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Economy

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Les ouvriers chinois, trop chers, remplacés par des robots

by Pierric Marissal

Chinese Workers Too Expensive, Replaced by Robots

Translated Wednesday 20 August 2014, by Gene Zbikowski

Foxconn, the infamous sub-contractor of Apple and other high tech companies, means to replace its workers with a million robots. A veritable new jobs crisis is on the horizon.

10,000 robots are being set up in Foxconn’s monster Chinese factories to assemble the iPhone 6. For the moment, jobs are not directly threatened by these “Foxbots,” and the biggest Chinese employer has even had to hire 100,000 temporary workers to meet Apple’s demand for the production of at least 70 million iPhone 6s by September.

Foxconn’s spin is that the robots are going to “help” the workers, not “replace” them, and will make it possible to speed up production – except that, if you go back to the iPhone-maker’s announcements of a few months earlier, its language was quite different. Moreover, a few months ago, Terry Gu, the chairman of the corporation, was boasting that the Foxbots already in place in the factories could each build 30,000 iPhones a year.

In fact, tired of criticism of human rights violations, workers committing suicide, refusing to work over 12 hours a day and demanding wage hikes, Foxconn has clearly announced that it intends to replace one million workers with one million robots in its factories, that is, the overwhelming majority of the corporation’s 1,300,000 workers.

The robots are autonomous and are animated by an intelligent exploitation system developed by Google. At present, they cost 20,000 dollars apiece. Canon recently announced its desire to copy Foxconn.

Jobs crisis and wealth-sharing

This raises the question of whether the new, computer-driven industrial revolution, which is greatly extending the automation of labor, is not going to create a serious jobs crisis. Conventional wisdom explains that the robots are taking over the repetitive and fatiguing tasks and are pushing human beings into more highly skilled and gratifying jobs. This is what has been said since the invention of the first robots, when filling station workers disappeared and cash register clerks were replaced by automatic cash registers…

The one million Chinese workers whose jobs are on the chopping block are not going to become creative executives, nor any other kind of executive. The Chinese worker is going to lose his job because he wants to be paid more than 300 euros a month and because a robot is more productive and cheaper.

Let there be no mistake about it, the mechanization made possibly by computerization does not only affect the least skilled jobs. Trading algorithms can sometimes advantageously replace traders. In the United States, financial and sports journalists are beginning to be replaced by artificial brains that can analyze and present figures and scores. And an algorithm was even recently made a member of a company’s board of directors. The same goes for airplane pilots and car and truck drivers, since pilotless planes and driverless vehicles are on the way. And more examples could be added.

We are indeed headed for a jobs crisis, and Bill Gates has promised it to us: “Software substitution, whether it’s for drivers or waiters or nurses … it’s progressing. ... Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set. ... 20 years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don’t think people have that in their mental model.”

There will be a crisis because, no job, no wages, no consumption, and the whole economy comes tumbling down. This is not necessarily another catastrophe scenario, if before then our relationship to work, to wage labor and to the sharing of wealth can be seriously rethought. Otherwise, human beings will no longer be competing for jobs among themselves, but also with machines, before the collapse of the economic system.


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