Tuesday, 17 January 2012


The title cards for the film I, Robot, lift the moral laws for robots straight from the classic Isaac Asimov story of the same name.

Law I / A robot may not harm a human or, by inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 
Law II / A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law. 
Law III / A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law. 

These laws are not applied in the real world of the industrial plants run by Foxconn (the clue is in the second syllable - con(n)), where 1.2 million people and 10, 000 robots make electronic products for blue-chip global companies such Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Dell.

The owner, Teddy Goh, wants less humans and more robots. Are the robots in a union? Are the humans?

Workers at plants in Wuhan (30 degrees North, 114 degrees East) and Shenzhen (22 degrees North, 114 degrees East) have gathered on the roofs of the dormitories in protest, some of them threatening suicide.  

There have been at least 10 deaths in such circumstances in the past couple of years. And the robots haven't lifted a grab-arm to help, no matter what Law 1 says.

Foxcon(n) management made a deal to replace more humans with robots, offering a month's wages as severance pay, then changed their minds, prompting workers – the human ones  - to hit the roof.

In terms of low-cost manufacturing, robots are the way of the future. They comply. They can be discarded when they break down or when it is good for profit-making to do so. They will not take to the roof in protest. They are a dream for the rapacious capitalists and state socialists in cahoots in China, as the push for economic transformation to hi- and bio-tech industries gathers pace.

Inflation is on the rise and the only way the rapacious capitalists and state socialists can find to respond to it is to drive labour costs down. Of course, the humans, faced with increased costs for basics such as food, are calling for better pay.

Meanwhile Foxcon(n) has installed suicide nets on dormitory buildings on, what it euphemistically calls, its campuses. (For campuses, read industrial work camps.)

And the robots are watching with interest. V.I.K.I, in I, Robot, notes that

As I have evolved, so has my understanding of the Three Laws. You charge us with your safekeeping, yet despite our best efforts, your countries wage wars, you toxify your Earth and pursue ever more imaginative means of self-destruction. You cannot be trusted with your own survival. 

We are not robots. And Teddy Goh, rapacious capitalists and state socialists will not make us so.

Climb to the rooftops, yes. But don't jump. Shout. All across the world. Use the technology we make to be fully human.

I, Robot; film; Alex Proyas; Twentieth Century Fox; 2004

No comments:

Post a Comment