In our automated society, there are still some jobs that can never be done by a machine, writes Rita de Brún
The robots are coming. Scrap that. The robots are here. They’re taking over jobs and will continue to do so. We shouldn’t be surprised and we aren’t. In predictable work environments, replacing human labour with machines can generate higher output not only faster but more accurately and economically.
The advance and growth of the technology sector advance science and in so doing, it saves lives. It also creates jobs. But workers can’t be sure whether theirs will be safe or lost. For them, that’s a bitter barter, one in which for the sake of progress - and it is that — they’re forced into a game of Russian Roulette.
We’re not helpless victims in the process that is ever increasing automation. We benefit from it and we play a part in its expansion. We do that every time we opt to use a self-service checkout or buy books and holidays online.
No one should have to do work that can be done by a machine. So says Harvard professor Roberto Unger. He’s right, in so far as tedious, repetitive work is not something to be coveted. But if it’s an option between that or finding yourself jobless, with nothing to get up for in the morning maybe it’s worth more than it seems.
People like the human touch. There was a time when posh restaurants used to leave lumps in their mash so diners could be sure the spuds they were eating were freshly prepared, and not the instant dried mash that was popular with the time pressed at that time.
In the same way while many could opt to surrender the simple tasks of pea-podding or lawn-mowing to unmanned machines, they usually don’t, as they’re sensual, feel-good chores in which while the hands are busy, the mind is free to either wander creatively, or focus mindfully, as the worker decides.
Looking after needs of customers
For the past six years, Tina Mc Grath has been running The Wild Bunch cut-flower business with her husband Gilles Magnin, at Gowran in County Kilkenny. Her customers don’t want imported flowers that were planted by machines. When grown en masse in a strictly controlled environment the end result tends to be straight, tall plants with little variety.
“We grow flowers, tulips for example, that may or may not have a bendy stem, but either way will look much nicer than any of those planted by machine abroad.”
Unique product produced in Cork
In a similar way, the honey produced by native Irish black bees at Mark Newenham’s Coolmore Bees, is a unique product that is produced in Cork in an entirely personal way.
“Some import exotic varieties that might be more gentle only to find they’re not surviving,” he says. “That doesn’t seem right when we already have this one which is perfectly adjusted to Irish conditions.” Thankfully, he can’t imagine a time when bee-keeper bots would take over from him: “My job involves going from aviary to aviary, checking, feeding and looking after bees. That can’t be done by robot.” Few would disagree. All that passion being surrendered to some unfeeling, uncaring machine would be wrong. No argument.
He says working with nature in the fields is for him, ‘much more satisfying than office work.’ As he describes the joy he gets from growing plants that attract bees for pollination and watching the bees go from flower to flower, you just know he’s in the right job.
He has a keen sense of the nobility of bees: “The last thing a bee wants to do is sting. It will never do that when foraging for nectar and pollen. It will only do so as a last defence mechanism to defend the hive.
“Rough-handling, shouting and screaming upsets bees. You have to ever-so-gently check them out without upsetting them; without them wanting to sting you.” As he speaks I bear in mind that so comfortable is his relationship with bees that he teaches beekeeping without gloves.
“Because bees get to know the beekeeper and respond accordingly, working in harmony with bees is important,” he continues. “So too is patience. If that doesn’t come naturally then you learn it. It doesn’t do to rush or work against the bees. You learn fast that that approach does not pay.” Describing the mutual respect that needs to exist between bees and keepers, he says: “Keepers learn from bees that the way in which we treat nature has an impact. You have to treat bees right, as they like it when you do.” Does he believe his bees instinctively know he won’t hurt them? “Oh, I do. If someone is rough with them or does them wrong they won’t forget. They will recognise and remember that person the next time.”
Loaves of fun in Cappoquin
Newenham is a second-generation bee-keeper. Clearly he learned well from those that went before. If he did so too did Esther Barron, whose family first began baking bread at Barron’s Bakery in Cappoquin, County Waterford, in 1887.
Today she and her husband and business partner, Joe Prendergast are avid believers in the benefits of using traditional Scotch brick ovens as her ancestors did, and in proving bread slowly and naturally and shaping loaves by hand.
The very idea of robots replacing any of her bakers is sacrilege to Esther. “Dear Mother of God! It would be appalling. As it is, we’re losing so much human contact to machines, with so many kids relating better to screens than to people and so many adults falling in love over the internet only to find on meeting that the ‘love’ isn’t the real thing as it doesn’t come from the heart.” The value of human input is not something that evades her: “There are three people responsible for scone-making in our bakery. All three use the same recipe and the same ingredients in the same working environment. Yet depending on who bakes them, the end result will always be slightly different as the character of the human being who baked them comes through. So, when I come into the shop in the morning and I see the scones I can tell at a glance who baked them.” Neither the beekeeper nor the baker are machine adverse: “We use a machine that spins the honey out of the honeycomb,” says Newenham.
“We work with 70 kilos of flour at a time, so when baking bread, we use a machine with an industrial sized dough hook,” says Esther Barron.
For those whose jobs are at risk to machines Barron Bakery’s Joe Prendergast is full of empathy: “What will they do if robots take their jobs? Unemployment will be a huge problem and they’ll be denied not only a job but the joy of work.” He believes a bakery provides workers with ‘the ideal combination of headwork and handwork. A lot of planning goes into it. The handwork is the hard physical labour. Together they generate hugely satisfying work. At the end of the shift the bakers see the beautiful bread they baked lined up in front of them. They go home happy.” Going home happy after work. Now, that’s something about which present-day robots know nothing.
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