Robots that are repeatedly coming, still

On Tim Harford’s second series of Fifty things that made the modern economy there is an interesting trend of highlighting how some of the ‘things’ tell wider stories about automation in some regard. There are two things I’d pull out here.

First, there’s the issue of job or task displacement. Harford argues that, for example, spreadsheets automate certain elements of accountancy but make accountancy that much more efficient that more accountancy takes place. Quite a nice concise story about automation. This is indicative of a wider argument that often gets made about automation, perhaps in contradistinction to the ‘robots are stealing jobs’ hysteria — that automation may involve technology replacing people in certain tasks but that it often results in new tasks, or new forms of work (e.g. in the WEF ‘Future of Jobs Report 2018‘).

Second, there’s the issue of us being told by those with particular interests in automation and robotics that robots are about to replace a particular kind of work. This is a story that get’s trotted out rather a lot. ‘The robots are coming’ is a phrase often repeated in newspaper and web headlines. There are host of ‘packages’ for modern, and not-so-modern, news programmes about a ‘new’ machine that is going to replace a particular kind of worker. Harford gives a great example right at the end of the programme about bricks. We get through a lot of bricks and laying them as walls and building those into buildings are labour-intensive. There is a ‘new’ robot to displace that work: Construction Robotics‘ Semi Automated Mason (SAM – great name eh?) works alongside builders to speed up building walls (video below).

The thing is – this is not actually new. As Harford points out in the ‘bricks‘ programme, this is a story that has been told before. In the 1960s Pathé news reported on a remarkably similar mechanical system: the ‘motor mason’ (video below).

We can see then that in Harford’s popular economics podcast, 50 things, automation is a common theme – just as it is in wider discussions about social and political-economic ‘progress’. Yet it also nicely demonstrates some recurring tropes. First, there are now fairly established narratives about automation in relation to ‘jobs’ that are told in different ways, depending upon your political or theoretical persuasion – job ‘replacement’ and/or ‘creation’. Second, there is a common subsequent narrative when the ‘replacement’ story is playing out – that of the clever machine that is going to do a particular worker, such as a brick layer, out of their job. Here we also see how that narrative can keep being repeated, the robot is always coming but, perhaps sometimes, not quite arriving.

"The robots are coming" headline from the Guardian in 1986
"The robots are coming" headline from the Guardian in 2019
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