Belmont Club

Aye, Robot

“Nichole Gracely has a master’s degree and was one of Amazon’s best order pickers. Now, after protesting the company, she’s homeless” — by choice, she declares in the Guardian. ‘Being homeless is better than working for Amazon’ says the article, which details the act of protest by voluntary unemployment.

I received $200 a week for the following six months and I haven’t had any source of regular income since those benefits lapsed. I sold everything in my apartment and left Pennsylvania as fast as I could. I didn’t know how to ask for help. I didn’t even know that I qualified for food stamps.

I furthered my Amazon protest while homeless in Seattle. When the Hachette dispute flared up, I “flew a sign,” street parlance for panhandling with a piece of cardboard: “I was an order picker at amazon.com. Earned degrees. Been published. Now, I’m homeless, writing and doing this. Anything helps.”

She was ‘alienated’ and left. For years Marxism has maintained that mere paid work is usually alienating.  (Entfremdung) was a condition of misery caused by believing in something beyond ourselves which made it impossible to be ourselves.   To be happy you should forget transcendence and get in touch with your inner animal.  Do your thing.

Gracely could not be herself as a warehouse worker and hence left.  But Amazon may not ask be calling Gracely back to work any time soon. Perhaps in acknowledgement that warehouse work is inhuman after all, the company has started to hire robots.  More likely however, Amazon gave no thought to alienation. They did it to save money.

ABC News describes the company’s new ‘robot army’, fifteen thousand strong.  They never quit. Never get bored and don’t even have the concept of choosing liberating homelessness.

[jwplayer mediaid=”40680″]

A year ago, Amazon.com workers like 34-year-old Rejinaldo Rosales hiked miles of aisles each shift to “pick” each item a customer ordered and prepare it for shipping.

Now the e-commerce giant boasts that it has boosted efficiency and given workers’ legs a break by deploying more than 15,000 wheeled robots to crisscross the floors of its biggest warehouses and deliver stacks of toys, books and other products to employees.

“We pick two to three times faster than we used to,” Rosales said during a short break from sorting merchandise into bins at Amazon’s massive distribution center in Tracy, California, about 60 miles east of San Francisco. “It’s made the job a lot easier.”

The harsh reality is that for an ever expanding list of occupations, robots are the workers of choice. All our Entfremdung are belong to them. As this video shows, humans in Amazon warehouses are still employed to “pick” the items  the robots bring and put them in boxes. But it may simply be a matter of time until robots do that too.

Another British newspaper sadly notes that that Microsoft has started replacing human guards in routine tasks. “The security guard of future is five feet tall, Wi-Fi-equipped and looks uncannily like a cross between a Dalek and EVE from Wall-E. This is the K5 Autonomous Data Machine, the first product from Californian start-up Knightscope designed to replace human guards everywhere from schools to offices.” And they cost $6.25 an hour to employ.

Although everyone has heard of the sad events in Ferguson Missouri, fewer have heard of the tragic developments in Paterson New Jersey. Of the 594 students in the Paterson School District, whose motto is “preparing all children for college and a career”, who took the SAT only 19 managed to  pass.

In Paterson, New Jersey only 19 kids who took the SAT’s are considered college ready. This means that they scored at least a 1500 out of 2400 on the standardized test, and this number is truly shocking considering how large the school district is.

Paterson resident Jason Williams is one of the lucky ones. He just graduated high school last year and has been enrolled in college since September, after taking the SAT’s three times determined to score over 1500. He says that the key to his success was not falling victim to the streets.

“Just last summer, my friend and teammate, he was shot and killed that summer and that really affected me,” he said.

Faced with this daunting challenge “the Paterson school district said that they no longer use SAT scores to gauge students’ success.” Shifting the goal posts might have been a viable strategy in the past, but it is unlikely to prevail against the ever-improving skills of robot workers.  Nobody is going to beat a pathway to the Paterson school district seeking aspiring warehouse workers or security guards.

Ironically the spreading use of robots creates jobs — but only for skilled people. “Robotics will be a major driver for global job creation over the next five years,” according to one study. They enable entirely new processes and create industries from whole cloth. But — and it is a big ‘but’ — they will be the kind of jobs that the school districts are not particularly good at creating.

One million industrial robots currently in operation have been directly responsible for the creation of close to three million jobs, the study concluded. A growth in robot use over the next five years will result in the creation of one million high quality jobs around the world. Robots will help to create jobs in some of the most critical industries of this century: consumer electronics, food, solar & wind power, and advanced battery manufacturing to name just a few. …

Marlin Steel, Baltimore, MD, USA, is an excellent illustration of the points made in the Report regarding the advantages of using robots within an unsafe working environment. Since Marlin began introducing automation a dozen years ago, not only has the company benefited, but so have the employees.

Drew Greenblatt, Marlin Steel´s CEO of Marlin Steel bought the company in 1998. At that time, its employees were paid $6/hour with no benefits and they typically produced 300 hand bends in an hour. “It was a boring job and an unsafe job, with a low level of quality”, said Mr. Greenblatt. “Now our employees are paid $25 to $30/hour including bonuses, overtime and great benefits. Each employee oversees four robots that produce 20,000 CNC bends in an hour and the quality has sky rocketed, Last year was our most successful one as a business, exporting to more than 30 countries. We’ve increased our workforce by more than a quarter. Thanks to the robots, jobs at Marlin are both interesting and safe.

Of course, automation may threaten institutions like the Paterson school district,  even the SAT itself. Glenn Reynolds argues that the school system is obsolete in his book, The New School.  Both Nichole Gracely and the Paterson school district students are products of the Old School, and they are finding it hard to adjust to a world in which they fill no recognizable need. The blurb on Reynold’s book argues they are 19th century products in a 21st century world:

Public schools haven’t changed much from the late 19th century industrial model and as a result young Americans are left increasingly unprepared for a competitive global economy. At the same time, Americans are spending more than they can afford on higher education, driven by the kind of cheap credit that fueled the housing bubble. With college graduates unable to secure employment or pay off student loans, the real-world value of a traditional college education is in question.

In The New School, Glenn Harlan Reynolds explains how parents, students and educators can, and must, reclaim and remake American education. Already, Reynolds explains, many Americans are abandoning traditional education for new models. Many are going to charter schools or private schools, but others are going another step beyond and making the leap to online education—over 1.8 million K-12 students already.

But making the change won’t be easy. A century and a half is a big gap to jump. Legions of unionized public school teachers and millions of graduates holding Old School diplomas face block obsolescence. They will not go gentle into the good night. Nor is anyone safe. Some have argued that their fate will precede humanity’s only by a little.  Stephen Hawking argues that real AI will doom humans.

“Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded”. Prof Stephen Hawking, one of Britain’s pre-eminent scientists, has said that efforts to create thinking machines pose a threat to our very existence.

He told the BBC:”The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

As I have written elsewhere, it all depends on what you mean by ‘human’, AI  will certainly spell the end of the materialistic model of human life. If intelligence and consciousness can inhabit non-carbon forms; if the elan vital can wholly be expressed as information then the human body is no more indispensable than the hard disk you replaced whose contents you are restoring to a newer, faster model. It’s what’s on the hard disk that matters. The wrinkly human body is no more significant than the Amazon Cloud Micro-instance you can resurrect as a Small-instance when you need to do a bigger job: the same in all respects except better.  The hardware changes; you may not even know what it is; so long as the instance snapshot is migrated, who cares?

Hardware is disposable. Entfremdung is pointless.  We can’t be ourselves until we realize that it means going somewhere beyond ourselves. Suddenly we are face to face with the possibility that  it’s the soul — for want of a better word — that matters, where it lives and where it blows matters little. Now that we’ve learned to call it something we all recognize in this Information Age then even Hawking can utter it.

Who are we?

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

More I wager, than the Paterson school district dreams of.


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