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July Conference: Automation, what does the humble car wash have to teach us?

photo credit: Richard –

The Workers Party is holding a Day Conference on 1st July to discuss how to rebuild British industry. The Conference is for Members Only and invited guests. In the run up to Conference we are publishing a number of pieces submitted for the purposes of stimulating discussion around the theme of reviving British industry, the challenges of AI and automation and the role of vocational education.

This piece has been submitted by Nina.

Are robots taking our jobs, or is it the other way around?

According to the International Federation of Robotics, the U.K. manufacturing industry has less technological automation than just about any other similarly rich country. Derek Thompson (The Atlantic, 2022) cited the number of automatic roller car washes as declining by 50%, while the number of people with buckets increased by the same percentage, with The Economist commentator Duncan Weldon stating, “It’s more like the people are taking the robots jobs”. One analysis of the U.K.’s “productivity puzzle”, by the OECD concluded that outside of London and finance, almost every British sector has lower productivity than its Western European peers. Productivity growth at a global level must ultimately rely on technological innovation; but the relative level of productivity between countries may be driven more by who is better at adopting these innovations. Marx viewed automation as a new mode of production that would constitute the foundation of the fifth stage before the end of history, that of socialism. According to Marx, automation should create advantages for the worker, establishing societal conditions in which human beings would be freed from being the appendage to a machine. Human beings would invent and control and maintain the machines, pursuits that require intellect and creativity.

The concern with the evolution of AI is that it will do all the intellectual and creative work, with the question currently being, what will human beings have left as work and career options. A report from Jessica Roberts (WEF 2023) states that automation systems and robots have taken 1.7 million jobs away from manufacturing industries but is also predicted to create 97 million new jobs by 2025. Jobs that have been marked as first in line for automation are insurance underwriting, warehouse and manufacturing jobs, customer service, research and data entry, long haul trucking, and a broad category titled “any tasks that can be learned”. Developments in generative AI tools such as ChatGPT and Bard have raised questions about whether jobs that involve writing will also be replaced. Formulaic tasks such as writing emails, creating social media posts and answering customer service queries are already being delegated to AI. At present, AI lacks the authentic creativity of a human writer, so jobs that involve more complex writing tasks are safe, for now. As an artist, I am alarmed at how AI achieves more mastery than the human hand. What will this mean for those of us who labour for hours in our studios experimenting with innovative ways to manipulate paint to record the world around us?

AI cannot replace the work of teachers, lawyers, social workers, medical professionals, therapists, managerial professionals and AI training engineers, as the technology is not good at complex strategic planning, work that requires precise hand-to-eye coordination, dealing with unknown and unstructured spaces, and using empathy (Lee, 2018).

The biggest benefit of AI is the ability to save humans from having to perform tedious and repetitive tasks, so they are free to focus on the more rewarding aspects of their jobs, or simply take more time off for their own leisure! This potential increase in leisure time might even shorten the work week, which could have further implications for other ways in which we can contribute to our communities in ways that do not need to be monetised.

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