Dark factories vs Bright work spaces

Three nervous men. Illustrating Philip K. Dick’s Autofac. (Illustration: Dirk Wachsmuth)

Why provide lighting when the workers are robots?


One could ask, why the workers should be robots, when work is a source of joy for many people? The reply is almost Holmesian, “Economics, my dear Watson!” People are too expensive. Robots provide a better return on investment, work at a uniform speed without breaks, sleep or vacations. They work reliably, precisely and repeatedly without becoming bored. This ensures product consistency. Other benefits include better utilization of floor space, more efficient work flow, optimal raw material usage, and decreased waste.

The dark factory is reality today. Perhaps the most famous example is FANUC, the Japanese robotics company, that has had a dark factory in operation since 2001. Robots build other robots at a rate of about 50 per day, and can operate without human supervision for up to 30 days.

I await the day when every product features a safety warning, “No humans were harmed in the production of [product category] since [date]. Work spaces will be safer, when humans are no longer permitted to perform dangerous tasks.

Perhaps it is better if day to day drudgery is left to robots. Canadian futurist, George Dvorsky in, 12 Reasons Robots Will Always Have An Advantage Over Humans (2014) (https://io9.gizmodo.com/12-reasons-robots-will-always-have-an-advantage-over-hu-1671721194), lists the following:

  1. Massproduction and self-replication.
  2. Mind transfer from one robot to another.
  3. Advanced intelligence.
  4. Easier to upgrade.
  5. The absence of evolved psychological predispositions.
  6. Dramatically reduced energy needs.
  7. The potential for moral superiority.
  8. Immunity to damaging and burdensome biological functions.
  9. Technologically enabled telepathy
  10. Dynamic morphologies
  11. Superior space travellers
  12. Expendability

Returning to Sherlock Holmes, one is tempted to add, that a reply is not an an answer. Dialog, especially in whodunits, is used to conceal more than reveal.

“The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again.” John Maynard Keynes, The Tract on Monetary Reform (1923).

Keynes is incensed with economists who view the economy as a system that returns to equilibrium with patience and freedom from government interference. In The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1935) he noted that the economy could slip, and during the great depression, had slipped into an equilibrium of long term underemployment that demanded governmental intervention.

Un(der)employment is the great scourge of economic life, harming individuals and families, not only in the short term, but in the long term as people become unmotivated, and lose their skill sets.

What is to be done with all the redundant humans? While the answer may appear to be to offer “bread and circus”, this is not what people want. People thrive when they are creative and productive.

There must be work spaces, such as that offered at Unit One, that emphasize brightness. Brightness in two senses: a light-filled space, but also an intelligent yet caring space. A space dedicated to fostering human values. To overdramatize, to stop production to partake in a meal is not an economic catastrophe, it is a human necessity that is also a source of joy.

There is no fredags fika in a dark factory, as there is at Unit One. We can even hold a Friday Coffee on a Saturday, laughing at the contradiction, and celebrating human frailty.

Perhaps it is time to read Autofac, Philip K. Dick’s 1955 short story.  A world war has devastated the Earth. Uncontrolled autofacs monopolize planet resources, but supply humans with a minimum of goods to survive. The future of humanity and the planet in uncertain. The story tells of human survivors stealing supplies and searching for a way to take back control of production.

In the Unit One library we have two books by David Pye: The Nature & Aesthetics of Design (originally, The Nature of Design) (1964) and The Nature and Art of Workmanship (1968).

Workmanship of risk, is “workmanship using any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgment, dexterity and care which the maker exercises as he works.” (The Nature and Art of Workmanship, p. 20)

According to Pye, people make things to effect change. Most designed objects are palliative, unable to enable new activities and behavior. Design is limited by economy, not technique. It is a trade off and thus a failure. Much of design assumes that tools can bring happiness. Pye feels that tools can only help us avoid unhappiness.

The advantage of having robots make palliative products, is that humans can refocus their energies on areas of risk. Even if we allow for some economic constraints, people can push the boundaries. We can even make things, just to have fun.


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