I recently finished Civlization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson (you can read my review here) and one of the things that struck me in the discussion of why the Industrial Revolution happened in the UK rather than any of the other nations at that time struck me.
You see, Ferguson rules out many of the reasons, such as better innovators or innovation, instead seeming to conclude that a big factor was the cost of labour in the UK. In London, as the time, labour cost roughly twice as much as in Paris and nearly four times higher than Madrid.
We had cheap coal, which helped, but labour costs meant that ‘it made better sense in Britain than anywhere else to replace expensive men with machines fueled by cheap coal.’
That sounds rather like the situation now, where manufacturing is all done in Asia because it’s too expensive to do it in the UK. Other developed countries manage it though, such as Germany and Japan. True, they tend to sell higher profit goods, but in the UK we seem to have stopped manufacturing a lot of things.
We seem to have given up on it, but there is another way: use the high costs to spur on technological development. If our labour costs are too high, then we need to find a cheaper source of labour and I believe that means, as in the Industrial Revolution, turning to machines.
They can work longer, more precisely, with no breaks and lower costs, that will help drive the manufacturing costs down so we can be competitive again. We use machines now, but I think we’re going to need more adaptable machines capable of taking on some of the work we currently consider humans for as well as making them more flexible so they can easily be tasked with different things instead of buying something that does one thing only.
One day, robots will collect our rubbish, probably process it too, they’ll watch our children, provide healthcare and save lives, plus perform a million other tasks on our behalf. I’m not just talking about humanoid bipeds, I think they’ll come in a range of shapes, sizes and types, suited to their tasks, but able to be reprogrammed and adapt to new roles.
Part of the reason the Japanese were able to break into European and North American markets were the price and quality of their products, partly because of their adoption of robotics, enabling a more consistent output than a traditional worker.
Ironically, we could help UK manufacturing and end up building something we can sell to the rest of the world as well. So let’s build robots.