The Rise of the Machines: A Human-Less Workplace
Headlines are supposed to catch your eye, and this one certainly did: “He’s one of the only humans at work — and he loves it”.
I’m sure any fellow Twilight Zone fan can imagine what episode I immediately thought of. Images of Robby the Robot behind a desk in the closing shot of “The Brain Center at Whipple’s” suddenly filled my mind.
The article in question focused on Zou Rui, an engineer at a factory in Shanghai, China, and one of the humans mentioned in the headline. He works for JD.com, an e-commerce company that is “one of the most automated in the world,” the writer tells us.
“Analysts say it’s a peek at the future of manual work in China and beyond — a place where a chosen few tend to the machines, while most workers have been rendered obsolete.” Um, “obsolete”? Now I’m really getting a TZ vibe. And not in a good way.
Even more unsettling is how wholeheartedly Rui and others embrace the notion of a workforce that’s nearly 100 percent mechanized. As chief executive Richard Liu put it, “I hope my company would be 100 percent automation someday. No human beings anymore.”
He’s also hoping to import his little robot revolution. “Thanks to a ‘strategic partnership’ with Google, that future could be coming soon to the United States,” the article notes.
Thanks to Rod Serling, however, we’ve already had a peek at Liu’s human-less future. And it leaves a lot to be desired.
Mr. Whipple, too, was keen to oversee a workforce made up entirely of machines. He dreamed of a world without coffee breaks, time-clocks or “inconveniences such as maternity”. Told this would mean “a lot of men out of work”, he brushed it off as the price of “progress”. Confronted by a foreman who was angry over being replaced, Whipple retorted:
Shall I tell you the difference, Mr. Dickerson, between you and it? That machine costs two cents an hour for current. It lasts indefinitely. It gets no wrinkles, no arthritis, no hardening of the arteries. That one machine is a lathe operator, a press operator. Two machines replace 114 men that take no coffee breaks, no sick leaves, no vacations with pay. And that, in my book, is worth considerably more than you are.
Ah, but (spoiler alert!) Mr. Whipple soon got a lesson in karma as only Rod Serling could deliver it. By episode’s end, he’s out of work — replaced by Robby, who obviously worked longer, better, and for less money than Mr. Whipple ever did.
It’s one thing to promote the use of machines in dangerous jobs, or even in ones that are mind-numbingly repetitive. Machines have an important role to play in the workplace. But as we’ve seen, both in and out of the fifth dimension, it’s another thing to strive for a workplace that is as human-free as possible. As Serling sums it up:
There are many bromides applicable here — too much of a good thing, tiger by the tail, as you sow, so shall ye reap. The point is that too often man becomes clever instead of becoming wise, he becomes inventive, but not thoughtful. And sometimes, as in the case of Mr. Whipple, he can create himself right out of existence. Tonight’s tale of oddness and obsolescence … from the Twilight Zone.
Zou Rui may well be sincere when he says, “I don’t get lonely because of the robots.” I just hope he realizes that someday soon, he may be deprived of even their company.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!