We are currently undergoing a revolution in the way we manufacture our goods. The unreal devices we see in science fiction shows like Star Trek are appearing in our real world at an accelerating rate.
In Southampton, engineers have used 3D printers to successfully create a fully functional miniature plane with a two meter wingspan that can hit a top speed of 100 miles per hour. Operating much like the Replicator in Star Trek, this achievement is proof of the radical changes underway in the way complicated machines are built, as the Southampton team explains:
“This technology allows a highly-tailored aircraft to be developed from concept to first flight in days. Using conventional materials and manufacturing techniques, such as composites, this would normally take months.”
Over in China the manufacturing giant Foxconn, a major producer of electronic goods which includes Apple products, is planning on adding a million robots to its factories over the next three years.
The company, notorious owners of the Chinese ‘suicide factory’, are increasing it’s automated workforce up from its current level of 10,000 robots. Naturally, there are growing fears that the ten fold increase will cause many human workers to lose their jobs.
The fear of massive redundancy due to automation in the manufacturing sector is sharpened by the high unemployment rate induced by the poor state of the world markets – and with no clear signs of the economy getting better anytime soon, what are all the jobless humans to do?
Of course, there is no way that the robotic factory takeover will ever be prevented. Why employ five expensive humans when you can buy one robot who never calls in sick? Why hire an office cleaner when you can just buy a robot vacuum cleaners for a couple of hundred pounds?
So the question is – how do we face this revolution? According to Seth Godin, we should see it as an opportunity:
“Protectionism isn’t going to fix this problem. Neither is stimulus of old factories or yelling in frustration and anger. No, the only useful response is to view this as an opportunity. To poorly paraphrase Clay Shirky, every revolution destroys the last thing before it turns a profit on a new thing.
The networked revolution is creating huge profits, significant opportunities and a lot of change. What it’s not doing is providing millions of brain-dead, corner office, follow-the-manual middle class jobs. And it’s not going to.”
So it’s a good thing, right? Who really wants to clean meat at a slaughterhouse or work in a Foxconn factory where your colleagues regularly throw themselves out of windows?
But can these redundant workers really take any solace in the idea that there will be significant opportunities and huge profits when the robotic age truly sets in?
If history has taught us anything it is that these benefits will go straight into the pockets of those people that own these robots – and leave millions out of work.
Whilst the utopian view of a future society of leisure and freedom from mundane jobs is appealing, far more convincing is the prospect that the unemployed will begin to resent these machines and begin a struggle against them – something foretold in countless science fiction stories.
Do these science fiction stories have a solution? In the words of the greatest, Issac Asimov:
“Science fiction writers foresee the inevitable, and although problems and catastrophes may be inevitable, solutions are not.”