From around 8 am and throughout the day, our avenue is busy with deliveries – vans (mainly white, some liveried) bringing Amazon packages, Ocado deliveries for the posh people up the road or Asda shopping for the students, and much else besides.

Driving and delivery work has, just in the last couple of years or so, become a major source of employment (albeit on zero-hours contracts offering the driver, in the case of  Amazon deliveries, about 35 pence a package).  And then there are the taxis: there are few hours in the day when a taxi is not picking up or dropping off someone in the street. Driving taxis is a major source of  employment in Liverpool – the city has the largest fleet of licensed cabs outside London.

Google driverless car
The Google driver-less car

But what if most driving jobs were to disappear?  The possibility, which might initially seem preposterous, is raised by John Lanchester in a thought-provoking essay entitled The Robots Are Coming in the current issue of the London Review of Books. Reviewing a couple of recent books which discuss the likely impact of automation – especially as a result of the introduction of robots – Lanchester (whose articles are always well worth reading) makes some disturbing predictions.

Now, I’m old enough to recall the first wave of anxiety (or optimism) about automation in the late sixties/early seventies.  Swathes of jobs were likely to be automated, releasing workers into either a life on the dole, or a life of paid leisure (take your pick).  But, with the exception of certain sectors such as the car industry, nothing much seemed to come of it – neither the dire predictions, nor the utopian visions.

But, in his LRB article, John Lanchester explains how the astonishing advances in computing power in the last few decades, dove-tailed with rapid advances in robotics, are bringing the prospect of robots eating swathes of jobs – and not just routine ones at that.

Take for example the driverless car being developed by Google. OK, it’s a bit of a joke at the moment, but imagine for a moment, he says, that all the outstanding technical issues are solved and the fully driverless car is a reality:

An entire economy of drivers would disappear. The UK has 231,000 licensed cabs and minicabs alone – and there are far, far more people whose work is driving, and more still for whom driving is not their whole job, but a big part of what they are paid to do. I suspect we’re talking about a total well into the millions of jobs. They would all disappear.

Lanchester also makes the point that ‘all the money would be going to Google’, but let’s put that to one side for the moment. The reason that robot-powered automation is about to explode into economies is, Lanchester explains, because there has been an exponential increase in computing power in the last half-century.  One thing that this article did, for me at least, was to introduce me to the term teraflop.  Computers can now perform unimaginably huge numbers of teraflops really, really fast (Isn’t a google is an ‘unimaginably large number’?) Indeed, there has never been an invention in human history which has improved at such speed over such a long period as computer technology.

Moreover, humans have got better at programming – creating the software that has allowed enormous progress to be made in machine learning, the process by which computer algorithms self-improve at tasks involving analysis and prediction. Such as – the software in a driverless car learning how to avoid situations where it might bump into something else:

The techniques involved are primarily statistical: through trial and error the machine learns which answer has the highest probability of being correct. That sounds rough and ready, but because …computers have become so astonishingly powerful, the loops of trial and error can take place at great speed, and the machine can quickly improve out of all recognition.

Lanchester gives an example of the process at work: Google’s translation software, once laughable in its inaccuracy and grammatical crassness, but now increasingly effective.  In its latest iteration, not only are the results much, much better, but you now ask a foreign speaker to talk to your phone, and the phone will speak back their words in your own language. You can even scan text with your phone and have it instantly translated. Lanchester explains how this has been achieved:

Translate has hoovered up gigantic quantities of parallel texts into its database. A particularly fertile source of these useful things, apparently, is the European Union’s set of official publications, which are translated into all Community languages.

This is why many analysts think we are on the verge of a big shift in the impact of computing and technology on our daily lives. Computers have got dramatically more powerful and become so cheap that they are effectively ubiquitous. So have the sensors they use to monitor the physical world. The software they run has improved dramatically too:

We are on the verge of a new industrial revolution, one which will have as much impact on the world as the first one. Whole categories of work will be transformed by the power of computing, and in particular by the impact of robots.

Lanchester argues that this isn’t just a First World issue, using the example of the Taiwanese company Foxconn to prove his point.  Foxconn  is the world’s largest manufacturer of consumer electronics, making iPhones, iPads, iPods, Kindles, Dell parts, and phones for Nokia and Motorola and Microsoft. It employs about 1.2 million people around the world, many of them in China. At least that’s how many it currently employs, but Lanchester notes that Foxconn ’s founder has spoken of the company’s ambition to buy and deploy a million robots in the their factories. ‘It isn’t only jobs in the rich part of the world that are at risk from robots’, argues Lanchester:

The kind of work done in most factories, and anywhere else that requires repetitive manual labour, is going, going, and about to be gone.

Back in November, I wrote about a striking documentary I had seen: Manufactured Landscapes by the photographer Edward Burtynsky.  He shot the film in China, observing the effects of the country’s massive economic growth in long, breathtaking shots in factories, such as the opening tracking shot above.  Watch that for a few minutes, and then imagine all those humans on the assembly line replaced by robots.

One of the reasons that the spectre of mass unemployment following automation hasn’t happened, Lanchester explains, is that innovation takes away some jobs, but replaces them with others:

Although it might be possible in theory for some new invention to come along and make a category of work disappear so quickly that there is no alternative work to replace it, in practice that hasn’t happened.  Just to be clear: the disappearance of work happens to individuals, not to entire economies. A job lost in one place is replaced by a new job, which may be somewhere else. In 1810, agriculture employed 90 per cent of the American workforce. A hundred years later, the figure was about 30 per cent (today it’s less than 2 per cent).

Back in 1810 anyone being forewarned of those figures might reasonably have foreseen doomsday.  But there was no jobs apocalypse thanks in large part to the effect of the the effect of the second industrial revolution technologies, between 1875 and 1900, which brought electric lightbulbs and the electric power station, the internal combustion engine, the telephone, radio, recorded music and cinema.

So, maybe we don’t need to fear technological unemployment this time either.  But that isn’t the view put forward in one of the books reviewed by Lanchester – The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.  They argue that because of the massive increase in computing power, enormous strides are being made in the effectiveness of robots. The new generation of robots are not ridiculous.  Lanchester offers the example of the latest generation of Kiva robots employed by Amazon in the ‘fulfilment centres’ where it makes up and dispatches its parcels.  Take a look at this astonishing video (though pause first, as Lanchester suggests, to enjoy the full resonance of ‘fulfilment centres’):

15,000 Amazon kiva robots drive eighth generation fulfillment centre from designboom on Vimeo

The robots can lift three thousand pounds at a time and carry an entire stack of shelves in one go. Directed along preprogrammed paths, they navigate around each other and pick up packages according to instructions printed on automatically scanned barcodes.

They are not alarming, but they are inexorable, and they aren’t going away: the labour being done by these robots is work that will never again be done by people.

Kiva Robot

A Kiva robot

But there’s more.  Lanchester offers the prospect, not just of a world with far fewer job opportunities, but also one of intense inequality. In this future world, productivity will go up sharply. But whereas productivity used to be an accurate measure of trends in living standards, in recent decades productivity has become disconnected from pay. He points out that, in the USA, the typical worker’s income has barely gone up since 1979, and has actually fallen since 1999, while productivity has gone up in a nice straightish line:

The amount of work done per worker has gone up, but pay hasn’t. This means that the proceeds of increased profitability are accruing to capital rather than to labour. The culprit is not clear, but Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue, persuasively, that the force to blame is increased automation.

That is a worrying trend, suggests Lanchester:

Imagine an economy in which the 0.1 per cent own the machines, the rest of the 1 per cent manage their operation, and the 99 per cent either do the remaining scraps of unautomatable work, or are unemployed. That is the world implied by developments in productivity and automation. It is Pikettyworld, in which capital is increasingly triumphant over labour.

Earlier in his article, Lanchester offered a striking instance of this.  He quoted an agency report detailing the latest quarterly numbers from Apple. It was not only that the numbers revealed that Apple’s quarter was the most profitable of any company in history: $74.6 billion in turnover, and $18 billion in profit (figures that even Tim Cook, the boss of Apple, said are ‘hard to comprehend’). It was also the fact the the agency report had been written by a robot (apparently, this is increasingly common, especially in the case of these kinds of number-crunching reports; it’s just one instance of how it won’t be only routine blue-collar jobs that get eaten by robots).

But let’s stick with those Apple figures; Lanchester adds this gloss on them, revealing the astronomical extent to which they represent a transfer from labour (ie, us, the 99%) to capital (the 1%, or less):

For the sake of argument, say that Apple’s achievement is annualised, so their whole year is as much of an improvement on the one before as that quarter was. That would give them $88.9 billion in profits. In 1960, the most profitable company in the world’s biggest economy was General Motors. In today’s money, GM made $7.6 billion that year. It also employed 600,000 people. Today’s most profitable company employs 92,600. So where 600,000 workers would once generate $7.6 billion in profit, now 92,600 generate $89.9 billion, an improvement in profitability per worker of 76.65 times. Remember, this is pure profit for the company’s owners, after all workers have been paid. Capital isn’t just winning against labour: there’s no contest. If it were a boxing match, the referee would stop the fight.

How many jobs might fall prey to robots?  Lanchester quotes the estimate offered by Brynjolfsson and McAfee: 47 per cent in two decades. Now, jobs have been lost before, as he points out –  but for jobs to go with that speed is a new thing, and, because of the timeframe, ‘must be right on the edge of what a society can bear’. So, the future isn’t bright, or orange, but a nightmare of massive under- or un-employment, coupled with enormous inequality.  But Lanchester ends with an optimistic, nay utopian, flourish:

There’s capital, doing better than ever; the robots, doing all the work; and the great mass of humanity, doing not much, but having fun playing with its gadgets. (Though if there’s no work, there are going to be questions about who can afford to buy the gadgets.) There is a possible alternative, however, in which ownership and control of robots is disconnected from capital in its current form. The robots liberate most of humanity from work, and everybody benefits from the proceeds: we don’t have to work in factories or go down mines or clean toilets or drive long-distance lorries, but we can choreograph and weave and garden and tell stories and invent things and set about creating a new universe of wants. This would be the world of unlimited wants described by economics, but with a distinction between the wants satisfied by humans and the work done by our machines.

News from Nowhere frontispiece

The frontispiece of William Morris’s utopian vision of the future, ‘News from Nowhere’ (1890)

It seems to me that the only way that world would work is with alternative forms of ownership. The reason, the only reason, for thinking this better world is possible is that the dystopian future of capitalism-plus-robots may prove just too grim to be politically viable. This alternative future would be the kind of world dreamed of by William Morris, full of humans engaged in meaningful and sanely remunerated labour. Except with added robots. It says a lot about the current moment that as we stand facing a future which might resemble either a hyper-capitalist dystopia or a socialist paradise, the second option doesn’t get a mention.

The Hammersmith Branch of the Socialist League, William Morris is fifth from the right in the second row.

The Hammersmith branch of the Socialist League, founded by William Morris (fifth from the right in the second row) in 1885.

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…


3 thoughts on “How robots will eat our jobs

  1. I enjoyed your post. This is a debate that we’ll hear about more often as part of the wider debate on inequality. The talk of technologies taking jobs away does unfortunately create the impression that they are the primary cause rather than instruments of economic decisions made by humans. The fact that the technologies are there does not necessitate that the 99% must be paid as little as possible. That imbalance is already there as the target to be served by the tech.

    I like your ending. It immediately reminded me of Marx’s vision in the German Ideology:

    ‘In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.’

  2. Thanks, Jeff, for your thoughtful response. Just to be clear: the last paragraph is a continuation of my quote from Lanchester. Is a utopian vision by definition unattainable?

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