Pick up your P45 and send in the Robot

Posted by in July's Magazine

ElliQ, Pepper, Kuri – herbs, spices or exotic cooking ingredients? Well no actually, they’re all commercially available robots. They’re real, they work and you can buy them now/soon. Amazon are trialling remote drogues (aka quadcopters) for lightweight deliveries direct to the home address of the buyer; Google’s autonomous cars have already completed safety trials

in the US, as dial-a-ride-cheaper-than- cab firm Uber look on hungrily at the benefits of driverless cars; unmanned trucks have delivered beer from brewery to bar. And, soon perhaps, weapons for troops on the frontline.


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Industry has had assembly robots since the late 1970s. In the home the robot vacuum or garden mower are increasingly normal. Consumers too interact, anyone for ‘unexpected item in bagging area’ (where shoppers serve as unpaid packers)? Or checkout your local multiplex cinema for box office staff, you won’t find any.

Reform, a political think-tank – okay a bit right-of-centre but keep reading – campaigns for “a leaner-smarter (aka cheaper) workforce” predicting Chabot’s “…could replace 90% of Whitehall’s administrative staff as well as tens of thousands more in NHS and GP surgeries.” Routine diagnosis of patient ailments outperforms Doctors and Nurses in the collection of routine data. Residential care homes for the elderly have already begun trials on the probability of using autonomous robots to provide routine support and personal contact, despite some resistance from clients. Hmm…

So, what’s happening to prompt this drive to automation? Sci-Fi authors have long proposed machine artificial intelligence, since at least the mid- 1950s. From the modern computer age robots have been commonplace in manufacturing since the 1970. Cloud connectivity, improvements in speech synthesis and recognition, allied with people’s increasing enthusiasm for digital assistants (call me Cortana, Siri, Google Now, Alexa). They’re not perfect, they don’t always work, but it would take a cheerless Luddite (not anti-tech BTW but admittedly somewhat cheerless) not to see the mainstream has come on apace.

Few would question the benefit of delegating tedious tasks to a machine that doesn’t get tired-bored-drunk-lippy; the benefit for the employer is of course no chat-lateness-attitude-mess and (drum roll) no pay.

Tech industry heavyweights, including surprisingly Microsoft founder Bill Gates; have suggested a robot tax to offset the social downside of automation. “Certainly, there will be taxes that relate to automation. Right now, the human worker who does £40,000 of factory work is taxed and (in return) you get income tax, (national insurance). If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”

Gates expanded on the social benefits of maintaining the human touch in areas robots struggle in, citing care of the elderly, reducing class sizes and helping special-needs youth. “All of those are things where human empathy and understanding are still unique. And we still deal with an immense shortage of people to help out there.” Workers adapt to other work that can’t be automated by most major corporations not lobbying against such a tax, undercutting the advantage of cost-saving automation. I’ve done my share of crappy jobs in my younger years: making gloves for the NBC industry, recycling milk crates, shredding plastic, counting stock, sorting mail, packing meat in an abattoir, you name it. I can testify to the corrosive psychological effects of such work: anger, social disaffection, and the odd workplace massacre. No me though, ye ken?

Are humans better with it or without it? By which I mean the ‘to-do-shite work, or no-to-do-shite work dilemma’?

There’s a commercial pressure at work here, and alongside it the corrosive dependence on technology by both commerce ‘let’s cut jobs’ and the consumers ‘smartphone zombies’. I was always suspicious about the charges levelled at the ‘threat technology represented to employment’ with, for example, the rise of car robots in the 1980s. Political dogmatic ideology; changes in the availability of a cheap labour force; and the change in consumer spending patterns all struck me as more convincing explanations for a drop in traditional employment patterns.

All very well, but now I see an acceleration in the use of automated service robots, and once the appetite for gimmick subsides and reliability increases, a genuine shift to a broad social acceptance. Of course, the tedium of hitting Option 86 to add a Eurosport channel is still with us, but companies are waking up to more imaginative alternative uses of their communications tech. Live chat on websites, the option for call back from a human operator – or indeed the option to listen to say Vivaldi, James Blunt or perforce a pig having its throat cut. On second thoughts, James, where’s that knife?

Aside: I’ve written in this column before citing the Alice in Wonderland weirdness of robot spam callers and calling call blockers (akin to Douglas Adam’s suggestion about “video recorders that watch boring programmes for you”. The logical extension of this is now a reality, one that empowers us to fight against the soul drain of spam callers. Jolly Roger Telephone Company provides pre- recorded scripts, you forward incoming phone spam to them and waste their time – check out fantastic examples of shafting the little c***s at: http://bit. ly/2nkooNc.

Picture: Kenneth Netzel

One response to “Pick up your P45 and send in the Robot”

  1. rk0000 says:

    I I love to use robotics things and dance very much.

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