Thursday February 09, 2017

Why job stealing robots might liberate us from the tedium of work

Automated restaurants like this one in China are springing up around the world. An government sponsored exhibition of mechanized food service could put Canada on the map.

Automated restaurants like this one in China are springing up around the world. An government sponsored exhibition of mechanized food service could put Canada on the map. (Reuters)

Listen 9:38

Your occupation may soon be taken over by robots.

There's no shortage of scary predictions that millions will soon lose their jobs due to automation.

And those predictions can invoke gloomy visions of a future where the rich own the robots, the well-educated have jobs, and the rest of us struggle.

But there's another possibility, according to Peter Frase, editor with Jacobin magazine, which describes itself as " the leading voice of the American left" and author of a new book called Four Futures.

The book mixes Karl Marx with Star Trek to argue that robots aren't necessarily a threat to the regular worker.

The important thing for me is not whether automation is or isn't happening, and not whether it's good or bad, but who reaps the benefits of it? - Peter Frase, author of Four Futures

​Frase paints two scenarios of the future: One where the profits from all those robots go to a few rich owners, and one where they go to everyone.

If this sounds a bit like communism, that's because it is! Frase prefers the term "fully-automated luxury communism."

To Frase, the political left can think of automation as a threat, or an opportunity to separate work from quality of life. That if the benefits of robots can be spread around to everyone through strategies like a universal basic income, or public ownership of the robots themselves, there's no reason for people to demand the government protect their jobs. 

I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, which is a show set in what I consider a communist society. - Peter Frase, author, Four Futures

"I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, which is a show set in what I consider a communist society. By which I mean, not big-C communism like the Soviet Union, but in the older Marxist sense of - we are in a post-scarcity, post-work world. Where they have these machines called replicators where you just walk up to it and give it a voice command and tell it you want a cup of tea or a you want a sandwich and it just makes it. And they have unlimited energy because of anti-matter or something like that, and so this basic economic problem of scarcity, this thing that has dominated power politics under capitalism has essentially been done away with."

Frase also believes the anxiety over robot replacement hinges on a misconception over manufacturing. In Canada, there's a lot of political will to preserve the manufacturing sector, on behalf of governments and unions. However, the belief that there's a kind of pride or dignity to manufacturing is a new idea. 

Before the great labour upheavals that happened in the great depression, people didn't think manufacturing was so great. - Peter Frase, author, Four Future

"You know, before the great labour upheavals that happened in the great depression, people didn't think manufacturing was so great. In fact, they thought it was horrible and dehumanizing and alienating compared to either farm-work or the craft labour people had done before they moved into the big factories. It was only after these mass labour struggles had created labour movements and socialist movements and won all these gains for the people that were in those factories, they then retrospectively came to be seen as these great jobs and these very dignified jobs. That's where they come from, less than anything inherent in making stuff."

To make that future happen, Frase says unions and left-wing politicians could spend less time trying to protect workers from being displaced by robots, and more time making sure the benefits of robots are widely shared.