Electrical cars: Robots replacing humans

By Fr Oskar Wermter SJ | 20 Jun 2019 at 10:50hrs
Electric trucks
Before I left Zimbabwe to meet family and friends in Central Europe, Zimbabwean friends, convinced that Germany had plenty of work places on offer, asked me to get them jobs in Germany's booming industry and social services.

Traffic jams are frequent. Very close to the place where I am staying, there is a super-highway with four lanes in both directions. Traffic — cars, lorries, busses, heavy motorcycles — is rolling 24 hours a day.

The production and maintenance of cars is the country's top industry, providing the largest number of workplaces in the production lines, as well as at service stations and repair shops.

In the suburbs next to the autobahn (four fast parallel lanes for long distance travellers), cars are parked very closely in front of houses and make movement of vehicles difficult.

Every family has a car, even two or three. To keep this huge army of cars moving is a major occupation of the German working class.

But this is not going to be so for ever. Huge brigades of information technology experts familiar with computers inside and outside are working on robots, producing a new type of car. Wonderful? I am not so sure.

Workers at car manufacturing plants are most anxious about their workplaces. Will computers controlling the robots replace the human brains of the presently employed workers?

What are they supposed to do? Get retrained for another skilled occupation? Try and be self-employed, for example, run their own repair shop, or should they emigrate to countries where car production still follows conventional lines?

Coming from a country like Zimbabwe, I sympathise with the unemployed, young people looking for workplaces or elderly workers who have been discharged much too soon.

Given that revolution is just round the corner, what giant international car manufacuring company is going to establish an assembly plant in Zimbabwe or in Africa and make workplaces available to our young men? And, by the way, young women as well.

The Fifa World Women' Football Championship is dominating the television channels here at present.
I remember the girl who had this slogan printed on her T-shirt: What boys can do, girls can do even better! This applies not only to computer technology and robotics, but to much of engineering and technology. Sisters rival their brothers.

This is an old problem. Around 1 800 steam engines on ocean-going vessels started replacing sailing ships. Sailors trained to climb like apes high up to put the sails into their proper places, became superfluous.

In the nineteenth century, many trades were being replaced by new technology, for instance, in the manufacturing of woven material. Weavers in England and Germany left their weaving looms, which they had inherited from their fathers and grandfathers, and were replaced by steam-driven machines in the production of cloth and clothing.

Small-scale farmers and traders left their unprofitable farms and workshops and emigrated to South Africa, Australia, Canada and the United States, as well as Rhodesia. Economic downturns always drive people across the oceans, failed States force their young citizens to serve in the national army and fight for new territories near or far away, whether or not that opens new doors for inventive, creative people in new areas still to be turned into new countries.

Italy, situated in the middle of the Mediterranean sea, used to give shelter to huge numbers of migrants from Northern Africa, the Near and Middle East, Eritrea and West Africa.

Now the rescue ships, run by private philanthropic organisations, have been barred from taking such refugees to Italian ports.

Pope Franciscus went to visit those huge crowds on the island of Lampedusa, where they waited for transport to be taken to Italy and the European continent.

The German Chancellor was praised by Francis, the Bishop of Rome, for the generous immigration policy of her government. But fanatical nationalists no longer want to see homeless, unemployed foreign citizens in their countries.
My own sister used to teach little refugee kids from Syria the local language. But now, there is little mercy for the newcomers, big or small!

At the moment, lorries are standing still. There are not enough drivers. When can we expect to have passenger cars and lorries that drive themselves? When can we just rely on computers that will show us the way? The other day, a brother-in-law gave me a lift. His wife sat on the back seat and gave him directions; now left, now right, now straight on. I asked what do you need computers and electronic maps for, if there is a woman on the back seat who is telling you about left-turn, right-turn and straight on?

If we do not know how to take all these turns and are scared of an electrical, self-driving car, what do we do?
Hopefully, we have been taught arithmetic, accounts, reading and writing, geography, astronomy, the basics of gardening, growing crops and keeping sheep, goats and cattle, even bee-keeping. Hopefully, we keep learning. If one job lets us down, surely, there are an infinite number of other jobs we can turn to. There is great need for ongoing formation. If we keep learning, we do not need to look for jobs that do not exist.

In my own work, I need to know scripture. I must be able to teach and preach, comfort and encourage the sick. I should also be able to talk to youngsters about how to get married.

I am not a party man. I do not have a mind for power. But I must be able to tell people what is right and wrong. I must have a "sparewheel". If the front wheel is flat, I must know an alternative.

Running away from the local scene is not the answer.

I admire enterprising people in industry. If no one gives them a workplace, they employ their own children, neighbours and colleagues and start self-employment. If your wife is just in the kitchen and has no job to make herself productive, she must be given a chance. If she has a home and family, will she ever be unemployed?

Our Creator and Maker told us to "cultivate the earth and care for it".

Work is more than earning one's living. It is making use of our own talents, of our humanity and our spirit! It is recognising oneself, one's own identity and character. It is making onself available to the country and the whole continent. It is realising our own humanity!

The employers do not just fill their assembly halls, their workbenches and offices with workers, they recognise what is in their workers' heads and hearts. They must celebrate their talents and gifts. All of us must celebrate what is in us, our brothers and sisters, our colleagues and companions. We must never cease "to cultivate what we have and care for it". Work is the fulfilment of our humanity.

Land and capital, human intelligence and technical know-how are the basic elements of the economic process.

Designers, engineers, in brief workers, the human persons involved in the process, are always more important than mere material. People count far more than the company profits. Robots must not push workers off the production lines. It is amazing what robots can do. But artificial intelligence must never make genuine human intelligence redundant. Education and ongoing formation remain key.

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Fr Oskar Wermter SJ is a social commentator and writes in his personal capacity.

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