For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Robots and AI at work: the prospects for singularity"

by Upchurch, Martin (2018)


This paper seeks to address emerging debates and controversies on the impact of robots and artificial intelligence on the world of work. Longer term discussions of technological ‘singularity’ are considered alongside the socio‐technical and economic constraints on the application of robotics and AI . Evidence of robot ‘take‐up’ is gathered from reports of the International Federation of Robotics and from case vignettes reported elsewhere. In assessing the contemporary relationship between singularity, robotics and AI , the article reflects briefly on the two ‘tests’ of artificial ‘intelligence’ proposed by the pioneer computer scientist Alan Turing, and comments on the efficacy of his ‘tests’ in contemporary applications. The paper continues by examining aspects of public policy and concludes that technological singularity is far from imminent.

Key Passage

A runaway process is predicated on the notion of ‘accelerating change’, whereby information technology has a special effect in inducing an unstoppable and unquestionable transformation of work. It depends on a sup-posed autonomy (Ellul, 1964: 14) in the application and effect of technology which then produces its ‘runaway’ quality (Heidegger, 1977: 17). In such fashion, technological singularity would be inevitable and simply a matter of time. Runaway and accelerating change have also been pertinent to longer term debates on the allegedly ‘special’ nature of information and communication technologies. Anthony Giddens (1999) has been most prominent in promoting such a perspective. In his view, new information technologies have been acting to engender the ‘runaway’ world in an unquestionable and unstoppable fashion. However, we must consider the existence of human agency in the process, both to design and to develop the technology, but also to temper and shape its use. In this respect, the unquestioning nature of runaway change is highly questionable in itself. Judy Wajcman, for example, in introducing a socio- technical perspective, suggested of Giddens’ assumptions that ‘…he treats technology as an autonomous force rather than as a sociomaterial ensemble of humans, machines, infrastructures and everyday practices’. (Wajcman, 2016 p46). Labour is a significant agent in this process, able to modify or resist technologies which appear to run counter to its interest (Feenberg, 1991: 188). Rather than seeing runaway change, we find instead quantum movements or spurts of change, or as Thomas Hughes suggests, a ‘momentum’ may be more apparent. ‘Momentum remains a more useful concept than autonomy… it does not support the erroneous belief in technological determinism… (and) encompasses both structural factors and contingent events’ (Hughes, 1994: 80) (p.207)


Artificial Intelligence, New Technology, Technology, Robotics, Automation


Wajcman, Robots, Automation

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