Friday, 27 May 2016

Robots to win race to the bottom?

Is the end of the labour market's race to the bottom in sight? At the moment it's a global fact of life - corporations get their manufacturing (and sometimes call centre work, data entry and programming) done wherever local wages are cheapest. And if the cheapest country does well and local wages go up, well there's always an even poorer country somewhere to move operations to, and so on, until, one day in the future, we'll finally reach the bedrock of the very poorest country with the requisite skills and infrastructure becoming the workshop / call centre of the world.

But some recent headlines suggested to me that we might not see many more iterations of this process. Adidas is opening a new factory where shoes will be made, not by low-wage people in Asia, but by high-tech robots in Germany. If robots can make trainers more cost-effectively than people in the Global South, that's a lot of potential work that won't be going to the lowest bidder. And if they have a robo-cobbler next year, what might happen to the global garment trade, if a viable robo-tailor comes along the year after that?

In other news, McDonald's has denied that it has any plans to replace people currently doing minimum-wage McJobs with robots. This one looks less like a serious suggestion than the usual corporate sob story about how being obliged to pay the very lowest earners a little extra might force put-upon bosses to do something terrible.

But although it may be an empty threat this time around, you can see how an environment where cooking has been replaced by the production-line assembly and heating of standardised food product elements could be very robot-friendly. Just as they might delete the competitive advantage of low-wage economies globally, robots might also terminate the employability of many minimum-wage humans locally.

Not all, of course - some low-paid jobs, like being a cleaner, or helping in an old peoples' home senior living community, or in a children's daycare nursery require too much human interaction, or mobility in different environments, to be robotised any time soon. But there are plenty of low-paid jobs, in such robo-friendly environments Amazon's warehouses fulfilment centres, which will probably offer more opportunities for the sort of machines that can work tirelessly in controlled, largely predictable environments than for underpaid humans.

And if this does come to pass? Well, I guess we're looking at big changes from business as usual. The changes might be Utopian - redistribution of wealth globally and in-country, Universal Basic Incomes, Keynes's 15 hour working week and so forth. Or they might be dystopian - the sci-fi libertarians' nightmarish vision of a society divided between a few fabulously wealthy technocratic capital owners living in climate-controlled domes, being waited on by their robo-butlers (when they're not off cruising the Solar System in their gold-plated space yachts), versus an obsolete underclass, which has degenerated into a workless, hopeless, brutish unnecessariat, milling menacingly outside the gilded elite's gated compounds.

Given the low levels of political clout the have-nots can deploy, maybe our best hope for avoiding the dystopian outcome is if the robots come for the high-status jobs first. Influential people may see the displacement of a fast-food employee by a McBot as something regrettable happening to an undeserving nobody they don't know or care about, but when robo-lawyer starts terminating a few high-status jobs, done by Nice People Like Us, then the movers and shakers might discover that we are all in this together and that Something Must Be Done.