Robots

Professor Shannon teaches in the Economics Department, Clemson University.

Along many modern assembly lines, agile arms reach deftly out to solder metal parts, hang heavy doors on slowly moving auto frames, and accomplish a myriad of other tasks re quired to fabricate an automobile. One can readily imagine Henry Ford looking proudly on, observing with a smile that the process he began nearly 80 years ago still flourishes.

But, of course, one element has radically changed. Those arms performing intricate assembly operations are not all human; more and more they are mechanical. Steel has replaced sinew; electricity substitutes for blood. Where once men and women toiled and perspired, gleaming robots now hum and whirr.

Managers may rejoice that their robots don’t take coffee breaks, strike, or go on vacation, but others take a different view. They lament the plight of workers whose jobs have all been “lost.” High and rising unemployment rates seem to demonstrate that many loyal workers are being ruthlessly replaced.

So people start to wonder, as the machinery is oiled and dusted, who will feed and clothe American workers and their families? Just as we’ve already done with women, blacks, and other smaller groups, will it now become necessary for us to institute an affirmative action program to assure equal employment opportunities for human beings?

President Mitterrand of France addressed concerns about technological displacement at last year’s economic summit at Versailles. And Hobart Rowen, economics writer for the Washington Post, has stressed the “need for governments to play a major role in integrating new technology with the working population and society in general.”[1]

For those who worry that robots may ultimately eliminate our chance to work, it is worth noting that the word “robot” itself became popular largely due to a play called -“R. U. R.” (for Rossum’s Universal Robots) written in 1920 by the Czech playwright Karel Capek. And “ro-bota” is the Czech word meaning work.[2]

In the play, Rossum’s robots—which are rather more human than their current counterparts—become overproduced to the point that they rise up to overthrow human civilization. During the last act, the managers of the robot factory, contemplating their plight, manifest their motives.

One character, the clerk of the plant, blames science and engineering. But they are benign, inanimate tools, as incapable of purposive, malicious designs as assembly-line equipment. The underlying fault, the clerk suggests, is surely human greed. “We’re all, all guilty,” he cries. “For our own aggrandisement, for profit . . .”[3] In this charge he echoes Karl Marx, who saw the lure of profit as a fatal peril.

Such profit—which Marx called “surplus” and which he believed rightfully belonged to workers—was spent by capitalists to acquire more and more equipment. It would inevitably be used, Marx forecast, to replace labor, so it engendered a growing “reserve army of unemployed” which spelled capitalism’s doom.[4] Not anticipating a robot rebellion, Marx predicted that the exploited, alienated, and unemployed workers would rise up to overthrow the capitalist system.

Of course, Marx, while perhaps partly perceptive about the purpose of profits, was largely a flop as a prophet. Certainly, today we do have increasing numbers of machines. But we also have more and more jobs, as shown not only by the general growth of population but also by women’s spectacularly increased participation in the labor force.[5] Whatever its defects, the pursuit of profit by “greedy” entrepreneurs has demonstrably not been detrimental to the overall level of employment.

In fact, another character in Capek’s drama takes a dramatically different view. The managing director of the robot plant asks: “Do you suppose that the manager controls the output? It’s the demand that controls the output. The whole world wanted to have its Robots. Good Lord, we just rode along on this avalanche of demand . . ”[6]

The manager sees producers such as himself simply as servants. True enough, profit may be their personal goal and gain, but don’t they earn it by satisfying the expressed desires of society? If they are guilty of anything, isn’t it that they are just responding to the wishes of their cus tomers? This is what Adam Smith meant back in 1776 when he said an “invisible hand” causes each producer “to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”[7]

In an equally perceptive but less publicized remark Smith wrote in Wealth of Nations, “It is not the multitude of ale-houses that occasions a general disposition to drunkenness among the common people; but that disposition arising from other causes necessarily gives employment to a multitude of alehouses.”[8] One may well question the social desirability of having people purchase ale or robots—or handguns or abortions, for that matter. But one must also grant that, just as it takes “two to tango,” it takes both buyer and seller to make a voluntary transaction. The motive of the seller is but one element. Concert pianists and brain surgeons may be wracked by greed, while pot peddlers may believe they provide humanity noble services. We should neither condemn nor applaud an act based on the seller’s motives alone.

Relief from Drudgery

In fact, so far as robots are concerned, the motives of both producers and purchasers may be very high, indeed. Though it was Adam Smith himself who touted the virtues of assembly-line production, he also recognized specialization’s drawbacks. Toward the end of Wealth of Nations he laments that “the man whose life is spent in performing a few simple operations . . . generally becomes as stupid and as ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life.”[9]

Seen from this perspective, robots become a boon. They are relieving us from unwelcome work. Women are no longer slaves to their households nor men to their machines. That is the beneficent view of a central character in Capek’s play. “It was not an evil dream,” he says, “to shatter the servitude of labor. Of the dreadful and humiliating labor that man had to undergo. The unclean and murderous drudgery.”[10] Who can argue with that? Any person who would abolish robots to assure work suggests implicitly that we would also be better off without vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, and toasters! Or without lathes, ladders, and linotype machines.

It is also enlightening to recall that, after all, robots aren’t flee. Their prices run well into the thousands of dollars. What justifies their cost to producers? Labor’s cost has risen, so workers have now become relatively even more expensive. Why did that occur?

Obviously, workers now find more and more that they can escape assembly-line drudgery and move to more meaningful and remunerative work. They are no longer tied to jobs that induce “torpor” in their minds. So employers discover they must pay more to retain their workers—or else resort to robots.

There is, of course, the possibility that the use of robots may induce some technological unemployment. But John Maynard Keynes, in his essay on “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” predicted in 1930 that such unemployment would be “only a temporary phase of maladjustment.”[11] He foresaw that, in the end, the new machines would so enhance our productive capacity that mankind would eventually solve the fundamental economic problem of scarcity. Then, Keynes said, people would have to worry only about how to use their leisure. Keynes clearly did not foresee the advent of video games!

Perhaps Keynes took too blithe a view. But the characters in Capek’s play, along with the arguments of Smith, Marx and Keynes, all make one fact abundantly clear. The attitude we take toward our metal workers depends very much on our mental framework. Rather than attack robots for making work impossible, why not welcome them for making it unnecessary? Instead of being doomed to engage in endless drudgery, men and women have become increasingly free to cultivate their artistic talents and enjoy more and more of what we call the “finer things in life.”

The assembly line that Henry Ford inaugurated may have undergone a radical change. But the end result of its process is basically the same. It is a machine which replaces both horse power and human power. Rather than rickshaws, we ride in Reliants and Renaults. Instead of Conestoga wagons, we cruise in Ca-pris and Caprices. Next time you’re driving to your job in an air-conditioned, automated office, or rolling along the highway toward a weekend at the beach, think about that!


1.   Hobart Rowen, “We Need to Deal with Technology,” Greenville News, June 10, 1982, p. 4A.

2.   Robert W. Corrigan (ed.), Masterpieces of the Modern Central European Theater (New York: Collier Books, 1967), p. 217.

3.   Karl Capek, “R. U. R.” in Corrigan, p. 276.

4.   Karl Marx, Capital (New York: Modern Library, n.d.), Chapter XXV, esp. pp. 689ff.

5.   Civilian employment as a percent of our total noninstitutional population rose from 5456 percent in the period 1950-1960 to 59.3 percent in 1979. Economic Report of the President (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1981), p. 267.

6.   Capek, p. 279.

7.   Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (New York: Modern Library, 1937), p. 423.

8.   Ibid., p. 343.

9.   Ibid., pp.734-35.

10.   Capek, p. 274.

11.   John Maynard Keynes, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” reprinted in Essays in Persuasion (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1963), p. 364.

Further Reading

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