Automation, Robotics & Labour in the 4th & 5th Industrial Revolutions
From 325 #12:
Since the first Industrial Revolution began in the 1700’s, successive industrial revolutions have profoundly affected labour, the workers themselves, creating even the concept of the ‘working class’, how they lived, their integration into the advancing urban hell holes, the prisons of the factories, mills and mining pits, even their children were not spared the indignity, even death of modern slavery of the time. Industrialization, the result of mechanisation in industry, fed modern enslavement and domestication of human beings in every corner of the spreading empires and colonies not just the rest of the living planet.
We are now on the cusp of the beginning of a 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) and even a 5th (5IR) that will affect just as radically our imprisonment within the technological society as it did in the previous ones. The very concept of labour, even work itself will change beyond recognition once again. Already in the ensuing ‘coronavirus pandemic’ and curfew controls that have been enforced on billions worldwide, the signals of the coming industrial revolutions are already appearing, with millions being reported to lose their jobs in many countries.
As an example, a fifth of all workers, over 7 million are expected to be in unemployment in the UK as ‘the lockdown’ (curfew) continues to affect the economy on shutdown. Since we first started writing this analysis it has been hard to get any concrete figures for unemployment because as many as 70% of companies have put their wage slaves on what is being described as ‘furlough’, staying away from work but continuing to be paid. In the mean time many of these capitalists claim that in an escalating cash crisis that 59% of them reported they have – at most – three months of funds in reserve. About 140,000 firms applied for the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which pays 80% of a worker’s salary up to a cap of £2,500 a month to stay at home. Who knows how long this will last as the furlough scheme is putting off the inevitable that is already occurring over on the other side of the Atlantic. In the US 4.4 million have claimed for unemployment in just one week, adding to a total of over 30 million since the coronavirus pandemic began. So called economic experts predict a ‘financial crisis’ comparable to that of the 1929 Wall Street Crash.1
Even in China, which rode out the worse of the last recession, the official unemployment rate rose to 5.9 per cent, or 26m, in March from 5.2 per cent, or 23m, in December, when the virus was supposed to have begun. In actual fact this all started even before Covid-19 burst onto the crisis scene, with the capitalist masters still struggling with the after affects of the last ‘financial crisis’ and with the ongoing collapse of the high street. This has been created mostly due to one aspect of the 3rd Industrial Revolution, the Internet, replacing the use for physical stores, the rise of online delivery, where we begin our relation to labour, automation and robotics in the present.
The replacement of human being workers by robots or an automated process has gathered such a pace that now 50% of bosses in 45 countries around the world are speeding up their automation implementation in their businesses as workers are forced to stay home because of the coronavirus outbreak. Capitalism is preparing itself for a post-crisis world. In the short term about 1.5 million workers in the UK are at high risk of losing their jobs to automation, according to the state’s estimates. It is thought that by 2035 it would be possible to automate 86% of restaurant jobs, three-quarters of retail jobs, and 59% of recreation jobs. What a coincidence that these are among the very industries hardest hit by an ‘epidemic’ now demanding leaps in efficiency if some companies are to avoid going under. ‘Supermarket checkout assistants have already borne the brunt of the technological phenomenon’, the Office for National Statistics said last year, ‘with 25.3% of jobs disappearing between 2011 and 2017.’
One of the areas of labour that has seen a dramatic increase in automation and robotics in recent times is the whole logistical, distribution and delivery empire, along with supermarkets. This is not surprising when you see the rapid introduction of self-service checkouts in supermarkets even equipped with CCTV in your face to prevent liberation of ‘essential goods.’ McDonalds already has digital order kiosks to remove the need to speak to the depressed workers behind the desk. Most will know about Amazon, which has expanded into grocery selling, which has a supermarket in Seattle with no checkout assistants, relying instead on sensors to track what shoppers remove from shelves (even to prevent you liberating products), using “just walk out” technology to bill customers and end queues.2 Combine this with recent evidence that many retailers that have remained open recently during the Covid-19 pandemic have been refusing to take physical cash because of a fear in society of contaminated coins and notes. The ‘Cashless Society’ has been given a boost with contactless payments limits being increased and more fearful consumer citizens transferring their addictive habits to online sales, further increasing the loss of employment on the high street. The likes of Amazon and other online retailers are one of the only capitalist entities actually benefiting, apart from supermarkets such as the empires of Lidl, Tesco and Wal-Mart or pharmaceutical animal massacres such as GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca or biotech giants such as Gilead Science and Moderna. So called capitalist analysts have worked out that Amazon’s profits increased to $10,000 every second, day and night. That’s not surprising when the Amazon empire has been spreading even before lockdown, buying up competition and food retailers, already one of the most exploitative wage enslavers imaginable. These are just some of the examples that are very apparent in consumer society on the surface.
Underneath the whole logistics system is dramatically changing, with whole warehouses being turned over to robots and automation. Ocado, the online grocery giant, introduced a fully robotised fulfillment centre in Andover, UK before it burnt down due to a technical fault. Combining robotics, artificial intelligence and 4G network communication the warehouse ticks the boxes for the 4th Industrial Revolution, claiming to pick groceries much faster than a human does.3 The Amazon empire has already been in the high-tech logistics game well before anyone else with a growing number of distribution centers using Kiva robots to carry shelves of products to human workers, who then pick the items to be shipped, along with robot arms and conveyer belts moving products around the warehouse.4 Even other companies such as Alibaba the giant version of Amazon in China have their own versions called Quicktron. To contribute to this many companies are also researching and already using fully automated forklifts with Toyota already having developed their New Autopilot AGV5 which totally removes the human being from having to assist the machine in moving heavy goods around a warehouse, it doesn’t even need a human to change its battery. What about delivering these products?
Just before Covid-19 appeared, in Milton Keynes, the shining example of a ‘new town’, Starship Technologies,6 created by a co-founder of Skype, have started using autonomous robots to deliver food in the centre of an urban area for the first time in the UK after conquering parts of the US. Starship’s robots have been making deliveries in some parts of Milton Keynes since April 2018, but not until now in the centre of the town. Now smart phone users can order a delivery via the Starship deliveries app from food and drink providers. Their propaganda pushes the ‘green capitalist’ benefit of reducing congestion on the towns streets to pull in the morally conscious consumer. It can also record you and call the cops if attacked, even letting you know it’s doing this. Around the world we are also hearing of drones getting more legitimacy because of Covid-19 in human eyes, rather than bombing capitalism’s enemies in the desert. Drones are now making deliveries of medication to remote areas and isolated old vulnerable people, because there’s nothing better than using them for propaganda purposes. Not only are companies experimenting with drones and robots to deliver products which is already in the mainstream consciousness, fully automated vehicles are now on the rise as well.7 Drones and robots can only carry so much, but now they are testing delivery and heavy goods vehicles capable of what the recent automated cars can do. Examples include Volvo’s Vera a fully autonomous truck that doesn’t even need a back up driver and Domino teaming up with robotics company Nuro to have their self-driving R2 deliver pizzas or how about a whole grocery store driven autonomously? Aimed at the small purchases of a few items at the supermarket, Robomart combines e-commerce, autonomous vehicle delivery and even checkout free technology, doing what the milkman used to do. Goodbye checkout staff, shelf stackers, delivery drivers and the whole concept of stores themselves.8 What is interesting is that during the Covid-19 pandemic these very workers which are constantly announced as ‘key’ or ‘essential’ workers are the very ones who are under threat of losing their jobs to automation.
The amount of workers that will be put out of work due to these technological replacements is beyond thinking, the logistics sector is just one snapshot of how an industry will be affected. It is estimated that in the United States alone that 47% of jobs will be lost to automation while in the EU 54% will thrown on to rubbish heap of unemployment. The ‘Luddite fallacy’9 and ‘technological unemployment’10 are no longer far out conspiracies, with not only the manufacturing or distribution sectors under threat from automation, but also the service industry such as healthcare already receiving its fair share, which has speeded up since ‘the pandemic’ hit the world, with China as the frontrunner, with robots distributing medication through to scanning humans for the virus.11
Even 3D printing, another factor in the 4th Industrial Revolution that is beginning, has already leaped forward with even a human heart now being able to be printed.12 Not only does this bring the Ghost In The Shell science fiction story even more closer to reality, but has an effect on labour itself. Recently the mainstream media has been awash with stories of companies and individuals using 3D printers to produce PPE for struggling healthcare services that have been battered by governments austerity cuts.13 This means big changes for the widespread implementation and justification of 3D printing, not only does it mean certain items, even complicated ones, can be printed worldwide by anyone who has the money to fork up for the technology, but it means the very nature of how items are produced are not just restricted to one key location. Soon objects will be printed rather than manufactured, there will be even less need for the worker to be involved, when even an item could be printed at home for the privileged. Also it opens up the possibilities of technologies to be combined as the recent experimentation with the robots by MX3D to 3D print a pedestrian bridge which has ramifications for employment within the construction industry.14
More speculative forms of nanotechnology (such as molecular assemblers or nanofactories, which do not currently exist) raise the possibility of devices in the future that can automatically manufacture any specified goods given the correct instructions and the necessary raw materials and energy. The future is going to see a switch in concentration from how to change factories and their physical processes to produce to how to reprogram automation processes, such as simply reprogramming a software program to produce something different using the same machine. Even the ability to produce new machines themselves has already come about with 3D printing starting to be used to produce drones themselves.
It is quite clear that robotics, AI and 3D printing will increase unemployment alongside other parts of the 4th Industrial Revolution not mentioned including nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotechnology, the internet of things, the industrial internet of things (IIoT), decentralized consensus, and the fifth-generation wireless technologies (5G). What is also at stake is how the state and capitalism will react to this coming or as the ‘coronavirus pandemic’ is showing in the already occurring ‘technological unemployment’. Already there has been much theorising by governments and their neo-liberal capitalist experts on how to deal with the ensuing mass unemployment that could result with the new technologies endless advance. One remedy that the authorities are bounding around is a ‘Universal Basic Income’, which would require everyone from society to pay in to the scheme through taxes, just as with unemployment benefit, but instead of just the unemployed getting it everyone will, as a basic rate regardless of employment status. To those who say people would get money for nothing there would be forced voluntary work to give something back to society, similar to how the unemployed in the UK are expected to do ‘unpaid work.’15 This would create an apparently holistic culture of ‘we’re in it all together’, where have we heard that before? The whole overhaul would separate the idea of income being based on work, creating a ‘utopian society’ that would be free to pursue other activities. This is what is known as ‘Post-Scarcity’, an economy that is based on commodities being produced abundantly with minimal or no human labour involved, instead of there being labour policies dictated by governments instead they will manage leisure on every level, instead of an actual pension there will be subsidised leisure. You won’t need to be near anyone, ‘social distancing’ has been a reality for a long time, alienation a fact with the ever glowing smart phone screen and ever increasing privileged working from home. Urban planning and education, services from health to local, all of it will be overhauled, the very idea of a ‘meaningful life’ will be challenged or more likely dictated to us. Already the wilderness, the natural world is being managed, the next Industrial Revolutions promise a more greener eco conscious clean world, so called ‘green capitalism’ on the horizon. Some of us in ‘prison island’ UK and our comrades in other countries are already seeing the beginning of all these changes in ‘smart cities’, how even machines will communicate with each other and there will be no need for physical service workers when you just ask an AI algorithm instead.16
Hence the beginnings of the 5th Industrial Revolution, a more ethical conscious relation with technology apparently? More like shoving the problem elsewhere, everything might turn green, even fascism, but the destruction of the Earth will continue. But who will benefit? If Industrial Revolutions and technological advance show anything it is that most will be ‘excluded’ from the supposed benefits.
Not is all as it seems in these utopian dreams reminiscent of H.G.Wells because we as anarchists understand that authority can never let its grip on power go, especially with its privileged knowledge of the new technologies. Alfredo Bonnano in his analysis ‘From Riot to Insurrection’ predicted even as far back as 1988 that we were at the dawn of a new prison nightmare that would be created in a Post-Industrial Society. He explains the removal of the worker from their traditional role, how much of production will be replaced by robotics and also decentralised in productive ‘islands’ where the reign of happiness will reign supreme, surrounded by physical borders to boot.
These ‘islands of privilege’ are already occurring, to use the UK as an example. Bonnano’s concept of the ‘Included’ and ‘Excluded’ is being manufactured to the exact detail here, already there is a gap forming between those who know how to manipulate the machines or are experts in the technological language. The ‘Excluded’, those who are not offered this privilege, shunned from the beginning, filtered out, those who have refused it or even just don’t fit into the utopian picture. The ‘excluded’ were there in the streets in August 2011 very aware they have been denied what is coming, even refusing it, now being joined by those who have been pushed over the precipice from the false promises of never ending employment, all of them not content with their assignment to the new ‘excluded’ ghettos. How many of us can afford, never mind know the language to use a 3D printer? Who said that the jobs that go today are going to be replaced tomorrow and many will not be able to adapt to the language they’re already finding hard to understand, do they even want to? Will they be a suspect if they don’t adapt? An example is how Artificial Intelligence is already making a massive gap between those who will continue to be employed in new digital service jobs that will still require human input, such as performing tasks algorithms cannot perform or using algorithms to perform other tasks and those who will not be able to fathom these new jobs, never understand the language or refuse to. It is actually predicted that AI will not eliminate work entirely yet, it’s more about those who will know how to use it, even being able to manipulate others more further than has been possible before. The technocrats, scientists and psychiatrists in white lab coats of the new Post-Scarcity order will only give enough information to make the rest feel as if they are participating, but not everyone is fooled so easily.
By making a dividing line between themselves and the ‘excluded’, the ‘included’ have made it obvious what their plans are, these will lead to outbreaks of rebellion as the exclusion process continues at an ever faster pace. With gathering unemployment rates occurring because of Covid-19 and the clear economic crisis resulting from it and with no guarantee that governments around the world will provide for those who have lost their jobs, the path for these changes is already being opened, but also those for insurrection. At least a 11 million alone are expected to enter ‘financial hardship’ in the UK prison island, many already saying in a recent Citizens Advice survey that they cannot pay the rent, utility bills, taxes and even afford food. What about the millions around the world in what is described as ‘insecure employment’ or the ‘gig economy’? Its estimated by the International Labour Organization that there has been a massive shift to temporary or zero hours work since the ‘financial crisis’ in 2008, about 75% have gone into this type of work and last year about 4.7 million people in the UK worked in gig economy jobs. What happens when they can’t make the bills or pay for food or when evictions and bailiff services are started again like in the UK in June?17
Already we see the mounting rage we saw in the last ‘financial crisis’ boiling over, with riots in Brussels, Wuhan and Palestine, raiding of supermarkets in Southern Italy and South Africa, even widespread attacks upon telecommunications infrastructure in Europe, linked to 5G, which will be responsible for keeping this new oppressive technology communicating with itself. This is all a result of the clear repressive measures combining with the already happening automation of labour, leading to the ‘excluded’ taking their own lives into their hands. The illusion of a mass movement uprising against the oppressive force, storming the Bastille or Winter Palace, ends up down a reformist dead end or worse an authoritarian nightmare, even putting bets on organisations of synthesis of the Spanish Revolution period or even the professional activist mentality are stagnant. The rebellions to come will breakout without announcement and be organised in spontaneous ways that many who hold onto old relics will not be able to comprehend or too stuck in their comfort zones to be anywhere near to, the August 2011 riots showed this up very clearly.
The insurrectionary method is more important now than it ever has been, with the avenues of other ‘dissent’ being closed and sanitised. Informal organisation that is capable of participating now and even during these moments of insurrection will attack and shatter the illusion of this ‘social peace’. Nothing is a substitute for a few comrades, friends even, who have permanent struggle, direct action and the destruction of the technological prison society as their intent.
“The ‘sites’ and expressions of these collective explosions vary a great deal. The occasions also. In each case, however, they can be traced to an intolerance of the society of death managed by the capital/State partnership.
It is pointless to fear those manifestations because of traditional ideas we have of revolutionary action within mass movements.
It is not a question of being afraid but passing to action right away before it’s too late.”
– Alfredo Bonnano,
From Riot to Insurrection
1 It should be noted that mass unemployment has followed or occurred during each Industrial Revolution with many workers being displaced by machines and other forms of technology making other technologies obsolete in a very short time span that coincides with ‘financial crisis.’
9 ‘Luddite fallacy’, that new technology does not lead to higher overall unemployment in the economy. Instead new technology doesn’t destroy jobs, it only changes the composition of jobs in the economy. The Luddites were a secret organisation of English textile workers in the 19th century, a radical faction which destroyed textile machinery as a form of protest.
10 The phrase “technological unemployment” was popularised by John Maynard Keynes, a liberal economist in the 1930s, who said it was “only a temporary phase of maladjustment”.
15 In the early 2011 the UK Tory government implemented a ‘work experience scheme’ that even though voluntary, if not taken would mean benefits would be sanctioned, effectively making it a forced unpaid work scheme!
16 A smart city is an urban area that uses different types of electronic Internet of things (IoT) sensors to collect data and then use insights gained from that data to manage assets, resources and services efficiently. This includes data collected from citizens, devices, and assets that is processed and analyzed to monitor and manage traffic and transportation systems, power plants, utilities, water supply networks, waste management, crime detection, information systems, schools, libraries, hospitals, and other community services.
17 Many squatters have continued to be evicted under the new trespass laws in the UK. In the US mass evictions are on the horizon as the US state has left the unemployed and gig economy to fend for themselves. In the UK an Uber driver was kicked out of his home in London because of the nature of his job being at risk of contracting Covid-19 and left to die on the streets because he had already contracted the virus. Stories like his are multiplying.
Tags: ‘The Uncivilized’, 3D Printing, 5G, Alfredo M. Bonanno, Analysis, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Automation, Cashless Society, Coronavirus, Drones, Fifth Industrial Revolution, Fourth Industrial Revolution, From Riot to Insurrection, Intelligent Surveillance, Internet of Things, Repression, Robotics, Surveillance, UK, Universal Basic Income
This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 9th, 2020 at 5:25 pm and is filed under Library.