entirely different in a communist society from what it is in bourgeois society.’
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