The rise of robots

Published May 8, 2021, 12:12 AM

by Manila Bulletin

On May 1, we observed Labor Day, an annual holiday in most countries dedicated to championing workers’ rights. In the Philippines, Labor Day this year also marked the centennial of the word “robot” with the launch of the Filipino translation of Rossumovi Universal ni Roboti, better known by its acronym R.U.R., by Czech playwright Karel Čapek. The translation was a project of the Czech Embassy in Manila and the Ateneo de Naga University Press.

The three-act play premiered at the Czech National Theater in Prague on Jan. 25, 1921. Within two years, it made its way to London and New York. On television, it holds the honor as the oldest sci-fi program to have been broadcast, debuting 83 years ago on BBC. R.U.R. has been translated and performed in more than 30 countries.

The science fiction landmark was prophetic. Drawn from the Slavic word robota, which means “forced labor,” it is an examination of the influence of technology on society, politics, and power. In this seminal work by Čapek, the idea of automata, a much older concept dating back to the ancient Greeks, found bio-mechanic expression in a population of cybernetic workers of flesh and bones, with brains capable of storing vast loads of information and a body capable of doing the work of humans without any need for happiness, remuneration, or equal opportunities. The play is a critical commentary on assembly-line production, unfair labor practices, and often dehumanizing working conditions in the factory system.

The Filipino translation of R.U.R. by the late Filipino novelist and playwright Rogelio Sicat, whose launch coincided with this year’s May 1 celebrations, highlights the need to look into the condition of the work force. And there is no more opportune time than now when, according to the International Labor Organization, the pandemic has destroyed 255 million full-time jobs as of 2020 alone. In its 2020 Job Displacement Report, the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE) has reported that 5.1 million workers in the Philippines have been adversely affected by the health crisis.

The International Monetary Fund, based on its study of the adoption of industrial robots following each of the four previous pandemics, including SARS in 2003 and Ebola in 2014, has found that global health crises accelerate the rise of automation.

In this pandemic, as majority of employers around the world are preparing to automate work, institutionalize remote work, and digitize work processes, certain jobs are at risk. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that many will be left unemployed. The upside is we can leave the, repetitive, degrading, or dangerous tasks to the robots, while we take on the safer,  more important jobs, of which there will be a net increase of 58 million as a result of automation, according to a prediction released by the World Economic Forum in February 2021.

With hope, as Čapek’s cautionary tale suggests, some of those jobs will have something do with making sure the robots or the technology they represent will not result in human obsolescence or even just labor tensions.