Why Robot Labor Is Disruptive But Not Catastrophic

Introduction

This is a big topic, so this will be a long posting; but it still can not cover all the points. Or even most of them. Robotic labor spans from technology to organizational behaviour and management to economics and politics. Of necessity, a lot of that turf will be left unexamined or with a bare mention.

The Politics of it, for example. There will be a lot of heat and shouting about it, especially from the Socialists and Progressive Left. They will try to use it to ram down our collective throats things like “basic income” laws and more collective ownership of the means of production. Volumes will be written covering that as it unfolds and most any specific predictions now will be wrong.

With that intro; on to the topic. Will robotic labor cause a catastrophic collapse of our economy, and especially of capitalism, due to a massive wave of displaced labor that will be unable to compete? My assertion is “No”, and the reasoning will follow.

Will the transition be disruptive? Certainly.

There are huge numbers of folks employed as drivers or operators of vehicles, for example. Trucks, buses, trains, taxis, tractors, etc. etc. Once there are approved and proven self driving cars and trucks, what purpose does the driver serve? Huge numbers will become unemployed and will need to move to some other source of work. I think it will not be as bad as folks are predicting. Simply because for trucks and buses, the driver is not just there to drive. They monitor the passengers, basically keeping order. They assure the load is safe and that it is loaded and unloaded as expected. IF the UPS truck self drives to your house, how does it ask for your signature (or even find the doorbell to ring)? How does it keep local ‘bad guys’ from just getting on board and stealing the load? So many drivers will change to “shipment monitors” and equipment tending.

We have had similar economic transitions in the past, and survived them. The long term results were more prosperity for all. Less unpleasant labor and more leisure time. There is nothing in this transition that is fundamentally different.

Economics Context

Economics is descriptive. It looks at “what is” and attempts to describe it. Often there are several competing descriptions since it isn’t a science and there isn’t always a way to test given theories. Sometimes it attempts to be predictive, often poorly.

Economics looks at the basic question: Who makes What for Whom?

Political Economy adds: Who Decides and a little bit of Why? (Mostly as justification, IMHO).

I note in passing that Engineering covers the How and From What; while Management / Operations Research covers When, How Much, at What Cost; and Marketing covers At What Price.

There is a sub-field of Labor Economics. Most of it is devoted to things like equilibrium wage rates, though some explores the political economy aspects of unions and impacts on labor supply.

When looking at the economic impacts of any change in the “How” (from engineering advances) it is important to remember just what parts of the turf is an economic segment. Why it happens is not in that turf, though political economy can stick an oar in at that point. Just realize that Political Economy is more politics than analysis.

So where is labor used?

1) In Government
2) In the home
3) Private companies
4) Public companies
5) Non-Governmental Organizations
6) Churches and religion
7) Individual activities
8) Military & Armies, public and private

Robotic labor will mostly impact private and public companies in the shipping and trucking industries in the next wave. Manufacturing and assembly has already had major impacts so there isn’t really that much left to happen in them.

The impacts in Government ought to be minor. They simply do far too much that is “desk work” and not simple rote mechanical tasks.

The impacts in the home will also be very minor. Even the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner has had limited impacts. Any impact will be highly beneficial in any case.

NGOs are similar to Government, but act to push it from the outside. Again, little scope for robotic labor to change lobbying, research, recruiting, organizing, pushing papers, etc. etc.

Churches and Religion are essentially an all-people-all-the-time operation. Impact from robots ought to be nearly zero.

Individual activities also will have minor openings for robots, but again entirely beneficial. For example, a home bound person may now be able to go the to movies on their own instead of waiting for a driver. Folks out at a party can all participate and not need a ‘designated driver’ as the car drives itself. People driving long runs cross country can make longer runs, even napping in the car (eventually) while making the trip faster and safer. I, for one, will be quite happy to sit on the porch sipping a mint julep while my robot mower handles the lawn (and I watch out for the cats and kids…)

For the Military uses, we’ve already got drones and remotely operated vehicles. Taking people out of the line of fire is entirely a good thing. Eventually robot tanks and ships will reduce staff risk even more. Again, I see little downside to having fewer dead and wounded in military operations. Having folks driving trucks past land mines and getting legs blown off is NOT a contributor to our economic productivity… and needing fewer artificial limbs is, IMHO, entirely a beneficial outcome.

So there are whole swathes of our economy that are outside of corporate production and where robots are either entirely a benefit, or will have little application.

So that leaves us with public and private companies that provide goods and services. In these sectors, there will be significant changes and impacts. Many for the better, a few causing disruption in labor allocation.

To the extent it lowers costs and increases productivity, we have more “stuff” for our enjoyment. (This dodges the question of “for whom” the stuff is made and who can buy it. I’ll explore the ‘for Whom’ more below.) To the extent it doesn’t make more stuff or provide more services or were it to decrease productivity or raise costs, it will NOT be done. So where is the ‘lose’ scenario in that? Only in the displaced workers who need to get new jobs; and that question of who collects the gain.

Basically, robots move labor between tasks and sectors, it does not end the availability of labor.

The Issues and Questions

There are 2 basic questions:

1) How much “stuff” is too much? More automation means more “stuff” is made (and more services provided) with less labor. So what house is too big? How many people have houses that large? How many cars is too many to own? How many folks do NOT want a newer or better car? Or newer and better home appliances? More clothes? Better food? More dinners out and more plays?

Looking at the truly rich, those numbers must be way bigger than the present average person has or uses.

2) Who gets the money from the robot labor to buy that stuff? This is the old “capital vs labor” argument of the Socialists and Communists from the 1800s when factories and manufacturing with machines first replaced hand labor. We have about 200 years of existence proof that yes, we get a large rich capitalist class, but no, we don’t end up with a labor revolt from deep impoverishment.

There is still a case that can be made that due to the tendency for the rich to get richer (since they do not and can not spend all they make but must invest it), that they will get an even larger share of the “robot ownership” and so gain most of the profit from their use. I think it is a poor case, but if it were to ever be shown to be a problem, it would be pretty easy to “redistribute the wealth”. So I see no reason to take action to fix a problem that isn’t manifest yet. But it is a theoretical risk, and has been for 200+ years…

The more reasonable risk, sort of a 2B item, is that the division of the proceeds to labor will have more going to skilled labor and fewer jobs (so less of the share of labor earnings) going to folks who are unskilled. So is there some fundamental limit of skill level that will be unemployable? Well, yes. We have that now. The insane. The infirm. The idiots. The criminals. Children. So I don’t see this as a change of kind, though perhaps a change of degree. Yet we’ve already lost most of the zero skill jobs to mechanization, even if from dumb machines. In the question of skilled vs un-skilled labor, it will hinge on just which skills. Driving will be less valuable a skill. Singing or massage ought to hold their own. Robot Repair will be highly valuable.

Which leads to the point that there will be new jobs needing new skills created. Robot sales. Robot trainer. Robot manager (robot wrangler? at least in films ;-) and of course Robot Repair. Will robots someday be able to repair robots? Maybe someday, but not right now. I doubt I will see it in my lifetime. It is a complicated set of tasks, requiring fine vision and fine motor skills, along with some creativity. All things robots do very poorly and where little on the horizon says a breakthrough is imminent.

How many of those new jobs will there be? Will that be larger than those displaced? Can the displaced be absorbed into those jobs, or other jobs freeing the folks presently in them to take the new jobs? How much re-training work will be needed and how fast? Those are unknowns, but generally the consumption of goods goes up with mechanization until the labor demand is again limiting.

There are some other issues that will come up, but they are more of the form of changes of markets than they are issues of labor supply and disruption.

3) Global Scale manufacturing conglomerates vs Just In Time local & customized manufacturing will have a shift of balance. In many cases, the giant factory + shipping will end up costing more than the local flex manufacturing robot, so we might well see some industries returning to local makers China has built a sock factory sized to meet global demand. What happens when my robotic knitting machine can make all my clothes on demand? Similarly 3D Printing is a kind of robotic manufacturing and it, too, can work on small and local scales. Just how big will the robots be, and can they result in the demise of the Giant Robot Factory?

4) Is there an upper limit to things like Tourism and Baseball Games? Dining out? Shows and live plays? As there are more folks with free time to attend such things and consume their services, their will be a need for more actors, ball players, hotdog vendors, bartenders, tour guides and chefs. To some extent we’ve seen this process already happen with the rise of factory manufactures.

Smith’s Corollary to Amdahl’s Law

Amdahl’s Law is a rule from computing. You can calculate things one step at a time (scalar computing) or in batches of parallel similar tasks (vector processing). In the ’70s there was a huge debate over which was better. Many asserting that the use of parallel computing would eliminate the need for one big compute engine.

Amdahl postulated his law that, in layman’s terms, basically says that for any given problem, once you vectorize what can be vectorized, the residual scalar portion dominates the remaining work. Basically, you continue to limit on the non-reducible work that takes “one big engine”. Say, as an example, you had a work site and need to move 400 small boxes and one bulldozer to a new work site. It takes two big trucks to move it all. Now you get 400 robot carts. They can move all the 400 boxes all at once. You still need one big truck, and that can’t be reduced.

It is my opinion that a similar process applies to work and labor. There are many jobs that only people can do; or where the customer will only accept a person. I buy NOTHING from robo-calls, for example. You can automate it, but it doesn’t work… I just hang up. Similarly, I don’t want any robot barbers putting sheers near my ears.

So my corollary is just this: Once you have mechanized (automated, robotized) those parts of labor that are amenable to it, the remainder can only be done by people and that dominates the workload.

So let’s say you make plastic molded hoses. If you automate the production portion 100%, you still need clerks, marketing, sales, management, HR, engineering, facilities, legal, janitorial, etc. etc.

This implies some very important things:

1) Until Robots are better than humans at EVERYTHING, there will be a demand for labor.

2) Until everyone on the planet has everything they need and want, there will be unmet demand for more production.

Which together mean that labor will move to the residual non-robotic segments, and demand for goods will grow to consume all available labor (until some far distant time when everyone has everything they want).

We have already seen this happen, by the way. The first rounds of mechanization did exactly that. Moving people from farming and hand craft assembly into sales and factory work.

As noted before, there is a potential issue of the distribution of the fruits of the mechanized production. We’ve already gone through that kind of stress a few times and so far we’ve not had the economy falter, so I’m of the opinion the long awaited collapse (waited for by Communists globally for generations) just isn’t going to happen. It is a belief that has persisted for well over 100 years, despite no evidence, but folks sill make special pleadings for it.

IF it ever arises, it would be simple enough to take taxes from manufacturing industries and apply them to welfare payments, rather like is done for the incompetent today.

Some Historical Perspective

Realize that in very real ways we have already made the transition to automated manufacturing and farming. This happened during the Industrial Revolution. Thousands of manual laborers were moved off of farms and into factories. Later, automation in factories moved many of them again, into computer work and clerical, sales and service. Craft workers were put out of work wholesale by factories.

Take my family history. Named Smith, we were blacksmiths. The industrial revolution eliminated the need for blacksmiths. Granddad moved to the farm and made a good living at it. Then farm mechanization resulted in farm consolidation and much less farm labor needed. Granddad lived out his life on the farm, but his kids when on to be electricians (jobs that did not exist before), real-estate salesmen, restaurateurs and more.

In the ’70s, Cezar Chavez “organized farm labor” with a focus on grape pickers. Now their are mechanical grape pickers, largely a result of his efforts raising the price of labor and, more importantly, making it unreliable at harvest time. A strike at harvest time is simply not an acceptable risk. That was when the last major tranche of farm labor left the fields. While there ARE still farmers, and some farm hand laborers, the numbers are much much less than before. Just like you can find the odd blacksmith still working.

So in large part, the Industrial Revolution has already caused well over 90% of the labor displacement, and it is already behind us. We did have “issues”, but we handled them. The Grapes Of Wrath was about the flood of farm labor leaving the land, driven off by the giant dust storms of the ’30s and by mechanization elsewhere. Their decedents now live in L.A. and work in jobs like making movies, fixing cars, building houses, etc. We’ve already built systems to assure that kind of displacement is not left to decay, as it was then. A new Grapes Of Wrath is just not going to happen in our present welfare state.

Here’s a partial list of surnames and trades that have simply gone entirely out of existence already. In some cases, like sailors, it is a partial. Yet even that partial has eliminated most of the jobs. Giant container cargo ships can carry huge tonnage with a smaller crew than the old sailing ships. We no longer need dozens of ‘riggers’ to handle the sails. On shore, the gangs of longshoreman have been reduced to a few dozen operators of giant cranes. Yet the world did not end…

Gone (or dramatically reduced from pre-industrial levels):

Chandler
Smith (several kinds, blacksmith, tinsmith, goldsmith, etc. etc.)
Tinker
Cooper
Weaver
Farmer (partial, but high percentage)
Taylor
Cobler
Sailor
Shipwright
Longshoreman
Phone Operators (remember when they were used for all calls?  All long distance?)
Miners (largely mechanized, few using shovel and pick anymore)
Elevator Operators
Dishwasher ( I did this once, washing dishes by hand in a restaurant.  Glad it's now a machine.)
Doorman (other than the ones used for decoration, what with self opening doors)

No doubt dozens more I’ve forgotten. At one time, every town had a local brewer. Then factory beer took over. Now there is a small resurgence of the local “brewpub”, so “brewer” is making a comeback. But more as a choice for preference or show of style than necessity. In my opinion, that, too, matters. As a society becomes more affluent, it spends more on “hand crafted” just for the flamboyance of it. We buy $5 hand crafted beer and $4 hand made coffee “just because”. The world is not always about efficiency and low cost to manufacture. As robotic labor raises general affluence, more folks will be employed providing just that kind of specialty service.

Then there’s all the work that used to be done in the home, now done largely by machines. Clothes washing, carpet beating, even cooking now done in many cases by shoving a factory built meal into the microwave. Not to mention what used to be home-work and is now done by machines. In my closet are a couple of cherished shirts, made by hand by my mother, who had been a seamstress in World War II England making uniforms. Now we have laser cutters that cut whole stacks of fabric in one pass and industrial sewing machines moving fast (though still staffed by people, but in low cost places like China) All that labor displaced from our economy.

In essence, we have already moved through the labor transition for most trades and crafts, for manufactures, and for many services where advanced tools automate the labor portion. Plays no longer happen in each town with a cast and crew, instead we have recorded movies and TV shows. The Big Band era with a band in every town has also moved on. We no longer go to the local restaurant to be entertained by a band of a dozen players. Who needs that when we have an iPod 24 x 7? Musicians are now employed in movie studios, and major venues, and are fewer in number.

The work left to do is now largely dominated by those parts a machine can not do. In many respects, a factory making a product is already a large robot; just one that needs a few people in key places to tend it and where the “programming” is built into the design of the space and machines in it. The real risk of robots in my opinion is to those large single person automations. Why would I buy a factory made cup if my robot can custom make one at home? Which leads us back to the question of who will own the robots, and gain their work product.

What jobs are at risk?

What are the job categories most at risk from the current crop of robotics? I would guess it is those jobs requiring modest levels of manual skill, vision and hearing, and only limited judgments. Jobs with little human interaction (though a little can be done – think of those robotic voice tree “service” lines… “please say your account number”. Where the need to understand speech is very limited and confined to specific question / response patterns).

To me, that says that you might be able to put a robotic receptionist at the directions counter in a mall, but not in your Doctor’s Office; or at any company where image mattered or, the complexity of queries would be large. That is, receptionists are not a good candidate for replacement, outside of a small number of places. But robotic receptionists for phone inquiries are already here.

Much more at risk are tasks like driving cars and trucks. A very limited set of mechanical actions, they are already used to control machines, and the need to see and hear has specific things to look for; like lines on pavement and traffic signs. Not things like a police officer deciding someone looks shady.

With those as examples of my decision process, here’s the jobs I see as most at risk:

Drivers. There’s a strong, active, and progressing effort to make robotic cars. In some ways, this is one of the easier robots to make. The vehicle is already a mechanical device and designed for limited input actions to control it. The major need is to avoid running into other things and that can generally be well accomplished. The problem space is generally well marked with informative signage and lines. GPS provides detailed position information. There is very limited interaction with people (mostly setting destination) and not much in the way of complex manipulation or problem evaluation. We already have working prototypes.

That means that such jobs as Taxi Driver, delivery truck driver, bus driver, and long haul trucker are “at risk”. Yet even there, I think there are reasons many such jobs will remain. Security concerns will likely keep some kind of monitoring presence in some trucks and taxis. Assuring passengers have paid fares will be important for buses, while package delivery has some complicated acceptance and signature issues to resolve along with how to get packages the last 100 feet. The idea that a drone is going to drop off my new stereo after coping with trees and rain while keeping the local thief out of the truck seems a bit far fetched.

For long haul truckers, driving is only part of the job. They also secure the loads, present paperwork at truck stops, assure maintenance is done and monitor for needed repairs. At loading and unloading locations, they assure the right product is handled and placed appropriately in the truck, handle the paperwork, and sometimes even do the loading and unloading. While some of that could be handled by the equivalent of a local pilot, it would still present problems. If all you need to do to rob a robotic truck is put a car in each lane in front of it then slow down, I would expect hijackings to increase. For that reason, I expect the first few years of long haul truck automation to not be replacing the driver so much as allowing them to sleep while the truck crosses Nevada on the interstate.

For trucking and taxis, I would expect conversion to take many years. Plenty of time for old drivers to finish their careers and young folks to pick different ones.

I would expect pilots to be replaced faster. The US Air Force has just had a fully automatic space shuttle land at Kennedy Space Center. Modern passenger jets are essentially robots already. It would be very easy to simple have the airplane fly itself, have the pilot be the “emergency” pilot (what the co-pilot does now), and eliminate the 1/2 of pilots who are presently co-pilots.

Industrial trucks, like coal haulers, have already lost most of their drivers. This was done by making each truck the size of a house. Since they run on a limited course (mine to rail head to mine) and the traffic is strictly regimented, they were some of the first to demonstrate a successful robotic driver. In any case, we are not talking massive job counts here. A very large mine may have on the order of a dozen trucks running at once, and there are not that many large mines. For things like road building and repair, the context is complex, the road markers are, by definition, often gone, and the task is highly variable. They will be slow to automate.

I would expect trains to become robotic first. They run only on a controlled track with controlled crossings. They are already in communications with a central control. The task consists substantially of controlling train speed so as not to exceed what the track can bear and the train can stay upright. Add some collision sensors, some exterior cameras, and some computer control on board and you are pretty much set. But again, the total numbers employed as train drivers is rather small.

Factory assembly work, especially for things designed as a stack assembly, is a prime candidate for automation. So much so that it is already highly automated. Oh, and most of it has gone to China already anyway. It isn’t robots that are a risk to USA manufacturing jobs, it is the smart, fast, and cheap Chinese worker. To the extent we can automate further with robots, factories will return to the USA and save transportation costs.

Also, in many factories, there is a box stacking function at the end of the assembly line. When I worked in the peach cannery, we called it “tail off”. Supposedly since you were at the tail of the line and took the boxes off and stacked them; we told each other it was because you “worked your tail off”… That kind of “pick and place” job is ideal for robots. I’ve also seen film of industrial robots doing that job in at least one factory, so it is already underway.

I’m sure there are other jobs suited to robots, and that I’ve missed. But frankly, I’m not seeing the big problem. There will still be millions of jobs that can not be done by a robot, and those robots will need training and services.

What is not well suited to robots?

We’ve already touched on this to some extent. Let me just start by pointing out that “repair” of most anything does not lend itself well to automation. There are many modes of failure. It is often hard to figure out what is broken, even for people. Every task is unique and often has unexpected problems to solve. (Like removing stuck fasteners or getting broken bits out of a housing.) It will be generations before a robot can easily repair a broken robot. Or a robotic car, plane, or train.

Things requiring creative thinking, delicate manual dexterity, precise vision, human interaction, and work in changing and novel environments are all very poorly suited to robots. A partial list, based on my expectations about what works well with people and poorly with robots follows:

Management
Human Relations
Sales
Marketing
Engineering
Arborist / tree trimmer
Artists
Plumber
Electrician
Painter
Piece welding (factory assembly welding is already largely automated)
Billing Clerk
Filing Clerk (though computerized documents might reduce the need)
Complaint Desk / Customer Relations
Receptionist
Mason / Cement work
Lineman
Optometrist
Doctor
Nurse
Dentist
Dental Hygenist
Radiologist
Pharmacist
Appliance installation 
Appliance repair
Car repair
Building maintenance
Home repair
Robot repair
Factory repair
Fence buidling and repair
Ambulance personnel
Fireman
Police
Photographer
Video Camera operator
Actor
Presenter
Author
D.J. / Party Planner / Wedding Planner / Event Planner
Project Planner
Lawyer
Politician
Chef
Server / Waiter / Waitress
Teacher ( though automation exists, it still has not replaced the human contact )
Barber / Hair Dresser
Butler
Maid
Jewler
Forester / Park Ranger
Bike repair / sales / shop
Pro Sports
Golf Pro / Tennis Pro / Sports Pro and Coaches
Sensei and other trainers
Real Estate Appraiser
Loan Officer
Gardener
Custom Work - like tailors or counter / kitchen remodels 
Programmer
Systems Administrator

Again, I’m sure there are many many more I’ve missed or left out. Given that much of manufacturing has already moved to China, and what has stayed is often of a custom or specialty sort, the biggest risk of robotic manufacture is to China. not us. The only sector where I see huge disruption possible, is in transports. Even that ought to take 20 years as vehicles age out and are replaced and the technology matures.

Most of the jobs still in the USA are already those where there is little that can be done to automate it.

In Conclusion

Is there really a large bunch of folks who want to vacuum the house, mow the lawn, or drive their daily commute? When we have robot lawn mowers, we will still need a human to supervise and make sure the cat is kept safe and kids kept away from the mower. Personally, I’d rather be in the chair on the porch with my mint julep being robot manager than pushing the mower myself.

The real issue from the use of robots is just “Who owns the robotic capital stock?”. That is substantially the same issue raised by factories and automation of manufacturing. It is possible a larger share of GDP Gross Domestic Product will flow to the owners of capital when they have displaced labor with robots. That the concentration of the benefits of robot labor will flow uphill to the few who are the owners of our capital stock.

That leads to the question: Is there a limit to the amount that rich people can spend? To purchase and consume things that do need labor. Yachts, parties, custom cars, butlers, etc.

Similarly we must ask: Is there a cohort of people who can not provide labor for a wage, due to incompetence or infirmity, and who do not own capital stock? Lacking marketable skills. Will that segment grow too big?

In my opinion, crossover to an excess of labor is still far far off. Robots can not understand. They do not see very well, and hove no understanding of what they see. They can do simple things like not run over an object in front of them, or pick up a box; but they can’t tell the difference between a sleeping cat and a towel on the floor. They can barely mimic “social skills” while actually having none at all. They can not handle novel tasks and get flummoxed by complex environments. We can barely get them to deliver a lunch tray to the right hospital room, and then they require a strip on the floor to follow and can’t handle a question like “Where is the salt shaker?” when they do deliver the meal.

Will the advent of autonomous robots be disruptive in some fields? Certainly. I would not want to be a cab driver in the next ten years, for example. But that disruption will be far smaller than the disruptions of the Industrial Revolution and the Mechanization of Agriculture. Or even the impact of computerization on clerical and record keeping tasks in large companies.

The only potential problem would be if the advent of even more capital intensive production resulted in too much concentration of money in the hands of the capital owning class and too little in the hands of working folks. IFF that ever came to be, it would be fairly simple to tax away some of it and use that to pay for training or welfare for the unemployed. Though, frankly, I suspect the rich will find lots of interesting ways to spend their money first. Similarly, the use of stock grants and options for professional workers will mean much of the robotic labor will have the advantage flow to other corporate labor.

So that’s why I’m not all that worried about applying automation in a few areas of the economy where they will help. Since we have an existence proof that it isn’t all that bad and we’ve been through bigger and faster before.

Maybe I’m just not all that sympathetic to the folks Driving for a living as I think it is OK if the Drivers join the Coopers, Weavers, and Smiths doing other work in the future.

I’m certain that most of the folks I know can easily be happy with twice as big a house, another newer car, an added pool in the back, and a boat for weekends. Not one of them is anywhere near maxed out on stuff they would like to have. That means there is not yet a cap on personal demand for goods and services. In that context, we are able to absorb a larger body of work being done to provide those things.

When you put robots into “Who makes What for Whom?” you get “Robots make Goods for Whom?” And that size of future goods desires is very much larger than at present. Which only leaves the question “For Whom?” The few rich who own them? Or perhaps pretty much all of us via a variety of smoothing systems? (From taxes to natural feedback loops). Concentration of wealth is a function of all capitalism and most socialisms. Even communism concentrates the national wealth, though mostly into the hands of The Party. So that problem is a constant, robot workers or no.

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
This entry was posted in Tech Bits, World Economics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

44 Responses to Why Robot Labor Is Disruptive But Not Catastrophic

  1. pearce m. schaudies says:

    Hi Chief. This is a very interesting synopsis. There are a few assumptions that I think don’t quite fit in my mind.

    You say …
    Will robotic labor cause a catastrophic collapse of our economy, and especially of capitalism, due to a massive wave of displaced labor that will be unable to compete? My assertion is “No”, and the reasoning will follow.

    I say …
    The loss of jobs in America by offshoring was not exactly due to robots at first. It may be they will stay off shore because of robots. This did not result in a catastrophic collapse, more of a gradual decline. So over the last 30 years we have seen that certain classes of laborers wages have been stagnant, and Velocity of Money has been slowing. As Henry Ford discovered in the early 1920s he had to pay his workers enough to buy his Cars Plus maintain their lifestyle. So when their wages are stagnant but their aspirations are not, they use credit. Until it Runs Out. Seems it has been running out a lot lately.

    You say …
    Basically, robots move labor between tasks and sectors, it does not end the availability of labor.

    I say …
    Robots do not move Labor they force it out of some tasks and sector. It is up to the individual to get themselves into some other line of work. This doesn’t always happen.

    You say …
    There is still a case that can be made that due to the tendency for the rich to get richer (since they do not and can not spend all they make but must invest it), that they will get an even larger share of the “robot ownership” and so gain most of the profit from their use. I think it is a poor case, but if it were to ever be shown to be a problem, it would be pretty easy to “redistribute the wealth”. So I see no reason to take action to fix a problem that isn’t manifest yet. But it is a theoretical risk, and has been for 200+ years…

    I say …
    The Rich do not seem to be investing their surplus in expanding the business or starting a new one. It seems to be going into the stock market or hedge funds which do not create many jobs.

    I think the wealth/ income gap has become a problem over the last 30 years. The American Dream that was dangled as post- war motivation has become unattainable. As more ‘deplorables’ realise this, and see nothing being done, increasing gang violence will become a national problem.

    Regards,
    Pearce M. Schaudies.
    Minister of Future

  2. hillrj says:

    EM: It is interesting to look at your lists and think where an autistic person can fit. Is autism rising because of more diagnosis, or is it that an autistic person has more trouble fitting in to the new world?

  3. pearce m. schaudies says:

    Hi Chief. This longish article by Wolfgang Streeck suggests Capitalism, as practiced since 1950 with neoliberal rules making the playing field non- leval, will consume itself like Oroborus.

    Excerpt …

    Steady growth, sound money and a modicum of social equity, spreading some of the benefits of capitalism to those without capital, were long considered prerequisites for a capitalist political economy to command the legitimacy it needs. What must be most alarming from this perspective is that the three critical trends I have mentioned may be mutually reinforcing. There is mounting evidence that increasing inequality may be one of the causes of declining growth, as inequality both impedes improvements in productivity and weakens demand. Low growth, in turn, reinforces inequality by intensifying distributional conflict, making concessions to the poor more costly for the rich, and making the rich insist more than before on strict observance of the ‘Matthew principle’ governing free markets: ‘For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.’ [3] Furthermore, rising debt, while failing to halt the decline of economic growth, compounds inequality through the structural changes associated with financialization—which in turn aimed to compensate wage earners and consumers for the growing income inequality caused by stagnant wages and cutbacks in public services.

    Can what appears to be a vicious circle of harmful trends continue forever?

    https://newleftreview.org/II/87/wolfgang-streeck-how-will-capitalism-end

    Regards,
    Pearce M. Schaudies.
    Minister of Future

  4. David A says:

    The ” Mathew” principle is the principle of utility, and so both necessary and unavoidable. In utility is born relationships and human bonds. Utility is composed of meeting necessary necessities, and unnecessary necessities. ( Food vs a massage) We will not run out of jobs until we run out of desires. Those who become proficient in fulfilling needs and desires will ALWAYS find work in a free society.

    The rich get richer because A, they do a better job meeting desires, or B, they rig the system, often a combination of both. IMV a primary role of government is to prevent B, yet the rub is empowering goverment. But preventing it from becoming B.

    All systems can fail, when virtue fails.

  5. philjourdan says:

    The initial wave of robotics is done – that of rote work. The next wave will involve some form of AI (driving). So I think your list of “can’t do” is too long. Many of those can be done (the local community already automates Assessments).

    But I agree it is disruptive, but not catastrophic.

  6. Oliver K. Manuel says:

    It is almost impossible for any human to curb selfishness from the survival instinct, get “right-sized” and enjoy life.

  7. Jon K says:

    I can’t see robotic driving working in heavy urban centers in the near future. This article describes some of the problems http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/U/US_DRIVING_REVOLUTION_ROBOTS_VS_HUMANS?SITE=AP&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT&CTIME=2017-05-11-06-36-37

    I live near Chicago and drive there (only when I have to). The frequent road construction with constantly changing traffic patterns will be impossible for the programmers to keep up with. The behavior of pedestrians, where you have to gently threaten their life as they cross streets against crossing signals in order to get anywhere, will be impossible to program into the AI. Also, as mentioned in the article, the actions of other drivers will bring the robots to a stand still. Things will have to fundamentally change for this to work and I don’t see that happening in the next 50 years.

    As for manufacturing, you are right, this will hurt China, Mexico, and other areas currently providing cheap labor way more significantly than it hurts us.

  8. Soronel Haetir says:

    I believe you are missing at least some sectors (and possibly others I am not thinking of). A major one being fast food workers, McDonald’s for one already employs far fewer people per location than in the past and I only see that trend continuing (possibly to the point where there are only a few maintenance personnel). Another being grocery stores, we already have self-check-out with a few people tasked with helping and monitoring a bank of registers, I can see a point where even stocking and related tasks are automated.

    IIf our population were 150 million instead of the 320+ that it is I could well see the coming cycle not being catastrophic but

  9. cdquarles says:

    A business like McDonalds has always been a factory. Since arbitrarily ‘raising’ minimum wages never helps people, especially those with low valued skills (Remember like all other economic valuations, skill valuations are not static. They are subject to rapid change.), we really need to get rid of the economic delusions many accept as true by faith, yet they’re not true.

    Economic inequality: Why should there be economic equality. “Rich” people produce more value than “poor” people. The so-called “rich” already provide more than they get back in money. Taxing or otherwise harming a rich person does *not* help the poor. If you want to help the poor, change their mindset, by convincing them that it is their attitudes and habits that result in much of their relative lower productivity. Note well that these differences are, in part, inherent in fallen man; so we will never, ever eliminate the disparity by human action. People are not ant mounds, which are primarily one extended female (the queen and her parthenogenetic sisters). People are not the Borg, either. The world works like this God (existence) => Angels/Man as individuals => families => villages => towns, counties, cities, nations. Societies are made by the human individuals, not the other way around. All extended individuals that are voluntary associations of individuals are corporations.

  10. John F. Hultquist says:

    From last fall: Self-Driving Truck Makes 120 mile Budweiser Run
    Link

  11. Zeke says:

    The way I see it, trucking is already automated. When I was in the business, you used an atlas, a clutch &13-speeds, chains in the mountains, did your own log book…Now drivers have these moving castles that do all of this, and literally can’t use a map!

    I guess I went the way of the horse :D

  12. E.M.Smith says:

    @Pearce:

    Robot / highly automated factories move where the tax laws are most favorable. By definition, the comparative labor rates are not important. Major corporations can borrow anywhere in the world so particular financial conditions like “tight money” in any one country are not an issue either.

    It all comes down to legal structure (can I expect to be nationalized or do they have a firm rule of law?) and tax rate (can I bank my profit or will it be taken?).

    Since the USA ranks well on Rule Of Law, it all comes down to comparative tax rates.

    So robot factories well land in the USA just as soon as our taxes favor it. It is one of reasons some manufacturing is returning to the USA. No “government owns half” required like in China.

    Your statement about move vs displace is a distinction without a difference. Labor is mobile. It goes where it is rewarded.

    Per businesses not expanding: Um, no. They have built massively. In China. It is a mistake to point at the USA and EU with excessive tax rates and some pretty horrific regulatory structures and cite robots as the cause. Especially when those USA and EU companies have built large operations in China. It is the comparative tax and regulatory environments that have slowed growth or resulted in shrinkage of sectors in the USA and EU. We still buy socks. Where are they made? China. Would ANY sane person build a sock factory in the USA or EU to compete against the Chinese wage and regulatory advantage?

    When looking at growing income inequality, you must now look at it on a Global basis, because labor is now a global pool. The reality is that it has nothing to do with Capitalism vs Socialism (the Socialist nations of the EU are just as troubled by unemployment). Look at China. Nearly a Billion people rapidly rising out of near poverty into a modernity level. They have risen massively, closing the disparity gap. In the process, their peers in the EU and USA have stagnated, or declined a little. As China reaches parity, then once again our poor will see wage gains. But be clear about it: It is not some rampant disparity caused by greedy capitalism widening disparity; it is narrowing of disparity for a Billion Chinese taking the growth.

    @HillRJ:

    I think the more growth of Autism is due to changes of lifestyle causing more to show up and more diagnosis. I was just a ‘bright and quirky’ kid, but now would be “diagnosed” and drugged. Several classmates were “fidgety and could not sit still” today they would be ADHD and drugged…

    FWIW, it looks like the push to never let sun touch your bare skin is a significant factor. Vitamin D is shown connected (covered elsewhere) and look at what folks do now. Sit all day inside and slather with UV block when going out.

    @David A:

    Basically yes. I’d only add that once you have a few hundred Million dollars, you can’t spend it all so are essentially forced to invest it and watch it grow, while someone living below the poverty line has zero growth of assets.

  13. Zeke says:

    Chief says, “FWIW, it looks like the push to never let sun touch your bare skin is a significant factor. Vitamin D is shown connected (covered elsewhere) and look at what folks do now. Sit all day inside and slather with UV block when going out.”

    The tanning beds all shut down when Ocare taxed them. And it is really cloudy up here. We get pale, vit D deficient, and SAD.

    Now that the Ocare taxes on medical devices/&c have been repealed, can I please get my Automated Sun back?! (:

  14. E.M.Smith says:

    @Joh K:

    There was already a case where a car (Tesla?) banged into a traffic separator barrier at speed in a side swipe. Why? They put down the concrete barriers to move the lane to the right one space, but left the original edge stripe paint running into the barrier. The robot followed the left stripe, not the lighter temporary paint, and didn’t handle the grey blob in front of it detection very well. That is, one patch of grey pavement looks a lot like a patch of grey barrier…

    When I think of it trying to navigate San Francisco, I shudder. Then I remember being on a road in the UK outside London. Room for one car between two rows of parked cars. Oncoming car headed right for me. Seems the protocol is to match speeds such that you both arrive at the one place where there is not parked car then you dip into it as they pass you… Noting the number of cars with dents, this doesn’t always work well… A robot will fail there.

    So since robots will all be programed to be very defensive tepid drivers and when in doubt, stop; there is going to be a massive slow down in traffic everywhere as confused little robots stop to ponder. Then, on the freeways, think they will do “10 over the limit” to keep up with the flow of traffic? Nope. Insurance companies will lobby to force them to always stay below the limit. At some point this will result in a catastrophic early lock up of rush hour traffic that simply can’t be undone.

    @Soronel:

    I’m certainly missing lots of sectors in that list. It just isn’t possible to list them all in a blog post.

    Per check-out clerks: That will vary with the nature of the business. Places where customer service matters will keep people. Places with mass generic goods will not. So grocery stores are already self serve in part; yet even there customer acceptance has been poor. We just don’t want to do it ourselves. I also did think about robot shelf stocking. It can be done, but is it “worth it”? Eventually I think we will see it, but teaching robots to real all the labels and pick out the misplaced items will not be easy and they will not be fast.

    Per Macdonalds: We’ve had automats for food for decades. Nothing prevents doing the cooking in a factory and microwave heating. In fact, in many (some even upscale) restaurants they do exactly that. Why make a real lasagna when you can just zap a frozen Stoffers and plate it?

    So yes, companies will always act to reduce labor costs. Just like they act to reduce materials costs and power costs and insurance costs and… It is up to the customer to accept it, or not. I, for one, have generally refused to use the “type in your order” kiosks. There were more of a PITA than dealing with a real person. The new “apps” that let me do it from a phone? If they are more comfortable to me than dealing with the ever less proficient order taker, I’m going there.

    But to note: We have fully automated car washes. Yet folks will pay extra for a “hand wash and wax” car wash. There will always be a market for labor, and even if it costs more. So displacement from one area moves labor to other areas. (Unless, of course, Government forces wage costs so high it make that labor unemployable).

    @CDQuarles:

    Yes, people often limit their future by their own actions. Yet many Rich are not their because of some great gift of skill, but by virtue of a hard working parent or a side water of economic luck.

    Take the Kardashians (please…) Not seeing a lot of skill in butt wiggling…

    @John F:

    Now that’s what I need! A self driving beer run truck… ;-)

    @Zeke:

    I still keep maps in the car. I’ve noticed ever fewer folks getting maps. Last I tested my kids, one could use a map, the other not so much. ( I’d showed both of them during driving lessons and even tested them on sense of direction. One has now lost the sense of direction… Use it or lose it…) I’m the only one in the family with a manual transmission car now, too. The son had one, then married an automatic…

    I don’t see drivers being displaced from most trucking. They will just become “attendants”. Filling the gas, checking the oil, inspecting the tires, making sure the truck isn’t hijacked, talking with the loading dock guy to find out what bay to type into the ‘park here’ screen. The major benefit being they can set it for “take I-10 from L.A. to San Antonio” and sleep while it drives over night. No more walls of rigs parked anywhere they can find a spot to scratch the log book. That will reduce the need for drivers (more trucks in motion high percentage loading) but not eliminate them.

    It think it will be gradual anyway. I can’t see robotic trucks solving some of the driving Aw Shits I’ve seen professional drivers solve. (Things like one wheel over a corner curb ’cause otherwise the truck does not move forward or backwards, or a very complicated couple of linked Y turns to get into the right slot. Or even just noticing the smoke from one wheel and pulling over before the tire blows and the load spills.) So it’s going to take a generation to get A.I. to that level.

  15. E.M.Smith says:

    @Zeke:

    We bought a Lizard Lamp for the spouse. I tested it on my back to calibrate (no more than 20 minutes, no closer than 3 feet). It has done a great job of eliminating SAD. (Even if the government says I’m a criminal for doing it.) One of the best $15 I’ve ever spent.

  16. M Simon says:

    Manufacturing and assembly has already had major impacts so there isn’t really that much left to happen in them.

    About 40,000 industrial robots were sold in America last year. There is a LOT left to happen.

  17. llanfar says:

    IMO, it’s not robots that are so disruptive – it’s AI. A couple of links in re: your statement that radiologists and doctors should be safe (note: I’ve been working at IBM Watson Health for a bit over a year, but not directly on Watson. Though the analytics our app generates may be used by Watson in the future to improve patient outcomes in hospitals):

    IBM’s Watson gives proper diagnosis for Japanese leukemia patient after doctors were stumped for months

    We got to see how IBM’s Watson supercomputer could help diagnose a patient

    Also, I worked for the rail industry for a couple of years prior (unrelated – a bid/offer app for rail cars). They already have a huge number of sensors on both trains and rails that provide near realtime data. It can be quite bad if a rail car wheel goes out of round – it can damage the rail and eventually lead to possible derailment.

  18. Larry Geiger says:

    “Jon K says:
    11 May 2017 at 2:16 pm
    I can’t see robotic driving working in heavy urban centers in the near future. This article describes some of the problems” That’s why the prototypes and first commercial versions will run on wide open highways out west. Then slowly expand to other areas. New products almost always move into ideal markets first and then expand into other areas. Also, as the urban areas decide to have the orderly and automated benefits of self-driving vehicles they will create corridors to accommodate them. This already happens. The long haul trucker and the train deliver their goods to the warehouse at one end and it goes out the other end in smaller, more urban compatible vehicles. How often does a semi pull up in front of your house from FedEx or UPS?

  19. spetzer86 says:

    You had pharmacists on your list as safe. May be a little dispute with this link: http://www.womensarticle.com/5-college-degrees-that-may-be-extinct-in-20-years/6/

    Automation / AI / robotics will impact a wide range of professions including pharmaceutics and various research areas because of the ability to automate experimentation. Sounds great, but you don’t need many people to watch the machine work.

  20. John F. Hultquist says:

    I’ve been driving past orchards for many years. The changes are striking. Trees used to be thought of and were single physical things.
    Picking apples required moving a ladder and climbing up and down numerous times. A 25 or 30 pound load would have to be carried down to the ground and to a bin.

    Now orchard trees are more like a row crop. They are planted just a few inches apart in a long row and pruned to a row shape. They are also on roots that keep them small (think that through). Boxes per acre are greater. Harvesting is faster using using hydraulic operated platforms and vacuum hoses, or other methods.
    An early example (2013) is here:the Apple Harvester

    Today, there are multiple methods because the industry is changing rapidly. No one way is dominate. A drive through orchard country is an education.

    Much labor is still used in starting a new high-density planting. Also, in packing, because apples and other fruit get carried over winter in controlled atmosphere (CA) storage.

  21. pearce m. schaudies says:

    Hi Chief. Thanks For the clarification. Mostly Global tax advantages and concept definitions.

    Regards,
    Pearce M. Schaudies.
    Minister of Future

  22. E.M.Smith says:

    @Spetzer86:

    Your linked article is not very compelling. So as to save others the click(bait) time:

    Your prescription can be filled by a robot. That is a simple idea to grasp. More and more drugstores are turning to this idea of an automatic pick up or drop off, and there is no real need for a pharmacist in this world. Compounding is still relatively used, but as big pharmaceuticals dominate the playing field – the need for compounding will dwindle as well. Go big and become a doctor instead, as this job is very replaceable.

    That is the ENTIRE “article”.

    The reality is that an 8th grade educated clerk could fill a prescription, just match characters and count pills. However they are not allowed to do it since the result of an error can be horrific so we have a legal requirement for a trained pharmacist to do it. They also are expected to know your other medications and make sure the Dr. didn’t screw up and give you a lethal cocktail or a pernicious mixture.

    Then there is the “consultation”. At least at my pharmacy, for any drug with complexities in use (i.e. side effects of note), the pharmacist talks with you to assure you “get it” that, for example, taking your tetracycline with milk is a bad idea.

    BTW, I’m not the only one feeling ‘let down’ by the article. From the comments there:

    Al Marenco Saen • 3 months ago

    Why are you fighting click-bate, written by a professional troll on some fake news site? Don’t feed the trolls. Journalist? You are giving this (likely) foreign teenager way too much credit. Calling an uneducated moron a bad journalist is flattery, not insulting. So, for future reference, any site that has a 5 paragraph article divided in 6 pages is garbage clickbait. If it’s riddled with adware, specially for horrible pop-up/spyware intrusive things like Mac-Keeper and suggests you read non-sense about celebrities at the end of the article, then it’s a 100% piece of crap fake news clickbait site of the worst kind, and trying to intelligently debate it’s worth in the comment section, even if to criticize, only legitimizes it… so please… again, avoid feeding the clickbait trolls. Instead, help people realize what this is, something so laughably stupid and empty, it’s not worth spilling 2 consonants over.

    Perhaps you can find a real article somewhere to strengthen your case…

  23. Jon K says:

    @ Lerry Geiger
    “Also, as the urban areas decide to have the orderly and automated benefits of self-driving vehicles they will create corridors to accommodate them. This already happens.” – I can see this possibly happening in more modernly constructed cities, but impossible in cities laid out before modern transportation was even a figment of sci-fi imagination. The streets are already too narrow and parking is too much of an precious resource (and revenue) to dedicate self-driving lanes and there’s no way drivers would respect the integrity of those lanes. Heck, even the small dedicated bike lanes are impossible to keep driving traffic out of as they’re just extra space to get around the turning vehicle or double parked delivery truck.

    “The long haul trucker and the train deliver their goods to the warehouse at one end and it goes out the other end in smaller, more urban compatible vehicles. How often does a semi pull up in front of your house from FedEx or UPS?” – Of course small deliveries can be downsized into smaller trucks, but there’s still the problem of getting to the distribution hub with the semi, and that doesn’t include construction deliveries. How do you deal with the countless loads of rebar, large HVAC units, and other construction materials needed in an ever changing urban landscape?

    Overall, I can’t see self-driving to be more than a feature like cruise control that you can switch on at appropriate times, but you’ll still need a sentient human to operate the non-standard situation that require complex decision making.

  24. jim2 says:

    “In Los Angeles and other places, for instance, there’s the “California Stop,” where drivers roll through stop signs if no traffic is crossing. In Southwestern Pennsylvania, courteous drivers practice the “Pittsburgh Left,” where it’s customary to let one oncoming car turn left in front of them when a traffic light turns green. The same thing happens in Boston. During rush hours near Ann Arbor, Michigan, drivers regularly cross a double-yellow line to queue up for a left-turn onto a freeway.”

    http://www.sfgate.com/business/technology/article/What-s-holding-back-self-driving-cars-Human-11138127.php

  25. jim2 says:

    I wouldn’t say “disruptive but not catastrophic.” It’s more like “deteriorating but not catastrophic.” Jobs will deteriorate in quantity and remuneration, but it won’t happen swiftly which is implied by the word catastrophic. I think the degradation of jobs will be permanent and devastating to many people. I know that if I take a week off, I’m getting bored even though I’m busy with work around the house. I miss programming that soon. I’m not looking forward to retirement, which no matter my preferences will have to happen at some point.

  26. jim2 says:

    On last thought. When a small business is established, it typically needs space, furniture, office equipment, and a myriad of other goods and services. This “multiplier effect” works in reverse when retail businesses are shut down by Amazon and its automation. Even though all Amazon’s automation isn’t in the form of robots, I include it. Robots are just a more specialized type of automation.

  27. E.M.Smith says:

    @M. Simon:

    A lot of the industrial robots are sold to replace inflexible but still automated assembly lines. This increase the flex in the factory, but assembly is already highly automated in assembly line factories.

    @Jim2:

    One other odd bit of traffic problem for robots;

    When I was in Boston, I noticed that folks there drive differently. Due to their frequent snow and sand on the road, the use of road paint is more, um, optional. Need a left turn lane? Just queue up where you think one ought to be… then others queue behind you. One lane or two going your way? How wide is your car?… I got the hang of it after a day or two, but for an “Everything Has A Line!” Californian, it was a new experience. Robot cars expect lines…

    Per retail:

    Yup. The likes of Amazon and Walmart are the big threat, not robots. Already decimating retail nation wide. As of now, about 50% of my non-groceries retail buys come from those two ( the Walmart online ordering is nice and you can arrange pickup at any Walmart nearby, so very nice when “on the road”).

    Now you can make a case that their ordering is automated and their warehouses use automation… but then that’s in fact not robots, but already existing automation (that has existed for years…).

    I strongly disagree that jobs will deteriorate in quantity. Please re-read the posting! Folks find things to do. Until all of us live in 20,000 square foot mansions with 10 cars and 2 boats, there are unfilled needs and desires, so folks will want to fill them. That takes labor. Even if 90% of that labor gets automated, that last 10% that takes people will consume all available labor until we all reach that fully satisfied level. The only way for that NOT to happen is if The Rich keep all the money to themselves, in which case they get a tax voted onto them and it gets spread around anyway. (We have existence proof of this. Welfare recipients today live like upper class of the 1930s. The ‘poverty line’ is what much of the world aspires to achieve…)

    I don’t think we will end up at that “tax the rich” solution, though. Long before that creative people will find other ways to employ labor. What do you hear in the news? “We need more immigrants to fill the labor shortages.” Many of the local businesses have “Help Wanted” signs in the window. Anyone doing gardening or fence building or painting will be speaking Spanish. (Just in the last month I’ve been speaking Spanish with the tree removal team and with the guys who built my fence. They have one guy who has OK English and everyone else is “fresh off the boat” in language skills…)

    Yes, I know Silicon Valley is “different” and that it’s hard to get minimum wage help here (despite it being a high minimum wage) due to the cost of living. But this is one of THE most automated economies in the nation. National Semiconductor had a giant robotic inventory management system 40 years ago! I saw it in operation. A computer knew where every part was in bins and would bring the right bin to the ‘pick and pack’ station, no people required. (There are many more examples). The simple fact is that the more Silicon Valley has embraced tech and automation, the harder it has become to fill lower wage jobs as there just aren’t enough folks looking for them.

    Will that model work the same everywhere else? I don’t know, but I’ve seen nothing to the contrary. I program computers. A job that didn’t exist outside of a few rare places when I was born and did not exist at all when my oldest sister was born. My Dad changed careers from farm kid to soldier to construction worker to restaurant owner to real-estate sales. Jobs change. People change with them.

  28. Zeke says:

    Chief says, “I strongly disagree that jobs will deteriorate in quantity. Please re-read the posting! Folks find things to do.”

    That tidies up what you meant by the limits of how rich every person could become. Yes, people have pursuits and designs that you cannot always predict. And if free, will use their opportunities and personal skills for unique ends. That is what it is to be human. But sometimes it is expressed as a hobby, outside of the forty-hour work week. The “mindless” job allows the amateur to support himself and amateurs do a lion’s share of innovation.

    I think there is a problem with ingratitude here. It was automation etc. that took all of the things that would have been luxury items, and made them available to every day people. Think about spices. Spices were responsible for Columbus’ desire to navigate over the Atlantic. Eventually, someone else broke with centuries and centuries (and centuries) of Ptolemy’s bogus map traditions, and rounded the tip of Africa — and brought the spices back to Europe that way.

    Historians never breath a word about spices ever again after that. But there is not a single American child who has not had cinnamon, chocolate, nutmeg, all-spice at Christmas, and ginger. That is because American businessmen found a way not only to improve yield but to ship it, and make it a common experience in all kinds of cakes, drinks and confections. It makes life more wonderful for every day people, by every day people. It was a new way of looking at and using science, life, and technology.

    Today’s trends are the reverse: The Anthropocene Scientific Paradigm seeks to take all of the wonderful items that technology, free markets and transportation provide us, and turn them into luxury items. That is the entire long and short of it. So to view automation properly, you need to revise your view of history, so that you can appreciate that there are basically no luxury items.

    (I’m not saying it’s the Middle Class but…It’s the Middle Class. (: )

  29. Zeke says:

    As far as automated food and pharmacists go, that is hackable, and also they will no doubt start to replace ingredients on the sly. Human eyes and hands still provide a barrier to the environmentalists desire to replace everything with soybeans, palm oil, and other disgusting products.

    Remember, they view ingredients and fungible if you calculate calories and vitamins on a government issued nutritional balance sheet. So customers if free to chose may not want a burger made without any people involved. We still raise families and live in towns you know.

  30. E.M.Smith says:

    @Zeke:

    Yes!

    What we think of today as “scraping by” was unthinkably wealthy 100 years go. I have 3 cars at the moment and may buy a 4th. (There’s an 0ld Mercedes needing TLC being sold cheap…). I don’t need more than 2, really, and we could get by with one. My Mother did not learn to drive until she was in her 30s and in England went everywhere on “shanks mare”… i.e. walked.

    My big decision today is what of the 20 pounds of stuff in the freezer will become dinner and what of the 40 pounds in the fridge will be sides. My Mother had times during the great depression where they were lucky to have a bowl of porridge on any given day. My Dad was given a single .22 shell and sent out to get a rabbit. IF he did, they had rabbit for dinner. If not, well, he’d get another .22 shell the next day… Refrigeration was unheard of for both and we didn’t have A/C in the house until I was about 14. There were no “refrigerator repairmen”… Oh, and we didn’t get an automatic washer and dryer until about 1960…

    Now even welfare queens have a Large Screen HDTV, expect a dishwasher and / or washer / dryer set, and a cell phone with internet access.

    So just what will be the ‘minimum standard’ for normal in another 50 years? How much labor will that take?

    Yes, too, that the Malthusian Scientists of today are working from a book of fear and angst, not hope and creativity. IMHO, that’s THE biggest thing that needs reversing. Getting back the American Can Do! attitude. As part of that, getting rid of a lot of the laws that now prevent folks from doing things. For example: I have a State Of California Lifetime Teaching Credential. Yet to actually get a job teaching, I now need to show manufacturers certs. To get THOSE, I must pay a few $thousand to someone like Microsoft and take some tests (that I could write…) AND have a certain number of “recent hours of experience”. Well, as a semi-retired guy, that just can’t happen.

    So I’m perfectly capable and available to teach computer stuff (and have done so in the past, so experienced and have course materials) but I’m administratively locked out.

    At one time I drove a forklift (back when anyone in farm country was expected to do whatever needed doing). Now California requires you to get a Fork Lift License. I’m able and available to drive a forklift, but I can’t be hired to do it.

    I have a long list of such things that I’ve done in the past (and been paid to do) where I’m now locked out by administrative / regulatory crap. Want to increase employment? Get rid of that crap. It is far more damaging to labor use rates than robots.

  31. Zeke says:

    “I have a long list of such things that I’ve done in the past (and been paid to do) where I’m now locked out by administrative / regulatory crap. Want to increase employment? Get rid of that crap. It is far more damaging to labor use rates than robots.”

    I feel like you just hit the Fuhrer’s bunker with a MOAB, EM.

    Even my teenagers have to get permission from the public school to be able to apply for a job. I can’t tell you how much I hate that. The government wants to insert their middleman into every transaction.

  32. E.M.Smith says:

    @Jim2:

    Now make a similar chart for China (and to some extent India) and compute the change in AVERAGE standard of living for ALL of that population. Keep in mind China and India are 1 Billion each while the USA / EU are more like 350 Million each…

    It’s China that has taken the manufacturing. Not robots. Just look at the “made in” labels…

  33. jim2 says:

    I see your point,EM. But neither I nor my children live in China. I haven’t asked them, but I doubt they want to live there. I know I don’t. Personally, I think we should pick and choose what countries we enable with trade and aid. China is now becoming a military power thanks to outsourcing. They now rattle their new sabres in our direction. This is another aspect of free trade economists and others refuse to acknowledge.

  34. E.M.Smith says:

    @Jim2:

    Not to worry. As modernity levels match, their excess growth stops. They may continue with the mercantilist efforts, but eventually someone like a Trump comes along and stops it. We’re approaching that point now with China having reached a pretty good level of modernity.

    It’s a natural oscillation with dampening. We saw it when the USA took off and Europe went flat line for a long time, yet Europe today is just as well off as the USA. We saw it when, post W.W.II Japan took off. Now Japan has caught up and gone flat too. So no need to move. Just patience (and pushback on the mercantilist policies…)

  35. pouncer says:

    Just before my relapse I worked the Christmas “peak” season at an Amazon distribution center. The physical processes very much replicated what robots WOULD be doing, if building and programming a robot could be cost-effective for a task that only existed a few months. [1] From the month or so before “peak” to the month after, three major changes in process flow were introduced. The ( human )workforce got about a ten-minute lecture about what was changing, and the building-wide operation moved on. (By day three after the change and lecture, everybody was on task with at least the accuracy of the day before change — if not the productivity standard. Re-study and re-calculation of labor standards is NOT a process Amazon cares to invest much time, effort, or money into.)

    A trained pigeon can do much of what human labors are paid to do. But it takes a lot longer to train the pigeon.

    The out-sourced Amazon “mechanical Turk” system replicates more widely.

    [1] Example, eye-ball a 4×6 label somewhere on a carton moving on a conveyor and push the carton to the left or right side of a gate depending on the alpha character leading one (of several) clear-text data fields. (Amazon also printed QR codes, barcodes, and Data-Matrix codes on the labels but machines for laser-scanning, interpreting, lookup, and running a physical switch between conveyor lanes cost a lot more than a part-time, on-call, laborer.) At one point during the season alpha codes A-C went left while D-G went right. Later A-D and previously unused code H went left. As I say, a ten minute lecture revises the process, the work flow, and the available resources. )

  36. E.M.Smith says:

    @Pouncer:

    That’s a good observation.

    Folks forget that even really dumb people are extreamly smart compared to computers and much easier to “program” in simple natural language. Often they are self correcting.

    Now compare the “rental cost” of a person at $10/ hr vs a robot at $100,000 to $1Million capital cost… Much easier to get 100 people in fast and working than to get 100 robots installed snd programmed. Having robots do things like spot weld the same car frame 24 x 7 x 365 makes a lot of sense; having one repaint your used car not so much.

  37. jim2 says:

    From the article:

    The time-honored multigenerational giants like Macy’s, Sears and JCPenney are all looking at a dramatically different future.

    Macy’s stock collapsed 17 percent after Thursday’s first-quarter report. And high-end retail behemoths like Nordstrom are getting clobbered, too. Shares of that politically petulant retailer fell 11 percent Thursday on news of its first-quarter re

    http://nypost.com/2017/05/14/the-fall-of-retailers-means-doomsday-for-malls/

  38. EMS,
    There have been several studies of jobs concluding 45 – 50% will be replaced by AI and robotics. The forecast is by 2035, with which I have trouble as I think there are too many variables to forecast a date.

    I think you are underestimating the improvements that AI will bring. For example it should not be hard to better the present 38,300 people who were killed on U.S. roads in 2015, and roughly 4.4 million sustained injuries.

    There is still a lot of room for robotics to replace low end labor in this country. You can see sales from brick & mortar stores are fast declining. For example there is already a prototype machine that prepares 400(?) per hour hamburgers with a wide choice of extras and in Japan there are several fully automated sushi bars that not only prepare and serve the food and handle the payments, but also clean up afterwards.

    AI is moving upwards where the ROI is greater. You know about how much of law is already done by computer, as is mainstream trading. For example there is a pharmacy attached to a CA hospital that already fills and delivers thousands of prescriptions a day. A pharmacist is reported to be the 13th highest paid professional.

    The American health system costs 2 – 8 times as much as other advanced countries who cover everyone with a single payer. The performance is not great either. Maternal deaths are the highest of any developed country. As you have probably read, Watson can diagnose an illness as well as a medical doctor already.

    Much of what you read in the press is already written by computers and the forecast is that most will be written this way in a few years.
    Any job that can be well defined is threatened by AI and robotics.

    What worries me is that history shows (many examples) that when the gap between the richest and the poorest gets too big there is a revolution.
    Add to that there are already 93 million Americans not working and the current service jobs available do not pay enough for someone to buy a house and start a family.
    Just who is going to buy the output of these automated factories when they are already $16,000 (average) in debt and when half the jobs go?

    I happen to think that commercial LENR reactors will start to appear in 2018 and that the transition to LENR will cushion the otherwise traumatic transition required in the economic system we now have.
    I know you don’t like UBI but how else are you going avoid bloody uprisings? Looking at the Dept of Labor job forecasts most of them are for poor paying jobs that are easily automated.
    There wil not be enough new jobs.

    ps. You doubt massage will be automated. How about sexbots that may well reduce population growth?
    I hate to think what military robots will be capable of when powered by LENR. Automate wars?

  39. jim2 says:

    It’s not just low-end labor that’s at risk. From the article:

    Of the 20 fastest falling industries in terms of jobs advertised, it said 13 were in decline because of increasing automation. These include pharmacy assistants, travel agents, design engineers, translators and IT support analysts. The surge in the number of people booking their holidays online has led to a fall in demand for travel agents.
    Even creative industries which were previously thought to be ‘robot proof’ are not immune, with illustrators, animators and writers also in decline. Google is among those to have designed automated translation software, which is making human translators increasingly redundant. Automated writers are already being used, with the Associated Press using software to write some company financial reports and Yahoo using similar technology to create fantasy sports reports.
    And advances in software are also reducing demand for illustrators and animators, according the analysis – which challenges the assumption that low-skilled, low-paid blue collar jobs are most under threat from automation.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4505544/Human-jobs-taken-robots-new-study-shows.html

  40. Jim2,
    Anyone who believes the unemployment is only 4.x% has been sucked in by false government propaganda. Google real unemployment in the US..

  41. jim2 says:

    @Adrian Ashfield says:

    Yes, I’m familiar with the discouraged worker numbers.

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