Workers promoted to “supervising robots”

Riding the MachineI ran across this piece on a new manufacturing robot branded as Baxter.  With it’s tablet screen face, the robot comes off as “benign, perhaps even disarmingly friendly,” according to the New York Times article, which doesn’t stray too far from the promotional content on Rethink Robotics‘ website.

The article and the promotional site are eager to place Baxter in the midst of human workers and the global political economy of labor.  Baxter is a “robot with common sense” that responds to human scale interactions.  He slows down when humans get in his space, and can work “elbow to elbow” with human workers. However, rather than displacing human workers, the promotional video tells us, Baxter will make life better for them by taking over the most menial tasks. Human workers will “train” (rather than program) Baxter how to perform these tasks and “get a promotion from working on repetitive mundane tasks to supervising robots that do them.”  And Baxter’s low operating costs means he earns less than Chinese workers, reversing the off-shoring logic of globalization (a fact proudly matched by the robot’s “Made in the USA” label).

It’s striking how much this replays debates from the 1920s and 1930s when critics of mass production said the assembly line turned workers into robots and boosters of mechanization focused on power tools (from chain saws, to trucks, to dishwashers) as helpers that humans could (and did) easily control. Rodney Brooks, the mind behind Baxter, clearly falls in the latter camp.  But whether machines are good or bad has never been the interesting or important question.  The real question is: too whom will the benefits of mechanization accrue?

There is no shying away from the idea that Baxter is a worker, rather than (or in addition to) a machine/computer.  He/it is going to replace human workers somewhere.  The appeal to owners/managers is easy to see: a  low cost robot that doesn’t get Social Security, health insurance, etc, and a way to avoid out-sourcing that is becoming less economical with the rise of transport costs.  The appeal to American workers is doubly, or triply, weird in that they supposedly get the satisfaction of stealing work back from Chinese workers, the relief of keeping their own jobs, and the feeling superiority toward their robot underlings. As usual, the workers–robotic and human–are not getting the best deal.

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