Robots: not actually all that

Maybe our tin-headed overlords will just become another set of tools on the job.

The hopes and fears prompted by workplace automation has been a favourite topic of ours. Will we end up living in a utopia where no-one has to work? Will all the gains go to the rich? What are the implications for the policy arguments of today?

But at their heart, all these questions rely on one key assumption: that the automation of the early to mid 21st century will be different from that of any period preceding it (except maybe the peak of the industrial revolution). Crucially, the change has to be quicker and wider than previous waves. Quicker, because otherwise people displaced from old jobs will just be absorbed into new ones smoothly and painlessly; and wider, because the hopes and fears rest on automation spreading far beyond simple mechanical tasks, into areas we consider innately human. Journalists, lawyers, doctors and researchers have all seen their jobs replaced by machines doing the same thing.

A wonderful feature in this week's Economist, however, suggests that the "don't panic" crowd have more going for them than they are given credit for. It turns out, just as with every other transformative technology, that robots are far more useful working with people than working instead of them:

Last December, in a company first, German carmaker BMW introduced a slow-moving collaborative robot in its factory in Spartanburg, South Carolina, which co-operates with a human worker to insulate and water-seal vehicle doors. The robot spreads out and glues down material that is held in place by the human worker’s more agile fingers. When this is done without the help of a robot, workers must be rotated off this uncomfortable task after just an hour or two to prevent elbow strain. Today four collaborative robots work in the facility, and more are coming, in Spartanburg and elsewhere…

No matter how flexible, easy to program and safe they are, collaborative workers may not be welcomed by human workers to begin with. The experience of Alumotion, an Italian distributor of UR’s robots, is illustrative. Workers fear being replaced by robots, says co-owner Fabio Facchinetti, so his salespeople carry demonstration units in unmarked cases and initially only meet a potential client’s senior management behind closed doors. But rather than firing workers, Alumotion’s clients often end up adding shifts because production costs drop.

Collaborative robots do have some obvious problems to overcome, and some of the lines in the feature are moderately chilling; the fact that the International Organisation for Standardisation is in the process of publishing "pain-threshold standards" reminds us that when robots go wrong, they can go very wrong. Similarly, when the Economist quotes advice that "humanoid robots should generally be no larger than a six-year-old, a size most adults reckon they could overpower if necessary", the "reckon" is telling. If that robot decides to take you on, size can be misleading.

Maybe robots won't transform the world, put us all out of work, or build out utopias. Maybe they'll just be another set of tools which make us ever more effective at doing our jobs, slowly increasing living standards further and further for the same amount of labour. That would be nice.

Co-operation. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Carwyn Jones is preparing for a fight with the UK government

From Labour's soft-nationalist wing, Jones has thought carefully about constitutional politics. 

This week's 20th anniversary of the 1997 Yes vote on devolution in Wales was a rather low-key affair. But then while there are plenty of countries around the world that celebrate an Independence Day, few nations or regions around the world would make much fuss about "Partial Autonomy Day".

The most important single event of the day was, almost certainly, the address by First Minister Carwyn Jones at the Institute of Welsh Affairs’ 20th anniversary conference. The sometimes diffident-seeming Welsh Labour leader has rarely been on stronger form. Much of his speech was predictable: there were his own recollections of the 1997 referendum; some generous reflections on the legacy of his now-departed predecessor, Rhodri Morgan; and a lengthy list of identified achievement of devolved government in Wales. But two other features stood out.

One, which might have struck any observers from outside Wales was the strongly Welsh nationalistic tone of the speech. In truth this has long been typical for Jones, and was a very prominent element of the successful Labour general election campaign in Wales. A fluent Welsh-speaker and long a part of the soft-nationalist wing of Welsh Labour, the First Minister briefly considered what would have been the consequences of the achingly-close 1997 ballot having gone the other way. Wales, we were told, would no longer have had the right to be considered a nation – it might even (gasp!) have lost the right to have its own national football team. But this theme of the speech was also linked to devolution: why should Wales not have parity of treatment on devolved matters with Scotland?

The most striking feature of the speech, however, was the confidence and combativeness with which the First Minister set about attacking the UK government on constitutional matters. This territory has often appeared to be the area which most animates Jones, and on which he is most comfortable. He has clearly thought a great deal about how to protect and develop the constitutional status of devolved Wales. The First Minister was clearly deeply unimpressed by the UK government’s handling of Brexit as a whole, and he linked Brexit to broader problems with the UK government’s approach to the constitution. Brexit was declared in the speech to be the "biggest threat to devolution since its inception" – and the audience were left in no doubt as to where the blame for that lay. Jones was also clearly very comfortable defending the joint stance he has taken with the Scottish National Party First Minister of Scotland, in opposing the EU Withdrawal Bill and much of the UK government’s approach to Brexit negotiations. This high level Labour-SNP cooperation – extraordinary, given the otherwise utterly toxic relations between the two parties – was argued to be the necessary consequence of the UK government’s approach, and the threat of a power-grab by Westminster of powers that are currently devolved. 

Finally, the First Minister had one new card up his sleeve. He was able to announce a Commission on Justice in Wales, to be chaired by a figure of impeccable authority: the soon-to-retire Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, John Thomas. The clear intention of the Welsh government seems to be to use this commission to advance their agenda of a distinct Welsh legal jurisdiction. This is another matter on which there appears to be little current common ground with the UK government.

Carwyn Jones emerged from the general election as a greatly strengthened figure: having led the Labour campaign in Wales when it appeared that the party might be in difficulty, he deservedly accrued much political capital from Welsh Labour’s success in June. The First Minister has been thinking imaginatively about the UK constitution for some years. But for a long time he failed even to carry much of the Welsh Labour party with him. However, he succeeded in having many of his ideas incorporated into the Labour UK manifesto for June’s election; he is no longer a voice crying out in the wilderness. On the anniversary of devolution, Jones said little that was wholly new. But the combination of everything that he said, and the tone and confidence with which he said it, was striking. This was not the speech of a man looking to back away from a confrontation with the UK government. Wales seems up for a fight.

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.