The next post in the Not Evenly Distributed blog series comes from writer and curator, Adam Kleinman, who explores how advances in manufacturing point to an uncertain future for robot vs. human labour.
On 28 December 1973, the astronauts of Skylab 4 had had enough. ‘We would never work 16 hours a day for 84 straight days on the ground, and we should not be expected to do it here in space,’ declared commander Jerry Carr just before the entire crew went on strike. Instead of taking up placards and chanting slogans, they simply turned off their radio and severed contact with ground control. The mission stalled, and NASA could either give in to demands or abort, and lose everything; they chose the former. The crew-members were not machines, even if they were expected to perform as such, but let’s consider something seemingly fantastical: what if their jobs were in fact automated?
From a business perspective, automation can be viewed as a cost-saving device, yet it also allows management to get along without workers at all. No sick or vacation days have to be accounted for, no complaints to be discussed, no safety protections to worry about, and no HR staff to pay – or soon, no staff at all, really. The idea of a diminished workforce, and its toll on the incomes of the working class, isn’t necessarily new. To maximise corporate profit, the last few decades have seen industrialised nations ship jobs overseas to exploit weaker laws and wages in a process called ‘outsourcing’; however, the advance of artificial intelligence systems and robotics has now given rise to ‘botsourcing’, a strategy that displaces the human worker and her salary altogether.
[Image: The ‘Amazon Picking Challenge’ , where robots are pitted against humans in a race to pick and pack products sold by the company. (c) Geoff Robinson Photography]