Business & economics

Is a robot after your job?

In this extremely topical blog, Martin Upchurch, Professor of International Employment Relations at Middlesex University, discusses digitalisation and robotics in the new workplace.

Earlier this month MEPs in the European Parliament debated a call for comprehensive rules for how humans will interact with artificial intelligence (AI) and robots. The fear expressed by the politicians is that advances in AI could elevate robots to the status of an electronic ‘person’ with rights and privileges in law. It is surprising that such a prospect has taken so long to enter public discourse as ever since the birth of the computer seventy years ago commentators have been writing on the prospects of technological singularity – the point at which intelligence would become ‘non-biological’, and creativity would be unbounded by human limitations. Machines would dominate production through processes of self-improvement, re-writing their own software to outstrip the functional capabilities of the human brain.

The scenario of singularity signals a complete collapse of human employment.  Researchers at Oxford University have already calculated that almost half of all jobs in the US are at risk from new forms of automation in the coming decades, while journalist Paul Mason has written a best seller on the nirvana of a new ‘post-capitalist’ society. While most routine jobs would disappear, the destruction would also overlap into professional work. Doctors may be replaced by smart phone apps. that diagnose a patient’s symptoms and robots that perform operations. The collection of big data and its processing by algorithms (machine learning) may also enable correlations of behaviour, genetic disposition, or symptoms to predict a person’s health. Even IT specialists would not be safe, as much of the ‘knowledge’ which enables them to hold down employment may be transferred to a central cloud computer accessible by all from any location.

The restraints of limited mobility and flexibility of robotic ‘arms’ have been eased by new technologies which enable a humanoid robot to grip and to turn with less pre-programming. Advances in algorithmic programming utilise the principles of neural networks that enable AI to discriminate, to ‘remember’ past decisions and to make finer judgements. In the early days of development such ‘thinking’ was measured by the degree to which the robot or computer passed the ‘Turing Test’ (after the celebrated British computer scientist Alan Turing). The test is based on the proposition that a machine would be able to think if it could hold a conversation that was indistinguishable from one with a human being.

FIRST Dallas Regional 2015 - Photo by Greg Heartsfield (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The International Federation of Robotics estimates that there were 1.5 million robots in operation worldwide in 2014.

Image recognition technology has improved, as well as text to speech (and vice versa). Robots can now be programmed remotely from the cloud computer, an advance that is equivalent to the launch of the first ‘free standing’ Progamma101 personal desk top computer by the Italian firm Olivetti in 1965. Combined with the falling cost of robots in the product market it is not surprising that their numbers are on the rise. The International Federation of Robotics estimates that there were 1.5 million robots in operation worldwide in 2014. China now absorbs an increasing proportion of the total, spurred by rising labour costs and shortages with a falling ‘payback’ period for investment of 1.5 years. But we should not get carried away with the rise of the robots, while their numbers may well rise to over 2 million, this compares with a worldwide workforce of 3 billion. In the country with the highest density of robots (South Korea) there are still less than 500 for every 10,000 workers.

The false dawn of singularity?

If we adopt a socio-technical approach to examining AI and robots we may see that claims of total singularity may well prove to be a false dawn. For more complex tasks, robots still need to be minded by humans lest they break down or miscalculate precision movements. Efforts by a leading robotics manufacturer to create an affordable ‘plug and play’ robot capable of mimicking human movement for widespread use in industry also appear to have stalled.

A simple way of understanding the problem is to imagine a robot attempting to catch a tennis ball in flight. Not only the speed and angle of flight need to be finely calculated in a split second, but also the weight of the tennis ball (which a human would have remembered from previous experience) will determine how hard the robot needs to grip the ball once caught to avoid the ball bouncing back out of the hand. Such a seemingly simple task for a human is a logistical nightmare for a robot. Mercedes-Benz, which is a lead player in developing autonomous cars, has now begun replacing its robots with humans in its factories due to this very lack of flexibility in the robotic machine.

Moves are now afoot to develop ‘cobots’ which operate side-by-side with humans to enable flexibility and creativity to flourish. While algorithms might replicate past human behaviour in robotic form they are a long way off from ‘consciousness’ and the ability to ‘think’ at the level of a human. Returning to the ‘Turing Test’ the ability of robots to ‘think’ as humans do is only a remote possibility. Turing also identified a ‘halting problem’ whereby a computer using AI may never ‘know’ when it is ‘right’, and so will continue to compute. The algorithms they feed from remain subject to human input in programming and coding and repeat the mistakes and false assumptions that humans may have made in the past, but may consciously check against in the present. So, for example, the algorithm-fed robot Beauty.AI only chose women of light skin when asked to judge an international ‘beauty contest’, suggesting an unconscious (or even conscious) racist agenda among those humans creating the algorithm.

Robots in the workplace - Photo by Ben Hussman (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Moves are now afoot to develop ‘cobots’ which operate side-by-side with humans to enable flexibility and creativity to flourish.

A further obstacle we need to address is that of economics and the related political implications of choices made by employers. Computers are a relatively small proportion of capital stock, and  investment in computers has been declining since the height of the ‘IT Revolution’ of the 1990s. The overall impact on productivity, growth and jobs appears less dramatic than might otherwise be assumed. Evidence published in 2015 by Michaels and Graetz from a dataset of companies in 17 countries gathered between 1993 and 2007, suggests that while productivity increases with robotic innovation and some semi-skilled and lower skilled jobs are abandoned, “there is some evidence of diminishing marginal returns to robot use – ‘congestion effects’ -so they are not a panacea for growth……this makes robots’ contribution to the aggregate economy roughly on a par with previous important technologies, such as the railroads in the nineteenth century and the US highways in the twentieth century.” Neither do robots do away with the contradictions within capitalist accumulation. This is because as capital-bias and labour shedding takes place proportionately less new value is created (as labour is the only source of new value) relative to the cost of invested capital, added to which, as the economist Michael Roberts reminds us, worker resistance to the dystopia of permanent joblessness would surely ensure that the road to ‘full automation’ if it is ever constructed, would be a very rocky one.

Indeed, the ‘full automation’ and post-capitalist schools of thought assume an ever-increasing thirst for new digital technology and a limitless supply of the necessary hardware and software. Yet these assumptions also need to be questioned.  Predictions of the coming of singularity have been based on extrapolations from co-founder of Intel Gordon Moore’s ‘law’, by which the number of transistors that can be inserted into a computer doubles every two years, both lowering the cost and vastly increasing computing power. However, this depends on a finite supply of rare earth metals, and Moore has himself acknowledged that there will also be a physical limit to how many transistors you can squeeze into an integrated circuit. As reported by the OECD in 2016 “…the introduction of new technologies is a slow process due to economic, legal and societal hurdles, so that technological substitution often does not take place as expected”. For example, the development of autonomous or driverless cars is subject to regulatory concerns over insurance liability, which will act to slow down or even impede development.

Robots - Photo by Salford Institute for Dementia (CC BY SA 2.0)
“The ‘full automation’ and post-capitalist schools of thought assume an ever-increasing thirst for new digital technology and a limitless supply of the necessary hardware and software.”

A sober analysis of the economics of singularity has been undertaken by William Nordhaus at Yale University. Using econometric methodology on both the supply and demand side for digital technologies and AI he attempts to predict when singularity might occur. He argues that two ‘accelerationist’ mechanisms could develop, either from accelerating supply or from accelerating demand, and then applies a series of time-linked tests to both hypothetical scenarios, focusing on the key input variables such as wages, productivity growth, prices, intellectual property products and R&D. Five of his seven tests for the likelihood of singularity proved negative (including that for ‘accelerating productivity growth’ and ‘rising wage growth’)  while the two that proved positive (including a ‘rising share of capital’) indicated that singularity, if it did occur, would be at least 100 years away. And as previously positioned, a rising share of capital may simultaneously lead not only to decreasing rates of productivity growth, but also trigger a crisis of profitability in the longer term.

We might suspect that the coming of singularity may falter, be delayed, or never happen because of the economic, social and political factors that stretch beyond the technology itself.  Despite these limitations, the prospects of Irving John Good’s 1965 musings of a ‘last Ultraintelligent’ machine ever being constructed, which will “surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever … (so that) the intelligence of man would be left far behind”, will no doubt continue to fascinate many. The dream of singularity would, however, be faced with a simultaneous collapse of the underlying dynamic of capitalism. The only surviving ‘human’ industrial sectors might be defence and space exploration, to guard against terrorist or foreign hostile cyber attack, and against attack on humans by the super intelligent machine!

Business & economics

The elephant in the factory?

Daniel Ozarow Middlesex UniversityIn the wake of the Tata Steel crisis, Senior Lecturer in HR Management Dr Daniel Ozarow examines the concept of workers’ self-management as an alternative post-crisis production model.

The recent proposed closure of Tata Steel’s Port Talbot plant in Wales prompted much debate in the media and among analysts about the kind of industrial policies that are required in the ‘post-crisis’ milieu.

Ultimately, only two solutions were given serious consideration – including one from the trade union movement itself. One was that the British government should support domestic industry and save thousands of local jobs by intervening to nationalise the company, as it did when it bailed out the banking sector in 2008-09. This proposal was endorsed by the unions, many of the workers themselves, as well as by two thirds of the public.

The other is what is actually happening and was somewhat more predictable. A sell-off to private investment firms which, even if the plant is saved, will ultimately lead to asset-stripping and the loss of a large proportion of the 4,000-strong workforce. Government intervention has been minimalist, acting more as a mediator in the sale and, at best, purchasing a minor stake in the new business. When cases of worker bankruptcies occur today, the same pattern of policy proposals and solutions repeats themselves.

Port Talbot - Photo by Ben Salter (Creative Commons 2.0)
Port Talbot steel works – Photo by Ben Salter (Creative Commons 2.0)

A third option

However a third option exists that was never explored. It barely appears in the collective memories of most of Port Tabolt’s workers or as a possible repertoire of action to counter their redundancies: the idea of the workers themselves taking over the factory in order to run it without bosses.

Now, if we think back to the mid-1970s when Secretary of State for Industry Tony Benn proposed the Alternative Economic Strategy, the idea of workers’ self-management was very much at the forefront of how industry could and should be run. Today we hardly hear anything of this at all, in spite the fact that there are plenty of practical examples of how workers themselves are ‘recovering’ their bankrupt plants, including well over 1,000 cases in Europe since the 2009 economic crisis alone which have gone under-reported. These are also proving to be remarkably resilient and successful business models. As the European Confederation of Workers’ Co-operatives reports, the cooperatives that have been established since 2009 were up to three times more likely to survive the economic crisis in Italy than other forms of enterprise and 50 per cent more able to do so in France.

While in Europe these cooperatives are usually established amicably in the form of worker buyouts (a solution proposed by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell earlier this year), during the waves of recent uprisings alongside other social movements, sometimes these takeovers have occurred in a more politicised form, such as those worker-recovered companies which have been formed in Greece (like its building materials factory in Thessaloniki), Italy (recycled electric components plant in Milan) and other western European societies. In such cases workers have recently occupied, recovered and reorganised their bankrupt workplaces to function without bosses as a means to end their exposure to increasingly precarious work practices and to regain their livelihoods.

Several barriers exist within our sociological imaginations which must be overcome.

Meanwhile, other inspiration can be found in Latin America where thousands of bankrupt workplaces have been occupied and then ‘recovered’ by workers. The model has come to represent a credible alternative vision of industrial organisation and one that challenges the circuit of capital in private hands, instead distributing surplus for social ends.

Indeed, evaluations of Argentina’s movement, perhaps the most widespread of all national examples, suggest that ever since their formation in 2001 the vast majority of its several hundred ‘worker-recovered companies’, involving thousands of workers, have been found to have maintained their values of worker democracy by institutionally embedding horizontal decision-making structures, ending the alienation experienced by workers, implementing near-equal wages, restoring workers’ dignity and creating work spaces that have become sites of autonomy and self-realisation. Ethnographic studies suggest that work has become re-interpreted as “a dignified free act” and collaborative cultures thrive. These successes have occurred despite the 2008 global economic crisis, legal and financial pressures to adopt capitalist practices and management structures, the risk of market absorption and state attempts to co-opt, demobilise and depoliticise the movement.

So what are the prospects for such a model to thrive elsewhere and even to have a transformative impact upon society? Before moving on to the practicalities, several barriers exist within our sociological imaginations which must be overcome.

Moving beyond criticism of ‘the crisis’ 

The notion of ‘crisis’ suggests temporality. However, there is a conceptual problem with using such a term because, under capitalist labour relations, the struggle that workers face to overcome their own structurally exploited condition and achieve subsistence is permanent. Workers globally are only one redundancy notice away from a crisis in their household economy as labour rights are stripped away, social security is cut and the threat of outsourcing or offshoring looms. So, in order to resolve this ‘crisis’, we need to address the entire relationship between capital and labour.

Creating islands of socialism amidst a sea of capitalism (to quote Rosa Luxemburg) through workers cooperatives is all very well, but the state subsidies and then autonomous solidarity economy that recovered companies have relied upon for survival could be attacked by a future neoliberal government. To end the ‘crisis for workers’, work without bosses is necessary, but is incompatible with capitalism. This is why, when discussing the sociology of work, it becomes imperative to also reignite the Institute for Workers Control-led industrial sociology debates of the 1970s about the need to also transform the system away from capitalism.

While capitalism itself was deemed to be ‘in crisis’ following the collapse of Lehman Brothers only a few years ago, the notion of post-crisis societies being ‘in transition’ is also commonly discussed. But we must also challenge the meaning of this term ‘transition’. A transition from what to/what? Modern capitalism has endured several cycles of crisis, but governing elites have always managed to reconfigure their power and maintain its hegemony.

The crisis of neoliberalism in Europe and North America since 2008 has been met with austerity and more neoliberalism.

In Argentina autonomous and highly radicalised unemployed workers movements and the worker recovered companies movement that posed a challenge to the status quo (even though they were not distinctly revolutionary as property relations were never disputed) were co-opted, depoliticised and demobilised by the corporatist state apparatus which created thousands of state-run cooperatives so as to create jobs but dilute the idea of autonomous ‘workers-self management’ from spreading to the broader labour movement.

The crisis of neoliberalism in Europe and North America since 2008 has been met with austerity and more neoliberalism. Even in Latin America, neoliberalism became so institutionally embedded that its left-leaning Pink Tide regimes manifest distinct continuities with many aspects (encouraging greater foreign investment rather than mass nationalisations, deepening agro export-dependence and social policy targeting of poorest sectors rather than broad wealth redistribution). As such these regimes have come to be defined as post-neoliberal.

For that reason, the aftermath of the crisis that we are currently living through – as understood as moving from one economic or political system to another – cannot qualify as a ‘transition’. At a global level the uprisings against neoliberalism and representative democracy (of which the worker-recovered company movement is one; the Indignado or Occupy Wall Street protests are examples of others) are contesting the rationality behind the economic principles it advances and the deeply flawed nature of its remedies for dealing with the deepening debt crisis. However, these movements are unable to fill the political vacuum with a new social and political order. Instead their radical demands eventually only condition the rehabilitation of the capitalist state as they are translated into law and policy despite the fact that their original demands are often untranslatable.

Rather than a ‘transition’ from neoliberalism to something substantially different, we can understand current process as what Heike Schuamberg describes as an “intermezzo”. That is to say (borrowing from the musical analogy), a bracketed interlude between two acts of the same piece.

Occupy Wall Street demonstration, September 2012 - Photo by Paul Stein (Creative Commons 2.0)
Occupy Wall Street demonstration, September 2012 – Photo by Paul Stein (Creative Commons 2.0)

Developing our sociological imagination as a form of social critique

The study of concrete alternatives to the organisation of work such as worker recovered companies itself requires imagination of the many-sided possibilities inherent in workers’ self-activity. This is in itself a sort of social critique because both as academics and as workers through our day-to-day life experiences we internalise the status quo and have started to accept the inevitability of the wage-labour relation under the capitalist mode of production ourselves. It’s important that we do not lose our sense of the possibilities but the sociology of work is already travelling in that direction.

We must remember that the potential for workers-self management to have a transformative impact on society was a central theme of industrial sociology in the 1970s when numerous factory occupations occurred around Europe. At this time, drawing on a long and continuous co-operative history within their own labour movements, theorists such as Hyman, Miliband and Poulantzas were among those arguing that capital’s power also had to be openly challenged. When it became clear that the self-management project was not explicitly seeking to shatter existing capitalist relations, it ceased to be a tool of worker collective action deemed worthy of Marxist analysis. Outside of Sitrin, Azzellini, Ana and a small number of scholars in the global north who have written specifically on workers self-management, such debates about its broader transformatory impact are presently confined to the global south.

Workers self-management has receded in workers’ collective memories and repertoires of action in the British labour movement. Yet historic episodes of rebellion dating back to the Clyde shipbuilders or Tower Colliery workers occupations were repeated during the recent crisis, when the Vestas and Ford Visteon car parts workers took over their factories in 2009 in an attempt to save their jobs and pensions. Those of us who research the sociology of work have an obligation to help restore the possibility of such collective actions in workers’ consciousness.

Limits and possibilities of workers self-management as an emancipatory model

A key limitation that some argue may constrain the possibilities for the emancipatory potential of workers’ self-management to develop as a form of critical theory relates to whether its successes are confined territorially today. It is reasonable to pose that the possibilities for such alternative production models to thrive outside of Latin America are restricted because national cultures are different, less collective, involve weaker organised labour, lower levels of militancy or mobilisation, property ownership is protected more by governments and challenges to it face greater legal sanction. We therefore face the danger of framing the debate as if it were something that happens ‘there’, not ‘here’ (in the UK or Europe). So let’s end by asking how can the sociological imagination be stretched so that alternative models might also exist as possibilities ‘here’?

First, when thinking about the limits of the possible, many of us in the sociological field tend to have rather amnesiasic tendencies, a sort of ‘presentism’ if you will. However, we can broaden our sense of possibilities by also expanding our stock of historical comparators. In our case, worker cooperatives under capitalism are a long-standing phenomenon – as much in Europe than anywhere else.

Argentina’s example has become a beacon for the idea that workers can take over and successfully operate businesses themselves.

Secondly, there have been over 1,000 worker-recovered companies in Europe since the 2008/09 crisis. Although these are mainly more legalistic, less politicised ‘recoveries’, more militant companies like in Greece and Riflow in Italy mentioned earlier, are a growing force among them. Interviews with workers in these organisations confirm that they have not only learned from Argentina but decided to emulate the model where they are regardless of the barriers.

Thus, the notion that worker recoveries are territorially confined within the sociological imagination is no longer applicable post-crisis. The ‘dignity’ that has been recuperated among workers in Argentina’s worker-recovered companies has undergone what John Holloway describes as “resonance” –vibrating in other workers’ dignities to spark a ‘unity of dignities’ among workers in other parts of the world.

Pan-Latin American conferences of worker-recovered companies in the late-2000s have been followed more recently by the first European and Latin American recovered factories encounter in 2014. We are witnessing the emergence of a new ‘workers’ international’ perhaps. In that sense, Argentina’s example has become a beacon for the idea that workers can take over and successfully operate businesses themselves, without being dependent on trade unions or sympathetic political parties to represent them. Workers emancipation has moved a step closer in the sociological imagination.

Dr Ozarow presented his findings at the monthly Middlesex University Interdisciplinary Labour Studies Group seminar, which he organises with his colleagues Nico Pizzolato, Richard Croucher and Janroj Keles. The next will take place on 7 June and will feature geographer Asli Odman and historian Gulhan Balsoy speaking about ‘Factory History: perspectives from Turkey’. Register here.


Young people at risk of becoming NEET

Professor Louise Ryan Middlesex UniversityProfessor Louise Ryan is Co-Director of the Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC), which is conducting an FP7 project on Early School Leaving. On 13 November the SPRC hosted a one-day conference at Middlesex University to discuss the initial findings of this work with policymakers. 

To disseminate the first results from the EU-funded project ‘Reducing Early School Leaving in Europe’ (, the SPRC organised a one-day conference bringing together stakeholders, policymakers and researchers working on education and school-to-work transitions at a local, national and European level.


During the event, the research team of Dr Alessio D’Angelo, Neil Kaye, Magdolna Lorinc and I presented the preliminary findings of our extensive research with schools across several sites in England. Among the findings were the results of a preliminary statistical analysis of survey data from more than 3,000 young people, which found that disengagement from school is a phenomenon associated most prominently with young white British students; those whose parents are employed in low-skilled occupations; and those living in single-parent families. Educational aspirations were also found to be higher among girls than boys. These factors have been shown to be connected to early school leaving and part of an on-going process of disengagement from formal educational structures and are important markers of potential future not in education, employment or training (NEET) status.

Richard Harrison (Creative Commons 2.0)
Photo by Richard Harrison (Creative Commons 2.0)

Local context

Findings from an analysis of education and youth policy in England were also presented by the team. Within the context of large-scale cutbacks in national and local government budgets, it was acknowledged that initiatives aimed at preparing young people for the labour market may have only limited success. The level of ‘churn’ of young people experiencing NEET status – that is, those stuck in an on-going cycle of low-paid, insecure jobs or training courses – may also not be sufficiently captured by local authorities to the detriment of their ability to plan effective initiatives aimed at this target population.

Most importantly, the analysis highlighted the significance of the local context, which varies enormously across and within regions. In particular, London appears in this way to be unique and contradictory, in that it is both a global city with a wide number of educational and occupational opportunities, while it remains highly localised, especially for young people who are all too aware of the levels of competition they face for employment opportunities.

In addition, Eamonn Davern, DG Employment, European Commission, presented data from the wider European Level on EU youth employment policy responses and Dan Taubman, ETUCE expert on ESL, DG Education and Culture, on Europe-wide school policy aimed at combatting early school leaving.

This was followed by an in-depth roundtable discussion involving stakeholders and policymakers attended by delegates from a range of organisations working with young people, such as the YMCA, local authorities across London and representatives from schools and colleges, as well as from the Department for Education. Panel members included representatives of three local authorities (Barnet, Enfield and Lambeth), the NGO Tomorrow’s People, the Association of Colleges and the policy group Policy Connect.

The event represented a key stage in the development of the ‘Stakeholders Engagement Platform’ of and allowed the research team to identify ways in which our research findings can have wider impact by informing the work of national and local education practitioners and policymakers.