Sunday, 12 January 2014

How Soon Is Now ?


Money In The Ice

I am in a fast - flowing supermarket queue rapidly moving toward automated checkout stations. In this particular shop there are 12 machines, any one of which will check-out my groceries, provide me with a receipt and give me change from the £10 banknote I am going to use. If I wanted to I could use my credit card.

Iam convinced, far from being automated 'robotic' machines, they are actually manned by small people, who quickly work out how much money you require to be returned, and who quickly type up each item you have purchased as they pass over the scanner...

Think about it.  There are 12 of these bays here, which one person looks after and ensures that any problems encountered by customers are sorted out quickly. This represents 12 check-outs no longer manned by employees.  Now if this supermarket chain has say 500 stores with automated sections of 12 bays of these 'robotic' sensor/scanners,  then that adds up to 6000 check-out areas which no longer needs a person to operate them. Okay, each battery of automated machines will need one person to troubleshoot, which means that for every 6000 'robotic' employees the company will require 500 human minders. It also means that 5500 employees will no longer be required.

If all modern supermarkets operate on this technological basis thousands of people could be at risk of finding their jobs redundant.  This is what, I believe, is part of the readjustment we all now face.

Underlying this workforce transformation is the rapidly moving disconnect between employment and productivity, in simple terms we can produce far more and generate greater profits with less people than ever before.

Consider for a moment, that in recent history, huge corporations required huge workforces in labour-intensive businesses to bring their products and services to the market. This is no longer the case, massively successful corporations like Apple and Google have a joint market capitalisation of around $850 billion ( £516 billion, €624 billion), and yet, between them, only employ 126,000 people worldwide.

An even more chilling development is the introduction of labour-reducing technology to organisations who still depend on large numbers of humans.  FOXCONN, who employ 1.2 Chinese and who offshore a great deal of their work to impoverished labourers in developing nations, are in the process of buying one million robots over the next three years.

This will, of course, shake out many of those Chinese employees and globally reduce the need for human capital, which, in turn, will increase profit margins and allow the organisation to accumulate capital at a faster rate.  Machines Don't have to be paid, they don't stop to eat or sleep, and they don't have to be accommodated, they don't even require rest breaks or smoke breaks while working.

It is a developing scenario which will impact on the global economy and will have related social and political aftershocks across the world.  Businesses who would have provided food, accommodation and leisure facilities for FOXCONN workers will lose out on a huge chunk of their trade, some may go out business altogether and create more unemployment.

Marry the above with the drop in revenue required to buy this fast-developing technology(s) and we can begin to understand why the giant corporations are interested. Remember, as we have discussed, capitalism does not exist to meet the needs of people, but simply to accumulate capital to...accumulate even more capital quicker. In this sense our need for food, shelter and work (to provide food and shelter) are irrelevant.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg...

Robotics is only one of the developing technologies that will change our working lives, and poised to alter our social, economic and political universe in a relatively short period of time.  Some analysts estimate that new socio-economic-political drivers will reshape our world by as soon as 2030.

As well as robotics, the introduction of 3D printing,synthetic biology, nanotech, and what is called Big Data, are all set to revolutionise our world.

We either go along with it or rethink priorities.

(Written in Franco's Coffee shop, Glasgow Central rail station, Saturday January 11, 2014)

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