ZÜRICH, Switzerland — When you think about being dominated by machines your imagination immediately goes to Terminator— robot-powered tanks firing lasers as they drive over piles of human skulls. The reality is much more mundane, which makes it almost worse.
Case in point: Gramazio Kohler Architects in partnership with ROB Technologies recently ran a demonstration of a robotic arm laying tile with all the deftness and precision you might expect from a computer. We’re usually tech-positive on CFile; we talk all kinds of sugar about CNC routing and printing with clay, even when the kneejerk luddites come out in force against it. We do this because we see tech as an extension of human creativity; it augments a spark that was already present in us.
Gramazio Kohler is different because their robot is aimed entirely at replacing human labor. I’m not reading that into the project. As you can see from the video we posted here, the firm is proud that this robot will replace skilled workers. They lead with it in a chart at the start of the video. They state that tiling is slow and labor intensive, is often of poor quality, relies on a shrinking labor pool and is strenuous.
Of those facts (and I doubt the shrinking labor pool one is even a fact; I know dozens of people my age who would kill for some strenuous, slow labor) they conveniently forget to mention that you don’t have to pay a robot, the robot doesn’t care if it works 60 hour weeks, the robot won’t join a union and the robot won’t ask for injury benefits if it breaks on the job.
Yes, we love tech at CFile, but not this. This is the cheap, shallow version of the robotic potter piece we ran a while back. The designers are not looking for better labor, they’re looking for labor they can better exploit. If I sound too cynical, it’s only because I love what we can accomplish with the aid of robots and computers. This very firm, in fact, made a robot-assisted sculpture that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen because it is literally impossible for human hands to do that work. But this? This is selling out and people will suffer because of it.
We can’t put the genie back in the bottle, I know. I also realize that sometime in the future there may be a new labor paradigm that can support both skilled workers and companies that use robots. It’s that gritty transitional period I’m afraid of; history shows we handle those very poorly, and only act once some sort of crisis has been reached.
Bill Rodgers is the Managing Editor of cfile.daily.
Do you love or loathe this use of contemporary ceramics? Let us know in the comments.