The New Robots

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The New Robots

by David Chidakel

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 7, No. 6, November 1975, p. 6–9 & 30

“Few industrialists at the conference doubted that the computers would eventually take over factories: only the speed of the conversion would be subject to outside forces . . . “

A new wave of technological change is gathering. Only this time it threatens to be more than a new arrangement of control systems and conveyors. The “robot” is finally upon us and may condemn to the scrap heap people who are working not only in factories but in offices and in various service industries formerly thought immune to mechanization. 

This threat is not from the robot of pulp science fiction—not from the robot that escapes its makers and builds an army of its own kind to take over the earth with clanking arms and legs and a rusty wit. This threat is from machines that lift heavy loads, do a variety of tasks with breathtaking speed and accuracy, never talk back or go on strike and seldom rest. If it is any consolation—their “intelligence” is generally not very high and it is debatable whether they are at all intelligent. What is not debatable is that they can take over tasks that humans do. 

Robots are being employed as seamstresses, printers, welders, warehouse workers, armaments assemblers, clerks and machinists. At the supermarket they will soon be checking and bagging groceries; at MIT a funny little machine is said to swoosh down corridors unattended while it sweeps, mops, and waxes with a cheery lack of interest in the horrified expressions of surprised pedestrians. 

None of these robots has a very human appearance. No purpose is served by adding a complete set of arms, legs, knee caps and “heads”. They are really special purpose machines that can do what automation has been heading for all along. It is just that they can act more independently, exercise more “judgement”, and function in a non-mass-production situation. 

In particular it is this latter ability to replace workers who are not on the “assembly line” that has begun to win robots acceptance in American industry. Industrialists have been complaining recently about “profit troubles” and are looking for panaceas. According to Robert Glorio of AMF Versatran, “Until recently the robot was a frightening piece of machinery – so much so that virtually all companies engaged in their manufacture insisted that they be called “electro-mechanical handling devices” or other terms equally innocuous. But it no longer matters since industry is now accepting the robot largely as a matter of economic necessity”.1 

These “electro-mechanical handling devices” are beginning to proliferate. Robots available now range from mini-robots with payloads of less than a pound to large units with payloads up to 6000 pounds, a reach of two-and-a-half feet, and speeds of three feet per second with astonishing accuracy.

Unimate (Unimation Inc.’s robot) is finding broad application. For example, a Unimate is used to run a die-casting machine (used in industry for moulding metal parts). This is dangerous, uncomfortable work that requires continuous alertness and is very draining to human workers. But Unimate was so adept at this work that it had “spare time”, so now the manufacturer supplies a model with a “random process selection” option which lets it be placed between two die-casting machines so that it can run both!2 

Needless to say, Unimate and its mechanical relatives can run three shifts a day with no coffee breaks, minimal down time, and no labor unrest. Manufacturers have found it particularly advantageous to introduce these docile machines into jobs where OSHA pressure would otherwise have required expensive health and safety measures.3 Likewise, in the assembly of critical armaments where there is danger or the possibility of worker reluctance, automatic machinery has become attractive. 

In fact, managment may find these sexless machines particularly seductive. Could this be their long-imagined “final solution” to the labor “problem”? What would the right to strike mean under conditions of advanced automation? Telephone workers have already found that the automatic “direct dial” equipment has diminished the leverage of a strike because a few supervisors can keep the entire operation functioning. 

Can robotics increase the ability of private business to withstand public resistance? When DOW Chemical’s napalm manufacture became a symbol of national disgust over the Vietnam intervention, DOW stressed that only a “handful” of workers were involved in the napalm production—a “negligible” activity they told us. As a result of advanced technology, of course, a few “reliable” workers could produce a hell of a lot of napalm! But it was their numbers, not their machinery or their production figures that was publicized by DOW. 

General Motors is using 15 Unimates as welders in its Norwood, Ohio plant and another 30 in its Vega plant at Lordstown, Ohio.4 Levi Strauss, the well-known maker of blue-jeans has decided it is time to improve working conditions in its company. “Sweatshops have bugged me since I entered the industry,” says Paul Glasgow, senior vice-president of Strauss who despite being “bugged” managed to cope with his feelings about it until the 1500-dollar “Servo-Sewer” was developed. With an “electro-optical closed-loop servo system” to guide pieces by the sewing needle, it joins the pieces and cuts the thread with speed and precision, dumps the product into a collection basket, and awaits new pieces. For a blue-jean pocket, for example, the process takes less than a second from start to dump. While Mr. Glasgow is bugged by sweatshops, he doesn’t express himself on the matter of unemployment that might result from the 2200-percent productivity increase that they project for their new machinery.  

Other machinery that Levi Strauss plans to install include a 30,000-dollar cloth grader that can function 15 times faster than the human eye, a 4500-dollar shade marker, and a “DF-13” which is a Servo-Sewer in combination with other gadgetry.5

Is it alarmist to worry about the effect of this kind of equipment on employment? Norbert Weiner, who is often called the “father” of Cybernetics, tells us about automation and robots: 

It gives the human race a new and most effective collection of mechanical slaves to perform its labor. Such mechanical labor has most of the economic properties of slave labor . . . However, any labor that accepts the conditions of competition with slave labor accepts the conditions of slave labor and is essentially slave labor …. There is no rate of pay at which a pick-and-shovel laborer can live which is low enough to compete with the work of a steam shovel”as an excavator.6 

Few people would want to argue that workers should continue to do hazardous and tiring work if better jobs are available, but how does one know if they are? 

John Diebold of the Diebold Group Inc (a consulting firm in the field of automation) isn’t worried. He assures us that: 

“Fundamentally, you don ‘t cause unemployment by using new technology. It creates more jobs, over all, than it abolishes. And the more dependent we in the US become on world markets, the more true that will be. The surest way to hurt jobs in the US is to cut back on technological innovation.’ 7

or as Jaeger of Pratt and Whitney put it “These things take care of themselves … I don’t think it is the part, nor can it be the part, of industry to try to plan the social aspects of this thing.”8

But can we rely on the belief that “these things will take care of themselves… “? A report on a conference at MIT on the “Future impact of Computers on Manufacturing”* says “Few industrialists at the conference doubted that computers would eventually take over factories; only the speed of the conversion would be subject to outside forces, such as the severe economic downturns now being experienced by industry, or labor’s objections to automated factories.” This report tells us that the computer-run factory “would have little need for personnel” and that it would “clearly throw a great many people out of work … “9

Obviously this is a critical question. Will robotics throw people out of work? Will this mean starvation for many or can the labor movement mount a major battle as it did at the turn of the century for an 8-hour day? What kind of a battle could turn robotics into a benefit for workers threatened by unemployment? To begin to answer these problems working people must not be lulled to sleep by reassuring myths. 

More than a decade ago, the President of the United Electrical Workers Union called the comfortable idea, that the electrical manufacturing industry would grow enough to absorb the workers displaced by automata, “a combination of half-truths and nonsense,”10 and a spokesman for the union told Science for the People in August of this year that “all you have to do is look in a lot of the shops that we represent people in and the machinery that came in—I’m not even talking about robotics so much as just automated machinery; there’s just less people working in the shops.” 

John Snyder, Pres. of US Industries agrees that automation will displace workers and that arguments to the contrary are more myth than logic. According to Snyder, automation-related job elimination has been proceeding at about 40,000 jobs per week.11 This doesn’t disagree too much with the Fortune Magazine estimate that jobs must be found for about one-and-a-half million people a year who are pushed out by machinery.12 

The prospect that working people may survive robotics as they did previous forms of automation shouldn’t lead to smugness. The temporary “dislocations” that experts in automation speak about are the lifeblood of workers. For example, when the Hudson Motor Company closed its plant at South Bend it was followed by 15 suicides and the break-up of 300 marriages.”13 Moreover, the fact that automation hasn’t caused massive, permanent unemployment may have been a result of 1) several large wars, 2) an unchallenged role as the leading imperialist nation (which is coming unglued) 3) cheap raw materials (which were tied to imperialism and so are coming unglued too) 4) and the ability of small industry and service industries to absorb workers who lost their jobs in mass production industries. 

Each of these “safety valves” have provided some cushions for the hammer blows of automation. Now (barring a major war) they are all inoperative. In particular, jobs in “small” and service industries may not be expanding as they have in the past. As a matter of fact, they may be shrinking. 

*Held in November 1974, this conference included key representatives from industry and university engineering depts.

The Last Shelter Crumbles 

While the percentage of workers in industrial jobs has been reduced, the percentage of people performing clerical, transporting, storing, selling, etc jobs has been increasing until recently. In fact, these kinds of jobs simply are not easily automated because automation normally lends itself best to jobs that are repetitive on very large numbers of items that can be treated as a continuous flow process. 

It is still the case that between fifty and seventy-five percent of the US output of manufactured parts is produced in individual batches of 50 or less. This very fad seemed to make this bastion of industry (employing forty percent of the industrial labor force) immune to automation; but robotics has changed all that. Independent of assembly lines. modern robots are capable of replicating with great speed and accuracy the kind of work an individual assembler, inspector, or machinist did.14 

Likewise in the service sector, formerly “safe” jobs are gravely threatened. Clerical and secretarial jobs may well be virtually eliminated in the next twenty years by the “paperless office” where record keeping will be all electronic. Vincent Giuliano of Arthur D Little, Inc says that the use of paper in business should be declining within five years. Such a system would involve TV display terminals with a keyboard at the desks of executives.15 

As for secretaries-where will they be? In the steno pool?. Not if the computerized stenographers which can search their memory banks to decide whether Mr. Smithers meant “read” or “red” prove their worth.16 

The future of the office lies in the hands of two firms, it would seem. According to the head of marketing at Lextron Corp., “IBM and Xerox will dictate the future because of their marketing power”, and the president of Inforex tells us that “With IBM and Xerox pouring out $1.5 billion yearly in R&D [research and development], they will control the pace of technology in their interest. “17

A Boston-based organization called “9 to 5” has gained itself a strong reputation for its work in organizing secretarial and clerical workers against such ruthless employers as insurance companies and universities. Janet Seker, a staff member of 9 to 5 told Science for the People that they are concerned about automation, but that as office workers begin to see what their future will be, they expect to see unprecedented willingness to organize among them. The first wave of automation is already hitting clerical workers in the form of “word processing” machines (computerized typewriters). So far, though, she said “I don’t think it’s having a huge influence. The kinks haven’t been ironed out, for one thing, so it’s quite expensive still.” After the kinks get ironed out though “the work itself will get degraded and it’ll require less training and it’ll stop being skilled and that’s when it’ll be like automated offices. So far, while there are word-processing centers that l know about, I know about very few companies that have instituted total systems. It just doesn’t seem to have gotten moving that fast yet.” 

While it is too early to project how many clerical workers will lose their jobs to integrated circuits, the staff at 9 to 5 is well aware of what work would be like if IBM and Xerox succeed. “I think it’s really serious and I think you can really calculate what the affects will be – both really negative in the kind of work that’s going to be handed to people and how it’s supervised …. I mean it’s really insidious what they plan to do with it too. Just the whole division of labor will get much more routinized until it’s practically assembly-line work.” To ward off some of the worst alienation that might result, according to Selcer, management plans to devise the appearance of a “job ladder” to simulate a hierarchy. The hope is, apparently, that artificial grades will distract people from the awful character of their work. 

That electronics can replace clerical workers has already been demonstrated. Chrysler Corporation used to send a million words a day in telegrams and teletype between its various plants and facilities. Now a giant computer does this work and also supervises accounting operations. Every seven-thousandth of a second it checks each circuit to be sure it is functioning and it records the number of words sent and figures the bill. The computer also stores the history of every car sold that is still under warranty so that any sales office can gain access to this information within seconds.18

One by one, jobs that could be done by people with a low level of training are being encroached upon by machinery. The nervous joke that “you can be replaced by a machine” has turned into an ominous reality and there is the very real fear that we are developing an “underground of the unskilled”19—a growing population of people without hope (disproportionately blacks and women) who are forced to live in the twilight of a “private enterprise” technology. 

In an article on the affects of automation, Charles Killingsworth warns us that “permanent reductions in [the labor] force due to automation (and presumably other changes) are sometimes postponed by companies until an economic downturn makes large lay-offs necessary … “20 This should warn us to not be too surprised if an economic “recovery” from the current depression/recession turns out to maintain a surprising rate of unemployment even though the GNP seems to be pumping away well above its former rate. 

With the automatic factory now completely feasible, the working world can become a busy hustle and bustle uncluttered by humans and their eccentricities. Record production is now largely automatic. Petroleum distillation is now automatic and under computer supervision; likewise for bread; likewise for ice cream; and likewise for the laser read-out that will check out your food purchase and the mechanical device that will bag it when you go to the supermarket (not in the year 2000 but more likely next year). Even jobs as technologically advanced as engineering are in jeopardy by computers, which design products nearly autonomously and then deliver them to a drafting machine which makes a complete set of working drawings. 

What are we to think about these latest developments in what some writers call “the second industrial revolution”? Under Capitalism, machinery can take away your job. That’s clear. Potentially, of course, it can also provide “leisure”, but such “leisure” would have to be fought for and won. 

Under socialism, will robotics ultimately prove to be the key to the “workless” society? Is this a desirable concept? Would a well planned social system be able to turn Unimates into “Serve-The-People-Mates? Or are robots only a new form of waste? 

Certainly the introduction of robotics under capitalism is an unsettling thing. As with other important technological developments, it may put another lurch in the unsmooth flow of history. Jaeger’s prophesy that “these things take care of themselves” can probably have meaning only if the working class is prepared to take care of itself in the face of the peculiar logic of machine-oriented capitalism. 

What will be the future of robotics? Will robots increasingly resemble their makers—walking and talking and curtsying and getting angry? None of this is impossible, but E. William Merrium of B.B. and N. doesn’t think that a “truly intelligent robot” is likely before the year 2000.21 

At the moment it is the threat from the dumb ones that must concern us.

David Chidakel

>>  Back to Vol. 7, No. 6  <<


  1. “Robot Technology: Moving Toward Total Systems,” R. Glorio, Manufacturing, Engineering, and Management, April, 1974, Vol. 72, p. 30.
  2. “Robot Power Spreads All Over The World,” Iron Age, Vol. 214, Nov. 11, 1974, pp. 59-62.
  3. “Robot Power Spreads All Over The World,” Iron Age, Vol. 214, Nov. 11, 1974, pp. 59-62.
  4. “Robot Power Spreads All Over The World,” Iron Age, Vol. 214, Nov. 11, 1974, pp. 59-62.
  5. “Levi Strauss Legs It Toward Automation,” Business Week, July 21, 1973, pp. 62-63.
  6. Ben B. Seligman, Most Notorious Victory, The Free Press, New York, 1966, p. 164.
  7. “People vs. Machines,” U.S. News and World Report, Jan. 29, 1973, p. 44.
  8. Robert P. Weeks, op. cit., p. 98.
  9. Education for a Leisure Society,” Robert Strom, The Futurist, April, 1975, p. 93.
  10. Robert P. Weeks, op. cit., p. 187.
  11. “Education for a Leisure Society,” op. cit., p. 93.
  12. “Computer Managed Parts Manufacture,” Nathan Cook, Scientific American, February, 1975, p. 25.
  13. “The Office of the Future,” Business Week, June 30, 1975. p. 48.
  14. Ben B. Seligman, op. cit., p. 171.
  15. “The Office of the Future,” Business Week, June 30, 1975.
  16. Ben B. Seligman, op. cit., p. 169.
  17. Ibid. p. 203.
  18. Robert Weeks, op. cit., p. 193.
  19. “Robbie the Robot-R.I.P.,” David Black, Harpers, December 1973, p. 10.