By Michael Roberts
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Can robots usher in a socialist utopia or only a capitalist dystopia?

This article is over 7 years, 7 months old
Robots and artificial intelligence should improve and ease our working lives, but they always seem to mean job losses and deskilling instead. The age of artificial intelligence is often proclaimed, but is it really just around the corner?
Issue 415

Are robots and artificial intelligence (AI) set to take over the world of work and thus the economy in the next generation? And what does this mean for jobs and living standards for people? Will it mean socialist utopia in our time (the end of human toil and a superabundant harmonious society) or capitalist dystopia (more intense crises and class conflict)?

The use of robots is rising fast. The level of robotics use has almost always doubled in the top capitalist economies in the last decade. Japan and Korea have the most robots per manufacturing employee, over 300 per 10,000 employees, with Germany following at over 250 per 10,000 employees. The United States has less than half the robots per 10,000 employees compared to Japan and the Republic of Korea. The adoption rate of robots increased in this period by 40 percent in Brazil, 210 percent in China, 11 percent in Germany, 57 percent in the Republic of Korea, and by 41 percent in the US.

By artificial intelligence (AI) is meant machines that do not just carry out pre-programmed instructions but learn more new programmes and instruction by experience and by new situations. AI means in effect robots who learn and increase their intelligence. Andrew McAfee, the co-author with his MIT colleague Erik Brynjolfsson of The Second Machine Age, has been one of the most prominent figures describing the possibility of a “sci-fi economy” in which the proliferation of smart AI machines eliminates the need for many jobs. Such a transformation would bring immense social and economic benefits, he says, but it could also mean a “labour-light” economy.


Two Oxford economists, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, looked at the likely impact of technological change on a sweeping range of 702 occupations, from podiatrists to tour guides, animal trainers to personal finance advisers and floor sanders. Their conclusions were frightening:

According to our estimates, about 47 percent of total US employment is at risk. We further provide evidence that wages and educational attainment exhibit a strong negative relationship with an occupation’s probability of computerisation… Rather than reducing the demand for middle-income occupations, which has been the pattern over the past decades, our model predicts that computerisation will mainly substitute for low-skill and low-wage jobs in the near future. By contrast, high-skill and high-wage occupations are the least susceptible to computer capital.

In recent work, Georg Graetz and Guy Michaels at the Centre for Economic Performance looked at 14 industries (mainly manufacturing industries, but also agriculture and utilities) in 17 developed countries, including European countries, Australia, South Korea and the US. They found that industrial robots increase labour productivity, total factor productivity and wages. At the same time, while industrial robots had no significant effect on total hours worked, there is some evidence that they reduced the employment of low skilled workers and, to a lesser extent, also middle skilled workers.

So robots did not reduce toil (hours of work) for those who had work, on the contrary. But they did lead to a loss of jobs for the unskilled and even those with some skills. So more toil, not less hours; and more unemployment. Indeed, hours of work have been rising since the 1970s in the US.

The essence of capitalist accumulation is that to increase profits and accumulate more capital, capitalists want to introduce machines that can boost the productivity of each employee and reduce costs compared to competitors. This is the great revolutionary role of capitalism in developing the productive forces available to society.


But there is a contradiction. In trying to raise the productivity of labour with the introduction of technology, there is a process of labour shedding. New technology replaces labour. Yes, increased productivity might lead to increased output and open up new sectors for employment to compensate. But over time, a “capital-bias” or labour shedding means less new value is created (as labour is the only form of value) relative to the cost of invested capital. So there is a tendency for profitability to fall as productivity rises. In turn, that leads eventually to a crisis in production that halts or even reverses the gain in production from the new technology. This is solely because investment and production depend on the profitability of capital in our modern (capitalist) mode of production.

What does this all mean if we enter the extreme (science fiction?) future where robotic technology and AI lead to robots making robots AND robots extracting raw materials and making everything AND carrying out all personal and public services so that human labour is no longer required for ANY task of production at all? Let’s imagine a totally automated process where no human worked in the production process. Surely value has been added by the conversion of raw materials into goods without humans? Surely that refutes Marx’s claim that only human labour can create value?

But this confuses the dual nature of value under capitalism: use value and exchange value. There is use value (things and services that people need); and exchange value (the value measured in labour time and appropriated from human labour by the owners of capital and realised by sale on the market). In every commodity under the capitalist mode of production, there is both use value and exchange value. You can’t have one without the other under capitalism. But the latter rules the capitalist investment and production process, not the former.

Value (as defined) is specific to capitalism. Sure, living labour can create things and do services (use values). But value is the substance of the capitalist mode of producing things. Capital (the owners) controls the means of production created by labour and will only put them to use in order to appropriate value created by labour. Capital does not create value itself. So in our hypothetical all-encompassing robot/AI world, productivity (of use values) would tend to infinity while profitability (surplus value to capital value) would tend to zero.

Slave labour

This is no longer capitalism. The analogy is more with a slave economy as in ancient Rome. In ancient Rome, over hundreds of years, the formerly predominantly small-holding peasant economy was replaced by slaves in mining, farming and all sorts of other tasks. This happened because the booty of the successful wars that the Roman republic and empire conducted included a mass supply of slave labour.

The cost to the slave owners of these slaves was incredibly cheap (to begin with) compared with employing free labour. The slave owners drove the farmers off their land through of a combination of debt demands, requisition in wars and sheer violence. The former peasants and their families were forced into slavery themselves or into the cities, where they scraped a living with menial tasks and skills or begged. The class struggle did not end. The struggle was between the slave-owning aristocrats and the slaves and between the aristocrats and the atomised plebs in the cities.

A fully robot economy means that the owners of the means of production (robots) would have a super-abundant economy of things and services at zero cost (robots making robots making robots). The owners can then just consume. They don’t need to make “profit”, just as the aristocrat slave owners in Rome just consumed and did not run businesses to sell commodities in order to make a profit. So a robotic economy could mean a super-abundant world for all or it could mean a new form of slave society with extreme inequality of wealth and income. It’s a social “choice” or more accurately, it depends on the outcome of the class struggle under capitalism.

But let’s come back to the here and now. Just how close are AI/robots to doing all human work? AI researchers have noted that the simplest tasks for humans, such as reaching into a pocket to retrieve a coin, are the most challenging for machines. For example, iRobot’s Roomba robot is autonomous, but the vacuuming task it performs by wandering around rooms is extremely simple. By contrast, the company’s Packbot is more expensive, designed for defusing bombs, but must be tele-operated or controlled wirelessly by people.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a Pentagon research arm, held a Robotics Challenge competition in Pomona, California. There was $2 million in prize money for the maker of the robot that performed best in a series of rescue-oriented tasks in under an hour. Robots had an hour to complete a set of eight tasks that would probably take a human less than ten minutes. And the robots failed at many.


Most of the robots were two-legged, but many had four legs, or wheels, or both. But none were autonomous. Human operators guided the machines via wireless networks and the machines were largely helpless without human supervisors. Little headway has been made in “cognition”, the higher-level humanlike processes required for robot planning and true autonomy. As a result, many researchers have begun to think instead of creating ensembles of humans and robots, an approach they describe as co-robots or “cloud robotics”.

So there’s still a long way to go. Anthropologist David Graeber has also raised other obstacles to the fast adoption of autonomous AI fully automated robots, namely the capitalist system itself. Funding for new technology does not go into solving the needs of people and reducing human toil as such, but into what will raise profitability. “Once upon a time,” he said, “when people imagined the future, they imagined flying cars, teleportation devices and robots who would free them from the need to work. But strangely, none of these things came to pass.”

What happened instead was that industrialists poured research funds not into the invention of the robot factories that everyone was anticipating in the 1960s, but into relocating their factories to labour-intensive, low-tech facilities globally. And governments shifted funds into military research, to weapons projects, research in communications and surveillance technologies and similar security-related concerns. Graeber writes, “One reason we don’t have robot factories yet is because roughly 95 percent of robotics research funding has been channelled through the Pentagon, which is more interested in developing unmanned drones than in automating paper mills.”

William Nordhaus from Yale University’s department of economics has tried to estimate the future economic impact of AI and robots. Nordhaus reckons the impact is still a long way away. Consumers may love their iPhones, but they cannot eat the electronic output. Similarly, at least with today’s technologies, production requires scarce inputs (“stuff”) in the form of labour, energy, and natural resources, as well as information for most goods and services. Nordhaus says, projecting the trends of the last decade or more, it would be “in the order of a century” before growth in robot skills would reach the level associated with full automation.


Technical advances to meet the needs of people, to help end poverty and create a society of superabundance without damaging the environment and the ecology of the planet are what we want. If AI/robotic technology can bring us closer to that, all the better. But the obstacle to a harmonious superabundant society based on robots reducing human toil to a minimum is capital.

In its Future of Work report last year, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills came up with a number of scenarios which included both the possibility of a long period of stagnation and of a technology-driven productivity leap. One thing all the scenarios had in common, though, was that, for those without good skills, powerful connections or inherited wealth, the future looks extremely bleak. The Economist concluded that, “Society may find itself sorely tested if, as seems possible, growth and innovation deliver handsome gains to the skilled, while the rest cling to dwindling employment opportunities at stagnant wages.”

As long as the means of production (and that will include robots) are owned by a few, the benefits of a robot society will accrue to the few. Whoever owns the capital will benefit as robots and AI inevitably replace many jobs. If the rewards of new technologies go largely to the very richest, then dystopian visions could become reality.


I quote from author John Lanchester in the London Review of Books: “It seems to me that the only way that world would work is with alternative forms of ownership. The reason, the only reason, for thinking this better world is possible is that the dystopian future of capitalism-plus-robots may prove just too grim to be politically viable.

“This alternative future would be the kind of world dreamed of by William Morris, full of humans engaged in meaningful and sanely remunerated labour — except with added robots. It says a lot about the current moment that, as we stand facing a future which might resemble either a hyper-capitalist dystopia or a socialist paradise, the second option doesn’t get a mention.”

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