Robot Revolution! was the name of the exhibit at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, and it was all about robot technology.
I love learning about robots, but my theory friends and I have also been trying to learn about automation in advanced capitalism. I didn’t expect the Franklin to give a crash course on robots and mass unemployment, or the myriad ethical questions about a future robot economy, but I thought I’d use the exhibit as a kind of multimedia anti-capitalist study hall: I’d bring my readings and think about robots and the proletariat amid actual robots.
The exhibit itself was underwhelming. I thought there’d be a chance to meet and interact with fancy AI robots, but the robots were on the minimal side compared to show robots I’ve seen on YouTube. And strangely, there was very little about artificial intelligence as part of the Robot Story. I imagined there would be more about how humans have envisioned robots, from the medieval Golem to modern sci-fi movies to our wonder, fears, and curiosity, but there wasn’t much of that at all.
But because my interest is in industrial robots, the exhibit was perfect for my purpose. It was a chance to come face to face with machines outside of the workforce and with the stories of their evolution.
The first display at the entrance was a FANUC Robot m-1ia, a bright yellow M&M sorting machine marvel, which was sorting this popular candy by color at lightning speed.
A screen beside it showed a loop from an “I Love Lucy” episode where Lucy and Ethel scramble to keep up with wrapping chocolates on a conveyer belt.
In the past, so much trouble, and now, so much efficiency.
The displays showed basic concepts of robot mobility or “degrees of freedom” — basically, how big clunky robots first entered the auto factories and their progress in terms of dexterity, weights they can lift, and their ease in being taught. In an example of technology learning from nature, the complexity of a bionic arm was inspired by an elephant’s trunk, made of rings of flexible plastic with no rigid joints. It achieved “eleven degrees of freedom, and can move through space as no other robot arm can.”
The guards were nice. It wasn’t crowded, and they were fine with my sitting and reading. One guard asked what I was working on, and when I explained he said, “Yup, you know that’s coming. These robots will have our jobs!”
The articles I brought helped me focus on the human rights of the subject, everything missing from the displays.
As I see it, industry and profits and class reproduction can never be divorced from ethics. No advance in labor-saving production technology can be unlinked from the dignity of the human person, or, in a class society, exploitation of the worker. Every industrial breakthrough nourishes the power of the upper classes and their children at the expense of those below.
The question of whether a so-called “Robot Revolution” will lead to mass unemployment is nothing new to economics.
Since the 17th and 18th centuries and the rise of untitled moneyed classes, along with the unfolding history of rapid advances in industrial technology, economists have been divided into optimists and pessimists about this question: Will new labor and time-saving inventions and machine muscle, and now, machine brains and machine muscle take the jobs of human workers, or will the labor and time saved create more profits, be reinvested, and create new forms of employment?
Perhaps the stakes today are dire, given the rising potential not only of labor and time-saving muscle and brain machines, but also of machines capable of producing other machines as well as performing everything from manufacturing to brain surgery.
My tendency is to think that even if the pessimists are wrong, even if advanced capitalism moves into a robot economy and new forms of employment emerge, our opposition should be crystal clear: Even in the best case scenario, the same process of automation, profits, and class reproduction would continue. New forms of capitalism and governance, of social oppressions and global, racialized class systems, the invisible hand of class stratification would continue its march. Even this best case scenario calls for our resistance.
This goes back to the irony of modern capitalism, that the ideology of equality always leaves the socio-economic hierarchy unquestioned and untouched — so much so that economists can, without blinking, debate automation and employment.
They can argue that the rise of automation may not always disproportionately affect the working classes and that automation is advancing in middle- and upper-class professions. Here, however, is that magical moment of invisibility, when the debate fails to question what displacement means to non white-collar professionals. We can have a language of degrees of freedom for a robot, but what about the degrees of social mobility for a worker under capitalism?
Wandering among the robots at the Franklin, there were interactive screens and flashing images. If I had to describe the message, I’d say it was like a career day for future mechanical engineers. The message seemed to be, “Robots are fun — be a robot scientist. Science is great, robots will help the elderly and sick. Just follow your imagination.”
Among the readings I brought was Society of the Spectacle, which inspired me to look at the exhibit’s flashing images and social landscape and imagine a cute gray robot saying “Join the Revolution!” next to a group of joyful students yelling “Join the Robot Revolution!”
An industrial robot was there to deal cards to the visitor, with a sign behind it that read, “Think beyond the factories.” The very slogan made me shudder. It conjured up the feel of our present age of Google and its false sense of Google socialism: Your smartphone can order small packages of services and labor all delivered to your doorstep! Everything is a flux of bytes through the web! Class is over — you can define yourself by what you order online!
As anti-capitalists we know this is an illusion, that smartphones are stained with child labor from the mines of central Africa, and that workers create Steve Job’s pixelated facade.
Visitors to the exhibit seemed fascinated by the displays, looking through the lens of market culture. What a curious robot, a hand-fashioned insect from the mind of science. Few would see the exhibit as political, just fun and informative.
But it is extremely political. It is propaganda by escapism and omission. The messages were addressed to the children of the middle and upper classes, as if there were no obstacles to the children of workers scarred by ZIP code, school, and toxic stress.
It may be a dream that robots will someday achieve self-reflection. Before mass automation has a chance to prove its new status quo — or effect mass unemployment — may we reach our self awareness as a people and break the structure of the pyramid.
Sachio’s readings during this exhibit include:
The Making of the English Working Class by E.P. Thompson
Unto This Last by John Ruskin
“Will the Rise of the Robots implode the World Economy?” by Simon Worrall
“A Future Without Jobs? Two Views of the Changing Work Force” by Eduardo Porter and Farhad Manjoo
The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord