Here’s a new factory for making automobile frames, specifically designed to minimize the need for human labor. The CEO of the company that built it actually said, “We set out to build automobile frames without people.”
At the start of the process, rough steel plates are inspected by electronic sensors, automatically pushing aside any that deviate from tolerances. Conveyors take the plates through punching, pressing, assembling, and nailing machines, as well as a machine that can insert 60 rivets simultaneously in each frame. A set of finishing machines then rinse, dry, spray-paint, and cool the frames. Aside from a few men moving frames between conveyor belts, the floor routine of the plant requires almost no hand labor.
And today’s robotics and artificial-intelligence advances go far beyond automating routine manufacturing labor and take over the kind of cognitive functions once thought to be exclusive to human beings. Here, for example, is a new AI-based system that displaces much of the thought-work which has been required of the people operating railway switch and signal installations:
The NX control machine is in effect the “brain” of the system. It automatically selects the best optional route if the preferred route is occupied. It will allow no conflicting routes to be set up. It eliminates individual lever control of each switch and signal.
Pretty scary from the standpoint of maintaining anything like full employment, don’t you think?
Actually, the first passage is a description of the A.O. Smith frame factory which was built in…1922. The second passage is taken from a brochure by General Railway Signal, dated 1954. (Although this technology was originally introduced by GRS in 1936.)
I’m pretty confident that if the above passages were to be turned into press releases and sent to the business and general media, then there would be dozens of stories using them as an example of the way in which robotization is destroying jobs.
Articles on the job elimination expected as a result of robots and artificial intelligences–and there seem to be dozens of such articles coming out every week—very rarely include any attempts to put current innovations in historical perspective. They also rarely include much in the way of meaningful numbers–I searched through quite a few articles on a new automated shoe-making factor in Germany, for example, without getting any light on what is clearly a very key metric: the ratio of shoes produced to number of people working in the factory. The answer to the question of whether what we are seeing now is really a sharp upward break in the labor-productivity line…or, alternatively, only a continuation of long-standing trends….seems usually to be simply implicitly asserted, rather than researched and defended.
Certainly, the recent labor-productivity statistics (also this) don’t seem to provide much support for the idea of a sharp upward productivity break–although this may be to some degree a factor of the lackluster economy.
In the next post of this series, I’ll attempt to provide some historical perspective on today’s automation technologies by sketching out some of the past innovations in the mechanization of work, focusing on “robots,” broadly-defined…ie, on technologies which to some degree involve the replacement or augmentation of human mind, eye, and hand, rather than those that are primarily concerned with the replacement of human and animal muscular energy.
Note: the description of the A O Smith auto frame factory is taken from the book Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs, by Professor Amy Sue Bix, which will also be extensively cited in the next post of this series.