I read the headline with incredulity: ‘Flippy, the burgerflipping robot, has been taken off-line after working just one day at a fast food restaurant in California’.
The story had all the elements of being an April Fool’s joke, except for it being the wrong month. Then I wondered if perhaps the tinned Italian mushrooms I used in the pasta had caused me to undergo an out-of-body experience.
Sadly, no. It was true! News of Flippy’s arrival caused such a sensation with a horde of fast-food junkies, they descended on the place. Their attention proved too much for the robot which suffered a malfunction! To everyone’s chagrin, it sat life-lessly, looking decidedly sorry for itself.
A soon-to-be redundant human took-over the flipping of the burgers, and everyone had their fill.
What is the world coming to when we need a robot to flip the burgers at a fastfood joint? The 17th century Industrial Revolution changed, irrevocably, the way people lived and worked. It was a transitional period from 1760 to about 1840 – a span of approximately 80-years, although the exact dates are argued by historians. What we cannot argue is the effect.
We are the direct beneficiaries of their developments – some of which we still use today. Cement was one of the inventions. Factories and workplaces went from being hand-labour intensive to mechanised. Mills and factories manifoldly increased their output, reduced costs, employed more workers, and im-proved profits; however, some designs were rudimentary and dangerous.
In the rush for change, there was a flagrant lack of health and safety precautions, and appalling accidents ensued.
The spinning and weaving mills caused some of the worst, particularly with the child labour workforce.
The 17th British Agricultural or Agrarian revolution happened more slowly, and for a much longer time span.
The change began with the simple enclosure of common land, and the introduction of technological innovations such as the seed drill and the rotation of crops, which by today’s standards seems rather quaint; however, it was, for those farmer’s, a quantum leap, which led to clearing the fields of beasts of burden, and working with steam powered, and, eventually, petrol driven machinery. We have travelled a long road since primitive man ploughed his stony plot of land with the jawbone of an ass.
Industrialisation, or modern technology as we call it today, continues unabated, and not always for our betterment, or that of the general society; and always in pursuit of a greater profit.
There was a time when robots were a figment of science fiction writers’ imagi-nations; invented to frighten and engage the reader. The scary robot, created by a mad scientist in his evil laboratory, aided by several hapless and begrudging assis-tants, invariably arrived swathed in bandages. From the moment of its unveiling, it functioned at its master’s demonic bidding. In the 1950s they took on a more out-of-space appearance, which coincided with the space race between Russia and the United States, which, incidentally, was won by the Russians with the launching of their first Sputnik in 1957. The US retaliated with Apollo 11’s first moon landing, July, 1969.
Robotic surgery, with its numerous forms and developments, began in 1987. The revolutionary medical technology, coupled with scientific advancements, has made it possible for surgeons to perform the most incredible procedures. For that we should be grateful. As for the remainder: I am not so certain.
Getting back to Flippy – the burger-flipping robot who spat the dummy when the star-struck hordes descended on the joint: What is the point? Do we really need a machine to flip burgers on a hot plate? We have robotic phones, doors, answering services, and just about everything else you can imagine, to make our live easier, but the question is: Do they? I am not so certain; however, I am certain of the number of jobs which have been, and will be, lost, as a direct consequence of mechanisation, which is, for the greater part, profit driven, without question.
We have lost thousands of jobs as a consequence of this workplace revolution, and in the coming years even more places will be lost. While technology will create many yettobe-invented jobs, many blue-collar workers will be left behind. They will become the ‘forever unemployed’. In supermarkets they are drastically reducing the number of staffed checkouts, and increasing the number of selfservice facilities. It is another form of profit-driven, robotic mechanisation, which we should resist, at all costs. It will be only a matter of time before staffed checkouts will be at an absolute minimum, which will have shareholders rubbing their greedy hands in glee. In Ballarat, eight check-outs have been removed from one major supermarket. Extrapolating: if each outlet utilised three staff per day, one can assume that up to twentyfour part-time staff have lost their jobs. The eight selfcheckouts require only three staff members and yield a huge reduction in wages, and profit.
At the current bleak rate of change, the day is dawning when there will be no jobs, and we will all be queuing at Centrelink, explaining to a robot who will decide whether, or not, we qualify for unemployment benefits. It might sound like some Or-wellian, dystopian fantasy, but it may be closer to future reality than any of us would like, or want, to believe.
Roland can be heard each MONDAY morning on 3BA at 10.30.