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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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.