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Autofac (short story, streaming episode): PDK meets Ayn Rand to create the factory of the future

Recommendation: Read the short story, then build a PUMA robot to dismantle the Amazon Electric Dreams version.

Robots: ground, aerial, industrial robots, humanoids

Autofac is a 1955 short story about automated robot factories known as autofacs and has been into Episode 2 of Amazon’s Philip K. Dick Electric Dreams streaming series. In the 1955 short story version, PKD creates two contradictory technologies. One is that roboticized factories represent mindless automation; the factories are so stupid that they continue to produce after a war has drastically reduced the population and the need for products. Supply exceeds demand but the factories ignore that. That seems plausible. The other is machine learning; the roboticized factories are so smart that they adapt the manufacturing process as a whole to be impervious to physical and cyber attacks and continue to produce. Less plausible in general, and definitely not plausible given the factory is dumb enough to miss that it is overproducing. Regardless of overall realism, one of the charms of the short story is its description of the various robots, the majority of which are not humanoid but instead designed with a more realistic form-follows-function ethos. The Amazon Electric Dreams version of Autofac diverges fairly quickly and resorts to a boring mishmash humanoid robots and lots of interpersonal conflicts— MurderBot would not be downloading and trading that episode for free passage through the galaxy. The Electric Dreams version also differs from the original because PKD stories typically end with things getting even worse, not better.

PKD anticipated the rise of factory automation. The Robotiq website, aimed at the robotics industry, divides manufacturing robots into two phases: The Origins of Manufacturing Robotics (1938-1979) and The Modern Age of Industrial Robots (1980-Present). (See the article here). PDK was writing during the origins phase, when factories were just adopting numeric control machines and the nuclear industry was struggling with teleoperation and the need for automation. Autofac was written the year before the first real manufacturing robot, Unimate, was created by George Devol and relentlessly hawked by Joe Engelberger for its first sale in 1961. Later, in 1975 a better version called the PUMA robot was created and has been a staple of factory automation ever since, leading to what Robotiq called the Modern Age.

Ironically, PDK also foresaw the human tendency to overestimate the need for robotic production capacity. Roger Smith, CEO of General Motors (remember Michael Moore’s documentary Roger and Me? THAT Roger.), invested heavily in manufacturing robotics in the late 1970s and 80s. In the defining moment of the Modern Age, Smith opened the Saginaw Vanguard facility in 1982 that relied primarily on robots and automation- a factory of the future that had high productivity, low costs, and none of the personnel problems associated with human workers. The factory won awards and ran beautifully. Except that it was closed in 1992 due to excess capacity; Saginaw Vanguard was churning out parts but no one was buying GM cars. Ooops. See the NY Times article for a short factory obituary.

It makes you wonder if PDK and Ayn Rand ever met, as the award winning factory that produced too much of the wrong things seems straight out of Ayn Rand’s 1957 classic Atlas Shrugged.

My recommendation is to read the short story, its floating out there on the net and in anthologies, but skip watching Episode 2.

- Robin

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