8 Ways Robots Are Taking Over Our Jobs and Our World

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Yves here. One of the high potential areas for robot substitution that I see on the list below is staffing of fast food restaurants (as in cooking). Fast food restaurants have limited menus and pre-set, highly specified procedures, making them prime candidates for labor substitution. But notice also the high end professional on the list.

I have to differ a little with the cheery, “Better policy will create new/different jobs.” What passes for our leadership believes in the mantra of more education and more skilled workers as the answer. In fact, America is going in reverse in this category, as educational attainment has fallen and college and higher education costs rise into the stratosphere. Moreover, the notion that there is a raft of highly technical jobs with lots of unmet demand is a canard. As we’ve discussed at some length, STEM graduates are finding it hard to obtain work (see confirming evidence in The Myth of the Science and Engineering Shortage from the Atlantic last year). And even if that were an area of hot demand, not everyone has the aptitude and self-discipline to become highly skilled in highly technical fields (and rarefied expertise make your more vulnerable, since if conditions in your field change, you need to acquire new know-how to move into a different area). The Japanese believe that it is critical for society to generate enough paid work, hence their refusal to rationalize a highly inefficient retail sector and belief that the most important duty of an entrepreneur is to create jobs. We’ve completely lost sight of this need.

By Zaid Jilani, an AlterNet staff writer. Follow @zaidjilani on Twitter. Originally published at AlterNet

One of the next great challenges American workers are starting to face is the increasing automation of jobs that previously could only be done by a living, breathing human being. Here are eight jobs that robots are taking over as they take over the world:

  1. Chef: In Shanghai this month, visitors at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) Asia were able to have meals cooked by an entire robotic kitchen. London’s Moley Robotics designed the kitchen, which features two robot arms that will cook a variety of dishes for you as you select from an iTunes-style menu of items.
  2. Cleaner: Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are refining algorithms designed to help robots tell the difference between trash and other goods in your home, which could form the basis for programming robots to do our cleaning.
  3. Traffic cop: The Congo has started to use “solar-powered aluminum robots” to direct traffic. The robots are able to rotate, and they have surveillance cameras so they can send images to local police stations.
  4. Bartender: The company Somabar is creating a robot bartender that can make you any drink you choose. You would even be able to give it orders via wi-fi from your computer, tablet or smartphone.
  5. Hospital sanitizer: A robot in a hospital in Sharon, Pennsylvania is using an ultraviolet light to destroy bacteria and viruses that could make patients sick. It should be pointed out that the robot does this job after standard cleaning procedures have been completed.
  6. Surgeon: A number of hospitals have started using robotic surgery. Several hospitals in Nevada are using a robot called Xi that results in “smaller incisions, less blood loss, fewer complications and shorter recovery periods.”
  7. Bellhop: A Silicon Valley company is designing a robot bellhop. Called the Botlr, it’s a “cylindrical machine on wheels, with a basin and a lid on top. It can hold standard room service items like toiletries, water bottles, and newspapers, and find it own way to hotel rooms. It can even ride the elevator.”
  8. Camel jockey: The storied Arab tradition of camel racing now has a technological twist, as robots are increasingly playing the role of jockeys. The robots are controlled by racers, who follow the camels in their own vehicles, as a form of almost remote-controlled racing.

One big question posed by all this is, what will happen to the workers who currently do these jobs if automation catches on in any of these areas?

The American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner says we shouldn’t fear the coming of robots. He points to the 1930s, when there was “an automatic scare, and many economists blamed the high unemployment of that era on machines taking human jobs. John Maynard Keynes pointed out that the problem wasn’t machines; it was depressed purchasing power. The World War II boom proved his point. Massive public investment during the war invented and subsidized new automated technologies, but it produced even more public work.”

That seems to get at the crux of the matter: robots are only a threat if we don’t have an economic policy designed to produce the demand to create new jobs. It’s not the automation, it’s the policy.

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  1. mark

    the Hospital cleaning robot, a portable 245 nm UV light is not a labor reducing device, it actually increases the amount of labor required. Short version:hospitals infect patients because of bacteria left behind on surfaces from the prior room occupant, manual cleaning and disinfection is not good at removing those pathogens. The portable UV devices are one way (of several) to help reduce the bioburden in the room, as noted after manual cleaning is completed. To date there have been no really good peer reviewed studies to show UV actually reduces infection rates, there have been for other methods (hydrogen peroxide vapor).

    The “robot” is not really a robot, it is a portable device and requires a human operator to place it in the room, set up the room (moving furniture and similar material) then to actually operate the device. Getting the device to the correct room during the short window of opportunity between the completion of the manual clean (post patient discharge) and the room being reoccupied by the next patient is a logistical challenge that requires either a lot of UV lights (major capital expenditure) or the employment of a full time team to operate the lamp.

    You stepped in to my wheelhouse on this one and I can tell you that in every instance where a no touch disinfecting device has been deployed it has increased labor costs not reduced them. in many instances the additional FTE may be justified by the reduced cost of hospital acquired infections, but if you want to see that benefits of the device you will increase head count. Possibly the problem here is semantics, the device is question is not really a robot, but the marketing people for the manufacturers like the label because it sounds sexy.

    1. cwaltz

      Most of these jobs don’t reduce labor by much. The reality is even if a robot makes the food someone has to “feed” the robot the ingredients(at least that was the case with the burger making robots) and someone will need to clean and maintain the robot in the same way you have to clean and maintain a pot or a pan or it’ll be a breeding ground for food bourne illness. Someone still needs to maintain restrooms and dining areas as well.

      Quite frankly I think things like kiosks in some ways are helpful because food service has never been overly generous when it comes to staffing. If I can order at a kiosk then maybe the person upfront can get a chance to clean the dining room or stock items like cups and napkins(although I get the ideal would be for the franchise owner to hire enough people to do things like clean, stock, and care for customers.

      1. Disturbed Voter

        Perhaps one motivation isn’t to reduce labor, but to reduce guilt. One reason to have automation in general, and those fictional androids in particular, is so that we can live like Scarlett O’Hara and not have to worry about how the “help” is doing. Buying and selling machines, will never fall afoul of morality like buying and selling people did. Someone has calculated that our present labor saving devices are equivalent to each middle-class family having an average of ten servants. With our present level of automation, we have gotten out of the business of oppressing Irish maids and Italian gardeners. Just as the sewing machine put a lot of Jewish tailors out of business.

        Ironically, the whole notion of “robot” comes from an early 20s Czech play where the robot workers revolt against their factory owning masters … the Czech word for work … and the story-line being a politically allowable expression of future proletarian revolution. Chattel slave owners slept uneasily … but so do wage slavers and debt slavers … ordinary people have to be eliminated because the wealthy need a good night’s sleep, and a clear conscience.

        1. cwaltz

          The funny thing to me is the more they automate the less inclined I am to WANT to shop or eat out. Part of what makes things enjoyable to me is interaction. I enjoy talking to the clerk who checks me out or the barista who makes my coffee. I know my kids are more inclined to be okay with interfacing with computers but my generation is more familiar with personalization and the less personalized things are the less I really have any desire to participate(and the less chance they have of having me part with our money.)

          1. norm de plume

            Me too, and we’re not alone.. maybe there will be less of us as time goes by, but I wonder if in time the robots will be mainly for us 99%ers. Painted, like globalisation and capitalism in general as labour-saving and cost-reducing and groovily modern and so on, but in reality just another set of bars to better imprison us.

            Maybe the expensive restaurants and shops and resorts and services of all kinds will still be staffed by humans and will be frequented by the wealthy, because they can and we can’t. The ultimate luxury niche, yes for the interaction, but principally because it’s no fun tipping, feeling superior to, or even better, insulting, a robot.

            1. theinhibitor

              Wow, this article really has absolutely none of the robots that are assumed will one day nix about 30-50% of the total global workforce.

              The biggest threat to jobs are the robots that can be taught on the factory floor by operators (i.e. require no programming). These robots literally learn through gestures, and are already used to package goods, ship materials, and perform many of the more menial tasks in manufacturing and agriculture, which employs a vast majority of the global workforce.

              This article is merely clickbait.

      1. washunate

        It’s pretty funny going down that list. Machines already displace countless billions of hours of labor annually. A kind of fun navel-gazing econ PhD thesis might be to calculate when we’ll hit 1 trillion hours of aggregate machine-created leisure time. We can call it GEJKRDP – Gross Evil Job Killing Robots Domestic Product.

        1) chef – oh, you mean my microwave?
        2) cleaner – ah, yes, a vacuum!
        3) traffic cop – run for the hills, the stoplights have joined with the cameras
        4) bartender – blender, make me a smoothie! ooh, with vodka
        5) hospital sanitizer – because real men buff floors on their hands and knees?
        6) surgeon – “xi robots are coming” – said all the expensive medical staff in the OR
        7) bellhop – a/k/a rolling luggage
        8) camel jocky – because it lacks the human touch of NASCAR?

        1. Antifa

          Don’t you make fun of NASCAR — that’s discrimination against people who can only turn left.

        2. norm de plume

          It’s not difficult to imagine news stories emerging after the general introduction of such boons as these which describe some ‘teething problems’ and ‘ the usual bugs in new technologies’.. like say:

          ‘Manhattan AutoChef slices mouse into diner’s terrine’
          ‘Robot cleaner destroys heirloom rug’
          ‘Mechanised traffic cop hacked, deadly chaos ensues’
          ‘Drinkers served detergent highballs’
          ‘Patient castrated by faulty AppendixWhiz’

          It’s just as easy to imagine the stories written by other robots, who will at least not succumb to the temptation to downplay their brethren’s errors. That of course will be programmed into them.

          I travelled into my city the other day from the nearby suburb I live in. For the first time, every one of the ticket tellers’ windows were dark, like the vacant eyes of a recently deceased behemoth. We all lined up at the machines, until one lady paid her dues but no ticket emerged. The next warily inserted her $5 dollar note, but again nothing. Given the complete absence of staff these ladies would have to write to or visit the rail service offices to retrieve their dough, which they probably didn’t bother doing. Ka-ching.

          Oh, and they insulted the machine, which serenely ignored them. We sighed and lined up behind the crowd at the next machine.

          What really gets my goat is the fact that these things were sold to us as a ‘streamlining’ of service – which they are until they aren’t, when a human would have come in handy – but, even after downsizing the poor bloody ticket tellers, it cost me 8 bucks to go to the city and back! Costs go down, and prices rise!

    1. Uncle Bob

      Oh my, ya gotta love those Amazon Boxes, hunh? You order something and it arrives in an oversized box full of air wrap

  2. RUKidding

    It almost doesn’t matter what higher educational degree someone gets these days. Unless you’re a member of the upper classes and well connected (via Daddy and/or Mommy’s network of influential “friends”), there’s not a lot of point paying the gargantuan sums to get an college degree.

    It’s bs that more education/training will somehow magically translate into jobs. Unless you know someone, for the most part, it’s not worth the high cost. there are some exceptions, I suppose, but even in the much vaunted STEM fields, US grads are muscled out of the market by low wage H1 (b) workers – who allegedly have these magical mythical mad skillz and knowledge that we proles in the Yew Ess Aaay just never seem to have (ie, they work for less and more willing to be downtrodden) – or the work is just off-shored.

    Some segment of the populace is figuring this out, but they’re still willing – at this time – to point fingers of blame/shame at people who can’t get good jobs … because of course they’re just lazy and want free hand outs and aren’t really interested in working blah de blah.

    1. Disturbed Voter

      STEM-con is all about having unlimited numbers of engineers, scientists, doctors etc who will work for bananas. You only have to look as far as the original Planet Of The Apes, to see what that will get you … Go orangutans and chimps, down with gorillas!

      1. ian

        “STEM-con is all about having unlimited numbers of engineers, scientists, doctors etc who will work for bananas.”

        No, that would be H1-B visas.

    2. John Yard

      “…even in the much vaunted STEM fields, US grads are muscled out of the market by low wage H1 (b) workers…”. Last month , Southern California Edison announced it was firing all 400 of its IT staff and replacing them with H1B workers.
      The advantage is not job skills – the H1B IT workers I have known were consistently lower skilled compared with the average – but measures like this do discipline the workforce like few others.
      I have always wondered why we specially import IT workers when the number of employees in the field has been basically static ( except for the dot.com period , when it soared, and then fell ) .
      I do believe that robotics as a threat to the workforce is over-hyped. Robots are extremely capital intensive, and not suited to replace low wage work.

    3. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      It’s important to be well-connected, especially given the vicious rumors, which I read only here a few days ago, out there about American male workers not being handsome or the American female workers not being pretty enough.

    4. fds

      Didn’tyaknow! As a first world industrial power, U.S. employers need the expertise of third world holes’ employees for innomavation…lol.

      Hindus were excellent storm workers during the British Empire days. Local Mantutu tribe wont work in unsafe conditions for crap wages…bring in the earnest, pliant (but corrupt) Hindus. H1b brings that all back.

  3. Jesper

    I have some doubts about the high skills needed… Many jobs have become much easier through IT. People who used a compiler from the 90s compared to the new ones might agree/disagree?
    Same with accounting, finance, general administration etc etc

    The fall in educational standard in higher education matches the increased demand of graduates to do the now easier jobs/tasks. A lot of education simply postpones the entry into the workforce & by a lucky coincidence that also reduces the unemployment number.

    Also, this article comes to mind:
    “In this respect, entire occupations might be considered phoney – from life coaches to “atmosphere co-ordinators” (people hired to create a party vibe in bars) to “chief learning officers” in the corporate world. For those economists trying to figure out the present “productivity puzzle” in the UK, best start looking here. ”
    “None of this is to say there aren’t many of us working hard doing important things that society depends upon. But this sheer amount of time spent at work is totally disproportionate to the vital tasks that need to be achieved. Disconnected too from the pay we receive for doing them.

    In other words, work has become ritualised and detached from the practical things it was invented to accomplish.

    Why do we work? The obvious answer is “to live”. But it’s not our actual job – giving a lecture, selling a car, nursing a patient or flying a passenger jet – that directly secures our life conditions.

    For sure, most occupations in the West have drifted far away from the baseline of biological self-preservation. A job simply grants us access to man-made vouchers we call money. We then redeem these so we can then purchase life. “

    1. washunate

      sheer amount of time spent at work is totally disproportionate to the vital tasks that need to be achieved


        1. subgenius

          You may jest, but search teh webz with appropriate terms and you will discover that TOTAL productivity is higher for a 30 hour work week than a 40 hour one IN EVERY INDUSTRY/OCCUPATION ever examined…

          1. washunate

            It is interesting, our discourse is so restricted in American political economy that it’s hard to tell on a lot of these topics what is in jest and what is a serious proposal outside the mainstream. 24 sounds like a nice overall number to me, and it makes the FLSA math easy for workweeks of different lengths (4/6/8/12 hour shifts spread out over 6/4/3/2 days).

            Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.


            1. MikeNY

              Indeed, if the trend of robotization continues, Keynes’s question is a good one for the average man — but ONLY IF we achieve a more equitable distribution of wealth.

              So the basic philosophical questions is, is there a basic human need to work, to feel productive? In that case, you favor a JG. If not, you favor a BIG. Homo faber, or homo consumptor? Or is there another option?

              1. norm de plume

                That is a good question.

                I am currently reading Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night. Yes he turned into a racist boor, but this is a wise, prescient and often hilarious book. His bile for the domestic glorification of war matches that of Arthur Silber and Paddy Chayevsky from yesterday’s link but came generations earlier.. indeed he’d have to go close to vanguarding that noble modern reaction.

                Anyway, after the war he heads to Africa to experience imperialism first hand (the last instalment will see him visit the US where he is just as appalled by the capitalism he encounters in Detroit) He makes this observation after arriving in Cameroon:

                ‘The natives, by and large, had to be driven to work with clubs – they preserved that much dignity – whereas the whites, perfected by public education, worked of their own free will’

              2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

                A human need to work?

                Doing nothing but sitting quietly meditating is a lot of work.

                In that sense, everything one does is work.

              3. Jeremy Grimm

                I recall Keynes advocated the role of education in the future should be to provide the skills, tastes and knowledge necessary for finding fulfillment in the greater leisure we would enjoy in the coming Halcyon days.

              4. MikeNY

                Thank you all three for your provocative comments. One of the things I value about this site is the intelligent thoughts I get on questions I haven’t figured out for myself.

                (And Beef, your answer brought to mind Dostoyevksy. I mean that as high praise.)

                1. washunate

                  Hey Mike, don’t know if you’re still looking at this thread. I may bring this up when a specific topic comes up about work and income and so forth. I’m not very familiar with specific advocacy of BIG, so I was talking to someone who is a big fan, and he sent me some material that uses UBI (Universal Basic Income) instead of BIG (Basic Income Guarantee).

                  Do you happen to know if those are interchangeable, or if slightly different principles are meant by the two different names?

                  1. MikeNY

                    Hi washunate,

                    I see the terms as interchangeable, but I’m no expert. An actual economist might have a better understanding! And I look forward to reading your thoughts on the subject.

                    BTW, I appreciate your comments. I always read them when I seem them.

              5. jrs

                A BIG is better than what we’ve got, those who work are overworked. And underwork with the things you need to survive, seems preferable to overwork. But I think part-time work would provide the structure some crave without eating up people’s lives entirely.

                It’s hard to say how full leisure would work since our society is built entirely around: work, work, work. So it doesn’t assist good uses for leisure really.

                1. washunate

                  I think I follow what you mean, but I would really recoil in horror at the same time to that notion that our society is built around work.

                  There are a few busybody authoritarians who see it that way, but I would propose that the vast majority of Americans have much more sensible heads on their shoulders and would spend a lot more time with their families and pets and hobbies and nature and so forth if it was remotely possible to do so.

                  I would simply point to the elaborate mechanisms of worker control that employers implement as proof that it takes quite a bit of effort to, uh, encourage people to orient their life around work.

            2. cnchal

              If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people, on the level with dentists, that would be splendid!

              Thanks for the great link. Some very far sighted remarks, and a part I liked.

              There are changes in other spheres too which we must expect to come. When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession – as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life – will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.

              Of course there will still be many people with intense, unsatisfied purposiveness who will blindly pursue wealth – unless they can find some plausible substitute. But the rest of us will no longer be under any obligation to applaud and encourage them. For we shall inquire more curiously than is safe today into the true character of this ‘purposiveness’ with which in varying degrees Nature has endowed almost all of us. For purposiveness means that we are more concerned with the remote future results of our actions than with their own quality or their immediate effects on our own environment. The ‘purposive’ man is always trying to secure a spurious and delusive immortality for his acts by pushing his interest in them forward into time. He does not love his cat, but his cat’s kittens; nor, in truth, the kittens, but only the kittens’ kittens, and so on forward for ever to the end of catdom. For him jam is not jam unless it is a case of jam tomorrow and never jam today. Thus by pushing his jam always forward into the future, he strives to secure for his act of boiling it an immortality.

              1. MikeNY

                That is an excellent analysis of the sickness of greed. And I am struck by Keynes’s optimistic view of human nature, with its scent of perfectibility. I’m not at all sure that the sickness of greed is less pervasive today than in 1930. Do you think so?

                1. cnchal

                  The love of money as a possession – as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life – will be recognised for what it is . . .

                  Is someone greedy if they want to make a shitload of money to spend on stuff? According to Keynes,no.

                  I look at the times when this came out, late 20’s early 30’s and think of how chastened world leaders were, barely a decade past the end of WW1, and now a stock market calamity. Someone had to hold a light up in the gloom.

                  Interestingly, there are two references related to the topic of this post.

                  The increase of technical efficiency has been taking place faster than we can deal with the problem of labour absorption; the improvement in the standard of life has been a little too quick; the banking and monetary system of the world has been preventing the rate of interest from falling as fast as equilibrium requires.

                  . . .We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear great deal in the years to come – namely, technological unemployment. This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.

                  The “workman” has been worried about becoming obsolete with almost every technical improvement.

                  1. MikeNY

                    In defense of Keynes, I’d submit that there is a sum of money that is greater that what one person or family can reasonably or practically spend in a lifetime. We can differ on that amount, but I think we will agree that one exists, that many strive for it, and some possess it. Still, I agree that the definition of greed or cupidity could be refined, but I expect that would take us deeply into ethics, and ultimately, theology.

                  2. washunate

                    Wait, you’re upset with Keynes for articulating a notion that there’s a level of accumulation of material wealth that is too much, that should not be valued in a healthy society? Capitalists aren’t supposed to propose views on ethics? Or are you just saying you would word it differently 85 years in the future?

                    Keynes was rather optimistic about what is possible in the future – we can have higher living standards and work less.

                    That’s what makes it so interesting about being in the future now. A lot of leftists still want to focus on work hours instead of leisure hours.

                    1. cnchal

                      Keynes makes a moral distinction regarding the love of money for it’s own sake, and the love of money for it’s spending sake. From an economist’s point of view, this makes sense because the one who loves money for what it can buy, and then buys, adds to economic demand and output, as opposed to someone who accumulates money just to have a pile of it.

                      Keynes was rather optimistic about what is possible in the future – we can have higher living standards and work less.

                      In theory, that is true. Eighty five years ago there weren’t the present day constraints.

                      I draw the conclusion that, assuming no important wars and no important increase in population, the economic problem be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years. This means that the economic problem is not – if we look into the future – the permanent problem of the human race.

                      We have had both important wars and population increases, and the “economic problem” seems to be the permanent problem of the human race, with no solution in sight.

                      A great read. Thanks

      1. j7915

        I know the feeling, but I just can’t mount the microwave at the optimum heights to look at the key pad.

    2. Disturbed Voter

      Great post with lots of out-of-box insight.

      In the IT world, one can see both the dumbing down of the users, and the dumbing down of the IT staff. Thanks to automatic spell check and copy/paste … the clerical world has pretty much absorbed as much productivity increase as it can … but the people doing the writing on a PC with Word are less skilled than someone with an IBM Selectric was 30 years ago. This is applied to IT personnel as well … IT support is increasingly centralized with fewer and fewer local support people, thanks to more highly skilled specialists at the server farm, but the net-net is fewer people and lower labor costs. Eventually local IT help will only be able to show users what they could have done for themselves, if only they had read the instructions. This promotes less able users … since they don’t have to do this themselves, they can always call up an IT dog’s-body to come show them for the Nth time how to do something.

      And not only is quality declining, but superfluous quantity is king … particularly with email.

    3. Mark

      Interesting thesis. One answer about why we work is to live, but another quite separate answer is, to secure the means we need to live the lives we think we ought to live.

      That is to say, the Western preoccupation with occupation has perhaps shifted (devolved?) from a dutiful, industrious working out of some sense of calling to some to more material motivation for industriousness purposed toward working out how to keep up with the Joneses, whoever they are. In this, organisational productivity is not unimportant, but perhaps appearances of importance to productivity are more important. As you note, the work that goes into appearing important is often at odds with actually getting a task completed faster, or for less. In this logic, having a certain job is a bit like what it meant to have a title in eras and states where nobility came with real privilege. So people go for these things, big time.

      As I think about the ridiculous efforts required to make it in “society” in bygone eras, I’m uncertain whether this decoupling of work and material productivity is a new thing.

      Either way, it’s a big thing.

      1. subgenius

        I have actually been fired from a job for “time-wasting”…

        Thing is, I was so much faster than the surrounding drones that I had completed all my alloted tasks.

        Apparently appearance is all when working for little napoleon bosses (who, incidently, have no problem telling you exactly how easy something THEY can’t personally do is…)

    4. hunkerdown

      Ritualized, exactly spot-on. The need for production may have lessened, but the desperate, singular need to take the inferior side of a power relationship that only gets worse… well, it is the English we have to blame for that.

  4. Brooklin Bridge

    In a corrupt society, the devices we invent and the system in which they operate will be corrupted. The rent extraction nature of smart phones, the case of John Deere and GM arguing their vehicles are part of a licensing agreement and are not “owned” by buyers, are good examples. That’s the problem I have with technology more than unfair and harmful replacement of human labor.

    At some point, assuming we deal with the above, we will have to deal with some sort of basic economic/resource guarantee based simply on being born. Robots and systems will be capable of doing more and more work from basic, to very sophisticated, so yes at some point they will replace more people than they create work for.

    Another consideration and one that seems particularly overlooked is that all these things need energy and lots of it. It will be amusing (perhaps more along the lines of tragic) to create a society totally dependent on robots (where people forget how to be auto-mechanics, doctors, lawyers, or mathematicians, or really expensive people such as plumbers only to have it shut down (in some drawn out unplanned manner) due to energy depletion.

    1. Pepsi

      You’re right on and you address what I was going to post.

      This confluence of robots, jobs, and profit lead one to wonder, what is a job, what is profit, why do we need to make things at lower cost?

      There are no satisfying answers, just loops back to creating profit and satisfying some arbitrary need.

      We have to destroy this ‘market’ based thinking and instead think about things in terms of the world and its people, or we’ll all be screwed, robots or no.

    2. Disturbed Voter

      Having effective artificial doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers … other than providing labor saving tools for the people already doing those jobs … is based on the AI myth. AI is a con, and unfortunately most people aren’t intelligent themselves to see thru it. A back hoe replaces a ditch digger, but there is nothing like a ditch digger to replace a thinking individual.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        I have said it before. I much prefer artificial love to artificial intelligence.

        1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

          Test for robot intelligence.

          Question to robot: If you work as well or better than a human, should your pay be the same, or better than, a human’s?

        2. Brooklin Bridge

          Let the machines do the dirty work so we can contemplate MyLessThanPrimeBeef’s quips and one liners! The warm irony, the gentle satire.

  5. TG

    The possibility that someday someone might produce a robot that can reliably act as a general purpose maid is of no relevance to TODAYS labor market.

    For some jobs that need very high levels of precision like welding car frames or wave-soldering SMT components, robots are used. Some tasks, like mass-producing nails, are so efficiently done by machines that nobody will ever do that by hand no matter how cheap labor gets. But in general, industries are using LESS automation, not more! Nike has its shoes made by hand in Vietnam by disposable workers paid 57 cents an hour – even today we could at least substantially automate that process, but it would require a massive up-front capital investment. For now automation is a red herring, like gay marriage, designed to distract us from the real causes of falling wages.

    Today $100,000 can buy you an industrial robot that can sort clothes about as well as a brain-damaged orangutang. Will robots someday be able to perform these tasks at human/human+ levels? Probably, although it could still be a ways off. But even then, how much will these robots cost? Computers are getting cheaper all the time – industrial machinery, not so much. It’s not just whether a robot can someday do the job, but what are the total amortized costs and risks? (A sick or excess Vietnamese worker can be fired – a million dollar robot that breaks down or is no longer needed is a big hole in the bottom line of any business that purchased it).

    One notes also that automation is generally found in high-wage countries like Japan, not so much in low-wage countries like Mexico or Vietnam. If automation was a major cause of low wages wouldn’t you expect the opposite? The bottom line is that automation does not (for now) cause low wages – rather, because it is (for now) generally so expensive, automation is a reaction to high wages, that allows sufficient productivity so that businesses can operate with $40/hour labor costs.

    So don’t believe your lying eyes when you see pictures of workers jammed into sheds like battery hans assembling iphones by hand – no, believe that it’s the evil robots that are taking all our jobs and driving wages down!

    1. craazyboy

      A cynic may even conclude that “capital” knows robots are expensive and offshored labor is cheap!

    2. cwaltz

      I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again the people who should worry about replacement aren’t those at the bottom. They generally perform multiple tasks and do it at a low enough cost that don’t make them easily replaced by automation. Automation is expensive. The people who should worry are the ones with extremely specialized skills that cost a lot. Those are the people who risk being replaced because it wouldn’t take long for a $100,000 machine to essentially become worth it when it’s replacing a worker making $50,000 vs making $15,000.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        @cwaltz — I agree. The kinds of tasks the robots in this post are supposed to assume are very difficult to automate and the trade-off between automation and human only favors the robot taking over some of the very dangerous or very fashionable — as pointed out in the comment below regarding robot surgeons — applications of robots.

        I think a robot might mix and/or deliver drinks — but how can a robot replace “Joe the bartender” or that cute Babe or Hunk who draws customers?

        I recall the story of a college professor who brought in a tape recorder to give his lectures. He taped each lecture and handed the tape to an assistant to take to the lecture hall at the designated time and handle the mechanics of presenting the taped lecture.

        After a while the professor went to check in on the class and see how things were going. He went during the middle of the period to observe. At the front of the lecture hall sat his tape recorder droning on while his assistant quietly read in the corner. But to his surprise not a single student was in the lecture hall. Instead, he saw numerous tape recorders positioned around his tape recorder, recording his recorded lecture.

        Robot surgeons sound scary. Robots can perform with dexterity and control no surgeon could duplicate. I am afraid of the kind of cost savings [once the fad premium wears off] which could put someone under a robot surgeon watched over by a poorly trained technician. I can see a robot surgeon as a tool to augment the dexterity of a human surgeon — especially if handling the robot surgeon were coupled with greater focus on good judgment in doing a surgery without some of the distractions in its execution.

        The robotic traffic cop leaves me a little confused. How is a robotic traffic cop different than a traffic light? Many of other robot applications mentioned plainly sound more fashionable than practical.

        At this point in time, I believe the group who should most fear automation are the faceless drones working at white collar jobs. If they aren’t outsourced or insourced they’ll be replaced by computer programs doing their rote paperwork.

        Judging by the trend for handling job openings like product specifications and jobseekers like a product — an abstract bundle of certified skills and experience, the people in personnel should be afraid … very afraid. Hiring is turning into a kind of “optimal” matching process.

        1. craazyboy

          You mean sort of a high tech Pinochio? Wireless control and a magic suppressor so the nose doesn’t grow? Oh wait…

          1. subgenius

            No, a robot would be FAR more efficient and effective, with the added benefit of cheaper upkeep…

            1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

              If I were a robot, I would want a robot president.

              Supreme Court decision: A robot can make campaign contributions.

              “Remember, robots are people too!!!!”

        2. Larry Headlund

          We need robot presidents.

          After all, FDR showed you could be president as long as you wanted to, Truman showed anyone could be president and W showed you were better of without one.

          1. Demeter

            “After all, FDR showed you could be president as long as you wanted to, Truman showed anyone could be president and W showed you were better off without one.”

            Ouch! That smarts!

            And Obama shows that even if you vote for a party platform, there’s no point of enforcement, no refund, no returns, exchanges, warranty….

            A robot president to prevent Constitutional violations (it’s in the programming)

            And a robot police force, for the same reason (to prevent violence).

            Now there’s two areas that could be dehumanized without any great loss….

      2. Antifa

        This specialization of expensive robots is becoming less of an issue. Engineers are making generalist robots that use deep learning and interchangeable appendages to make them capable of literally any activity a human can do.

        This eliminates the risk of over-specialization. A company, or household, can buy a robot like it buys a standard PC now, knowing that the tools can be switched out, and the robot is capable of learning in a relatively short time whatever particular activity you need it to do for you right now. When your needs change, the robot can learn a new activity. The cost of a new tool or appendage is much less than an entire robot.

        Even the marvelous dexterity of the human hand is a primitive appendage compared to the kinds of all-purpose manipulators robotics engineers can design. High specialization is not a feature of the robots of the coming generation.

        1. subgenius

          Deep learning…yeah ok, if you say so.

          It might accomplish real (as opposed to toy) world excellence if one allows the use of extremely powerful (expensive…environmentally and economically) hardware…but personally I have seen a lot of claims and no actual resilient examples…sadly people seem to believe the bullshit, once again proving that the majority are in fact dumber than the average brick.

    3. human

      Not to mention that those costs are “capitalised”, therefore, the taxpayer is the ultimate source of funding in higher wage countries.

    4. fresno dan

      I think one of the surprising discoveries decades ago was that it was harder for a computer to learn generalized knowledge (Abe Lincoln was the president in 1860, and he is now dead) than specialized medical knowledge.

      As you point out, what happens to multi million dollar surgery machines when surgery is supplanted by transplant, or genetic manipulation? Who is going to assure all those robot surgeons are reading the annuls of surgery? And than decide which of the conflicting methods should be used???

  6. Santi

    Somehow, the Japanese mean, we should turn Henry Ford’s quotation upside down:

    “I will build a motor car for the great multitude…constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise…so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one-and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”

    Instead of building products for the great multitude, nowadays businessmen should aspire to build consumers for their products… No wonder most products from the dot com panoply are free… ?

    1. sam s smith

      Self driving Google cars have the potential to remove the need to purchase cars entirely.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        The other choice: self-driving donkeys.

        “A breakthrough in donkey psychology! We now can train sustainable, green donkeys to do what self-driving cars used to do.”

  7. Northeaster

    I see the job displacement directly at the high end of bio tech/pharm with Ph.D hires. Last three were all on H-1B, all Asian, one even replaced a Brit who left for more money (somewhere). Obvisouly there wasn’t an American anywhere to be found with a Ph. D to fill any of these jobs. The other divisions with labs use a ton of temps, and the company (the largest in the field) will not allow for added headcount (we’ve cut 2K in the past 3 years). STEM is just another hoax on our youth, it’s too bad students, or their parents, will find out the hard way.

    Of course, in an era where the rule of law is completely unequal or simply doesn’t exist at all, some of our subsidiaries violate the law and are spanked with a fraction of a fine in relation to the profits made from the drugs.

    Lot of things going wrong, and will continue to get worse in an era where an EQUAL rule of law is absent. .

    1. Peejay

      Same. I’ve talked dozens of undergrads out of doing biomedicine Ph.D.’s for exactly that reason.

      My department (also in a mega-Pharma) took a 66% headcount haircut from 2009-11, and the work was almost all outsourced to Chinese CRO’s. Not one remaining position has since been back-filled when someone leaves, but now that it’s become obvious that data quality from China is almost complete crap, those remaining in the US are left holding the bag to deliver new drugs faster and more efficiently than ever before. We use automation for quality and speed reasons, which makes it even less necessary to hire US/EU citizens to oversee data generation. Every one of my direct reports is now on an H1b visa, having gotten in the door as FTE mostly by way of temp staffing agencies and managers desperate for someone who knows where the pipette tips are stored.

      In Big Pharma, even FDA submissions are already very standardized and templated, and it won’t be long before QA/QC are automated or run entirely from e-sweatshops in Bangalore and Mumbai. They’re even trying to automate literature reviews so that computers can just spit out new drug targets for the Chinese HTS and Med Chem chain gangs to tart up with falsified (but cheap) data.

      In academia, the robots are called post-docs, and they keep R01 grant holders in their tenured positions well beyond what is ethical and necessary. Why on Earth would I encourage anyone to train in biomedicine for 9-12 years so they can go to work turning the sample analysis crank for Labcorp, or worse, WuXi and Crown Bio?

      1. Paper Mac

        ” Why on Earth would I encourage anyone to train in biomedicine for 9-12 years so they can go to work turning the sample analysis crank for Labcorp, or worse, WuXi and Crown Bio?”

        Just wish someone had said that to me 10 years ago..

  8. Bart Fargo

    The problem with robotic surgery is that it doesn’t give any better results than manual minimally invasive surgical techniques, but is much more expensive – often multiple times the cost of laparoscopic surgery. That could change in the future, but for now demand is driven by direct-to-patient marketing by da Vinci’s manufacturer (Intuitive Surgical, which has a monopoly on robotic MIS) as well as hospitals who buy the robots to advertise that they are cutting-edge and then are stuck trying to recoup the purchase cost by increasing volume, since insurance reimburses all forms of minimally invasive surgery the same.


    1. Jeremy Grimm

      @Bart Fargo — Thanks for the link.

      I heard a similar kind of consolidation and monopolistic rent afflicts the sales and maintenance of commercial dialysis machines.

    2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      While they work over time to improve their robot surgeons, perhaps they should also think about giving clone surgeons a chance.

      That was what Obi Wan learned on the planet of Kamino. Sales Manager: “Drones are more creative than robots.”

    3. roadrider

      The main problem with the results not surpassing traditional procedures is most likely the steep learning curve associated with the surgical “robots” (they’re not really robots but are instead remotely operated devices that translate movements of the surgeons hands into more precise movements of the instruments). Once hospitals spend millions to acquire these devices they have quite an incentive to use them as much as possible. That means that patients may unwittingly become part of a surgeon’s transition period from traditional procedures during which they may produce no better or even worse results. Trying to get information out of surgeons and hospitals about the experience level and outcomes is a trying exercise at best. This is a big problem in community hospitals trying to make a name for themselves.

      I went through this last year when I had a robotic procedure (prostate). I declined to have my community urologist perform the procedure because I had doubts about his experience level about which he could not provide me with adequate reassurance. I ended up having the procedure at a high-volume government/academic medical center to which I had access as part of a clinical study (full disclosure: insurance – or lack of same – issues also figured into this decision). So far, I’ve been very happy with the results.

      My advice: find the best surgeon accessible to you irrespective of the tools he/she chooses to use.

  9. Noni Mausa

    I think of the labour situation, worldwide, as a collection of floating islands. Some are large, but float just barely out of the water, others are smaller but higher and drier. In almost all cases, access to these islands is controlled by employers, mostly corporate or governmental.

    As some of these islands shrink, sink or come apart, (secretarial, drafting, appliance repair, many others) their former inhabitants are urged to retrain for other islands. But even when such retraining is successful, those islands will sink under the weight of thousands of new castaways, impoverishing them all.

    The real question is not how to retrain people to serve new businesses. Maybe it used to be, but we have moved into a new world where millions of human beings are nothing more than spare parts for an international corporate structure that is increasingly eager to shed them. Look at the refugee camps, many larger than some major cities. Look at immigration policies in western nations, set up to cherry pick the best people of other countries and turn their backs on the most desperate.

    “What are people worth?” That is the question. Right now we are seeing that in the opinion of corporate persons, demonic persons, most of the worlds people are of no interest whatsoever, not as farmers, not as servants, not as cannon fodder, not even as slaves.


    1. diptherio

      We have gotten ingrained in our heads the notion that people should serve the economy’s needs (hence the re-training meme) rather than the reverse: that the economy should serve people’s needs (the economy does, of course, serve some people’s needs–just an increasingly small percentage of people).

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        Absolutely. The thought that business should serve people is curiously taboo.

        1. cwaltz

          It serves its purpose though. The way they have it now most people seem to think pricing strategy is based on labor costs rather than on DEMAND for that good or service. It’s astounding to me the number of people who fail to understand that line items like labor are not the be all and end all when it comes to determining how to price goods or services.

      2. norm de plume

        “The economy is there to serve the fundamental needs of society, which are prosperity, stability and contentment… If you have a situation whereby the economy grows but you create poverty and unemployment and you destabilise society, you’re in trouble.”

        James Goldsmith to Charlie Rose, 1994


        Having called the 87 crisis he called the gutting of the middle class by GATT early too… but of course he had plenty of experience gutting workforces himself.

  10. Jeff

    The Xi is a tool not a robot. It requires a surgeon to use that tool, just as it requires a surgeon to wield a knife.

    More fundamentally: work serves a production function as well as a distribution function. To the extent that work is more efficiently performed by robots, which will increasingly be the case (although there will still be productive work available for humans for decades to come) then work by people will cease to serve a production function and people should stop working. However, this will necessitate an alternative method of distribution such as a guaranteed minimum income. At a guess, we will need to have that in place sometime within the next two decades.

    1. Steven

      The ‘real’ value of Xi is most likely the ability to off-shore surgery to countries still willing to pay to education their medical professionals – thus leaving more of the fees you and your insurance company pay available for salaries and bonuses for health industry executives and trading profits for shareholders. (I suspect nobody does dividends any more. It’s all about finding some greater fool willing to purchase that capitalized stream of future earnings that will of course be there because the patients will always find some way to pay – e.g. borrow more from the Chinese.)

      1. Vatch

        So the surgeon might be on a different continent from the robotic tool and the patient? That could become interesting when the internet connection goes down…

      2. MaroonBulldog

        By “to off-shore surgery”, do you mean to suggest that emergency surgeries in the United States will be performed using a robot-assistant tool here, but operated remotely by a surgeon in another country. If that’s what you mean to suggest, it will be a long time coming. There is a technological limitation currently preventing that: telecommunications is not up to it. The internet is not reliable enough to support the communications link between the robot tool that does the cutting, staunching, and stitching and the console where the surgeon controls it. The risk of communications loss is too great to allow that kind of robotic surgery to be practiced on human beings. The FDA wouldn’t approve it, and personal injury lawyers would kill it if it somehow got approved.

        1. Steven

          I remember reading somewhere a story about how this remote surgery is being done right now. I don’t remember whether the surgeon was located in a different country (probably not). But from past experience it would appear that across the globe internet connectivity is about as reliable as in-country connectivity, albeit with the obvious increased latency.

          P.S. Anyhow all these ‘excuses’ you bring up will soon be nothing more that an attempt to interfere with and eliminate global free trade. Personal injury lawyers will soon be an anachronism even if (miraculously) TPP is not passed.

          1. Bart Fargo

            Yes, the first transatlantic robotic surgery was performed in 2001. Latency was 155ms.


            Remote surgery continues to be performed in special cases, since it can extend world-class surgical expertise to remote or inaccessible areas (although the physical location still needs a robot, anesthesiologist and backup surgeon of its own). As Maroon said, telecommunications security and stability are obvious hurdles that need to be overcome for its use to become more widespread…although the atrocious state of electronic medical records security hasn’t stopped the push toward universal EMRs. The DoD is very interested in remote surgery for battlefield use and so there will be no shortage of investment in coming years.

    2. roadrider

      Yes, that’s right – surgical “robots” are not robots in the sense that the term is normally used. They require a surgeon to operate them.

      I’ve actually had robotic surgery but I chose the surgeon, who happened to use this tool, for his expertise and track record, rather than the tool. I’d have been just as happy with a traditional surgeon with a comparable record of success. In my case my choices were somewhat limited by geography and insurance coverage (or lack of same). And I’ve been very happy with the results.

      From the size of the surgical team that attended my procedure I would not call surgical robots a labor-reducing innovation.

  11. Steven

    This is a huge issue which I hope will be revisited in much greater depth. When you substitute machines and computers powered from inanimate energy sources for human labor and what Frederick Soddy called “diligence” (i.e. machine tending), it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that less labor will be required to produce what had been regarded as life’s essentials. The real economic problem for more than a century has been finding a way to distribute what an advanced industrial economy has been able to produce. Even the ‘iron law of wages’ is under attack as human labor becomes more and more redundant.

    Even in Soddy’s day (the 1920s – 50s) our civilization found it easier to address the contradiction between its incessant drive to render human labor redundant and its rigid enforcement of the rule that ‘(s)he who does not work neither shall (s)he eat’ than address more fundamental questions like the definition of wealth and ‘how much is enough?’ The Keynes / New Deal ‘solution’ was, along with some much needed investment in public infrastructure from which the bankers and financiers couldn’t make enough profit, make-work programs for the public sector and vast subsidies for an ‘American lifestyle’ built around suburbia, the automobile culture, waste and planned obsolescence for the private sector. Those much vaunted ‘services industry’ jobs turned out to be mainly MILITARY services.

    Some of us are old enough to remember all the talk and the promise of a ‘leisure society’ in which people had enough time to understand the world around them and perhaps explore the meaning of life, should they so chose. Apparently that is not to be. It must be sacrificed in the interest of a ‘full employment for money’ program under which profit margins not protected by government cost-plus contracts are allowed and encouraged to extract their required margins with ever more ‘efficiency’ (read displacement of human labor).

    Nancy Pelosi is supposed to have asked “Where did they get all that money?” when informed of the sums involved in the Fed’s QE policies. Perhaps the country’s (and the world’s) political leadership really is that dense when it comes to questions of money and economics. But the rest of us need not be. After 2008 it should be pretty clear by now that all that money was not real ‘wealth’. It was – and remains – debt. For people who have more wealth than they could ever consume in several lifetimes, that debt is the real goal – control over the life and labor of present and future generations – of people or at least machines).

    Time is running out for the West – if not the world – to order its affairs with by better definition of wealth than the money created by its bankers and financial engineers. Soddy’s definition of wealth is a good place to start:

    Wealth as a form, product or result of a draft upon the flow of available energy consists of the special forms, products, or results which empower and enable human life.

    The keynote of the age is discovery, and life itself is discovery. Once made, countless generations may use it and live by it without conscious apprehension of the nature of it, without further changing their mode of livelihood, and, indeed, deeming it the only possible way to live.

    Discovery, Natural Energy and Diligence— the Three Ingredients of Wealth.

    Soddy, Frederick M.A., F.R.S.. Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt (Kindle Locations 874-876, 1982-1983, Location 1276 ). Distributed Proofreaders Canada.

    Not all of us can be scientists or engineers. But most of us are at least capable of understanding who and what butters our bread. That is a job much more important than raking rocks.

    1. Disturbed Voter

      Raking rocks is a job you assign to a junior Zen monk. It is the job of the senior Zen monk to contemplate the resulting aesthetic ;-)

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        But only after the junior Zen monk has completed and graduated from his kitchen duty of rice-washing.

        Dogen: “Kwatz!”

      1. Skippy

        I think some people read authors and forget to contextualize the reality, they existed in, extraneously transferring it to periods which one should not.

      2. Alejandro

        Where did you read this in his comment? What I read was that this is the definition peddled by banksters and financial “engineers”. Soddy made a clear distinction between “wealth” and virtual “wealth”. Real engineers are restrained by physical limits, e.g., availability and strength of materials, stress and carrying capacities, safety concerns etc.. Financial “engineers” use mathematics unrestricted by physical limits, e.g., the lower limit of physical quantities is zero and the upper limit is not infinity.

        1. Skippy

          Financial activity’s are subject to political laws and as such physical limits are established by governance, therefore money is secondary to activity’s and out comes regulated by governance.

          Skippy…. what is not addressed in Soddy’s thinking wrt to our political reality’s is corporatist machinations nor geopolitical frictions.

          1. Alejandro

            I can’t say I disagree with the first sentence, except maybe that I believe that physical limits are subject to the laws of conservation of energy and conservation of mass, but certainly how those limits are reached can be viewed as established by governance for the most part.

            Wrt Soddy, he did not define “money” as wealth and imo gave a cogent and clear definition of wealth from his POV as a scientist and he provided contrast to further clarify. As far as corporatist machinations and geopolitical frictions, you’re correct in that he did not address these issues directly…but a case can certainly be made that a causality of gp frictions are competing physical limits…and the machinations of the alchemist are echoed in the corporatists of today…

            That said, I tend towards not focusing on any single individual, no one can possibly have all the answers. Polanyi seems to have made more complete connections, especially from a social and cultural POV. He also understood limits. His observation that labor being an extension of life and cannot be extricated from the human being and therefore is a fictitious commodity seems especially relevant today.

    1. craazyboy

      Don’t laugh. Just saw in the news today a self parking Volvo ran over some reporters.

      Didn’t read the article, but I can see Volvo remarketing the vehicle as a Paparazzi Counter Insurgency Vehicle.

  12. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    One day there will be a chicken in every pot and a robot (free from the government) for every worker.

    Robot (to worker-owner): I am not here to take your livelihood. I work for you. Why can’t we all get along?

  13. subgenius

    Please please please let that big ass coronal mass ejection target us soon…..

  14. fresno dan

    “I have to differ a little with the cheery, “Better policy will create new/different jobs.” What passes for our leadership believes in the mantra of more education and more skilled workers as the answer. In fact, America is going in reverse in this category, as educational attainment has fallen and college and higher education costs rise into the stratosphere. Moreover, the notion that there is a raft of highly technical jobs with lots of unmet demand is a canard. As we’ve discussed at some length, STEM graduates are finding it hard to obtain work (see confirming evidence in The Myth of the Science and Engineering Shortage from the Atlantic last year).”

    I can’t help but reiterate what was pointed out in NC in the past:


    So whether it is flat out conspiracies to suppress wages, or conspiracies to import workers, it amounts to the same thing. There is a desire at the top to harvest all the gains of society for themselves.

    So, let’s look at the arguments that more tech will increase productivity, and that rising productivity helps everyone. If that were so, we should all work less and have a higher standard of living. I think the working less is indisputable (maybe just not voluntarily). The higher standard of living…not so much.

    Again, I would say that 99% have had stagnating incomes for 40 years. During this time there has been the “tech boom” – Whether its tech or policies that is the cause of the stagnation, it doesn’t seem to me that the oligarchy is much inclined to change what is making themselves richer and richer….

    1. jrs

      That work that STEM workers do find, is it part time jobs or contract work? Both are “work” right, no hedonic adjustments are ever made for that. But much seems dominated by contract work.

  15. Kas Thomas

    Frey & Osborne wrote the definitive paper on this and they predicted half of all jobs are in the high risk category for elimination by technology in “perhaps a decade or two.” See If You Teach a Robot to Fish.

    Over 400,000 surgical procedures per year are done robotically right now, so item 6 is already well underway.

    1. washunate

      That’s actually a pretty bizarre post. It’s sensationalist and nonsensical. The author is worried about people losing jobs to technological development that didn’t even exist before technological development? After the revolutionary war, something like 90% of the entire workforce was in agriculture. With, shall we say, varying levels of working conditions and wages. Technological development has created work outside of farming, not destroyed it.

      As far as medicine specifically, that must be a joke, right? Our contemporary healthcare system is more bloated today than it has ever been in all of human history. The glory years that the author romanticizes a hundred years ago had way, way, way, way, way fewer medical specialists and other highly paid professionals.

      And perhaps the icing on the cake, the post spouts the hilarious neoliberal nonsense that technology is causing job crapification(!). Job crapification is a choice of public policy, just like child labor in manufacturing and plantation slavery in agriculture in prior periods of American history.

  16. Someone

    Camel jockeys were previously children who were little better than slaves. It is a good thing they have been replaced by small, light robots — in fact, the robots were introduced due to the outcry over the abuse of child jockeys.

  17. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    It’s helpful for the replaced worker to get over the tragedy if the robot would go up to the worker, man to man, or rather, face to face and say, “I am taking you job.”

    “To know the thing that is replacing you.”

    There is nothing you can do or could have done differently – like studying harder at school or picking a different major. It’s a machine that is superior in every aspect.

    Then you can let go of your anger.

  18. casino implosion

    Now that they have a robot for every function I am eagerly awaiting the ten hour workweek. My fellow proles and I have symphonies to write, come on!

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      One more function: Robots for consumption.

      With robot consumers, corporations would have no use for human consumers.

      “We need to stimulate robots. Make them excited. Make them consume more to get out of this recession.”

      1. Santi

        From Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams (via The Electric Monk):

        The Electric Monk was a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or a video recorder. Dishwashers washed tedious dishes for you, thus saving you the bother of washing them yourself, video recorders watched tedious television for you, thus saving you the bother of looking at it yourself; Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.

    2. jrs

      We’d probably already be working 20 hour weeks if productivity gains had gone to working people in the form of leisure time. Of course that’s not what happened.

  19. Rosario

    I don’t agree with the authors conclusion. Why do we always need jobs? Doesn’t that ring as dogma? In addition, today is not the 1930s and with all due respect, much of Keyne’s employment theory really didn’t put much thought into the type of employment. War industry worked just as well as work in ethnography and the arts (i.e. Alan Lomax, Dorothea Lang, etc.). Seems like most of what Keynes was trying to do is prevent Capitalism from blowing itself up. There was room for new realms of employment in “productive” work post 1930s (autos, war industry, semiconductor manufacturing, etc.) but why bother pretending the same potential exists today? The world is fully globalized, resources are depleting, inequalities are growing with and without sound politics. The remaining realms are service and “creative” though all signals are telling us that service labor is a hop, skip and jump away from bond labor for most people and “creative” labor is nearly impossibly to monetize. Each person’s Facebook page is a mode of “creative work” that is harvested for revenue by the host company. How do you monetize this? More importantly, why should this be monetized? Keynes came close to the mark when recognizing the power of automation to displace labor for the better through working less hours or, following my approach, ideally, no hours, but he failed to recognize Capitalism’s tendency to expand for the sake of expanding the magnitude of Capital itself. Thus, a population working for little reason but to move Capital around while creating more Capital through debt.

    1. Saddam Smith


      The unexamined assumption is that economic activity is a priori superior to non-economic activity, where economic activity is characterized by causing money to change hands. Hence JOBS ARE GREAT!!

      We’re turning the planet into commodities/money because we can’t imagine an alternative, but the world has had about enough of it.

    2. Louis

      Rosario wrote

      Why do we always need jobs?

      Well for one thing, it’s hard to find a place to live or acquire food if you don’t have a job, or some kind of income stream.

      1. Rosario

        This is begging my question further. My critique is WRT the need for capital in the first place. As in, with all this technology what is the point? Sure, if everything goes to hell we will all be living a subsistence based life, but, being optimistic about our future for a moment, why do we need to use a mode of exchange when technological innovation makes it unnecessary?

  20. split reality

    Not sure I agree with the conclusions about how to go forward. It left out robot taxation. If a hotel robo-hop, or a supermarket self serve scanner robot, perform the work of humans, then they can be assigned a “notional income” equivalent to that required to pay humans to replace them. This income currently goes untaxed and must represents a loss to the government of millions if not billions of dollars. (Think auto pilots for example.) Now humans don’t get tax breaks for food or growing older, so tax authorities in their wisdom must disallow energy use or depreciation as tax deductions for robot owners paying their tax. Naturally domestic appliances, like humans performing home duty, would not pay tax on work performed in the home.

  21. JCC

    Robots have been around for 45 to 50 years (at least) in machine tool manufacturing. In fact one of the most, if not the most, financially successful manufacturers of very sophisticated robotics is FANUC (Fujitsu Numerical Control), a Japanese Company.

    I visited their plant back in the early 90’s for a week on a job when working for a US Machine Tool Mfg. and was very surprised when viewing the factory floor. They pumped out many hundreds of sophisticated and varied computer control systems a week, ready to bolt on and plug into the lathes, milling machines, swissturn machines, etc built by multiple different mfgs around the world and could control everything from turning parts, to measuring parts, to handing off parts to the next machine. This factory at the time had about 8 or 10 people (probably less now) working on the mfg floor during any one shift. The plant operated 24/7. Their primary job was to monitor the multitudes of robots and they handled very little of the product itself.

    (As a side note, I had to shake my head at a NakedCap comment about a week ago stating that the US was more “innovative” than Europe or Asia. I had never seen anything like this in the hundreds of factory floors I had worked on previous to this in the US and they – FANUC personnel – very obviously considered me a little bit of a country bumpkin)

    Their largest employed group at FANUC were the programmers and engineers that designed the control systems, robots, and their programming.

    We bolted these controls onto our machine tools (lathes and milling machines, primarily) and then sold them to various companies all over the world, who then plugged them into “cells” that would accept raw material at one end and pop out an automobile transmission (for one example) at the other end. The only working people on the floor would be the system programmers, one or two “button pushers” per cell, and one or two people measuring parts outputs for quality control.

    Back when Unions meant something, they actually made a decent living and still sported machining skills. Today most are barely above minimum wage and have minimal machining experience in actually using a “real” hand operated lathe, milling machine, or grinder, and even if they did, there is no way they could consistently match the output tolerances and production levels required by a majority of the manufacturers’ product lines.

    Only the maintenance personnel and programmers will continue to be educated, well paid, and needed.

    In other words, this has been going on for years, it just gets a little more sophisticated and reaches into a few more professional areas. For example, I read this morning an article on Mish Shedlock’s site that over 300 million articles were written by robots computers last year and published in newspapers and other media around the world. The various companies that supply these “things” are shooting for a billion articles this year and are confident that they will hit the mark.

    It’s been happening around all of us, good or bad, and unnoticed, for a very long time in more fields than most could possibly imagine. I think that the Google Car is just reminding all of us, again, that robotics is a strong influence in our daily lives and will become as prevalent during our “off time” as it has been in most peoples’ work time for at least the last 40 to 50 years, if not the entire last century.

    I think we all, understandably, have a little of the Luddites in our blood, particularly since, as mentioned above, society has few clues at this time as to how to handle the change.

    1. david

      I bought 4 Fanuc controlled lathes in early 1981 for OCTG applications – oilfield pipe down hole tubing and casing threading – the only time we stopped 24/7 was to change out the carbide cutting tools from 81-86′. They were well made and required little maintenance.

      The advances in robots, automation have largely been from Germany and Japan not the USA which is still far behind.

      The free cash flow in the USA for all types of jobs and skills will reside in the top 10% within a very short period of time. The top 20% enjoys discretionary income today but as government jobs wind down, H-1b via wider allowable use post TPP and entitlements of all description coming off, it is going to be mayhem when people wake up

  22. Jay M

    I told my robot “keep it down”. He responded: what, leverage or scheduled reports of capital at risk? It turned out I was leveraged 100/1 but there was an exponential curve that was just around the corner. I’m cool, there are those who are better at risk management than me.

  23. alex morfesis

    robots programmed by the same folks who handle designing cars that are never recalled and software with no bugs…hmmm…what a brilliant idea…but

    chefs….hmmm…why not…but first i should start buying that tasty cardboard pizza at the gas station convenience counter

    cleaner…last two timez i let anyone near my pile of papers and dust(they insisted since they did not have the $ to pay me what they owed me), it took three days of going thru garbage bags to find receipts i had not scanned yet for uncle sam…i am sure some india institute of technology grad will get the same interpretation as me of my cch tax books…so sure…great idea

    traffic cop…robot…hmmm…so the robot will notice the panic in the new driver who will snarl up traffic and softly direct them to slide into the empty space instead of staying in their lane like a lemming and snarl up the intersection…why naut…

    bartender…hmmm…i thought i went to bars to annoy the natural born hips and cleavage pouring the drinks…if i just wanted a drink i could save a few bucks and pour my own

    hospital janitor…because i just certainly want to go to a hospital that is charging me a few grand a day but wants to save a few pennies by cutting out the humans…right…

    surgeon…robotic…cause software never has any bugs…and i just love the idea of charging me five to ten grand and hope that programmer didnt have a hot date that friday night.

    bellhop…hmmm…toiletries..newspaper…sounds more like the housekeeper…but hey, maybe the word bellhop tested out as being more conducive to raising capital….

    and if anyone says they saw me at a camel race…it was a mirage

  24. TJ

    The impact of H-1B workers is only part of the story. I witnessed the transition in the 90s when IBM began “augmenting” the U.S. workforce first with H-1B workers on site. But the real change occurred when they began outsourcing project work offshore to places like Bangalore and Belarus. No H-1B numbers there and the workers in those countries don’t show up anywhere other than an expense line in the P&L. By the time I was victim of a “Resource Action”, project teams that used to be mostly US based were mostly off shore. We’d spent a few years helping them get acclimated to the work and the corporate culture. Little did we think at the time we were training our lower cost replacements.

    We are in the midst of a grand rebalancing. Standard of living here is falling so that standard of living elsewhere can rise. The job I lost probably represented 3 new jobs offshore. Perhaps, in the aggregate, my loss was for the better good but it didn’t feel that way to me.

    The other problem is that the technology is changing so fast now that lots of companies find it easier and cheaper to hire young talent fresh from learning the latest tools than to retrain us old farts who are proficient in yesterday’s technology. This “use em’ up” mentality is going to generate a lot more displaced STEM workers over the next 20 years.

    Finally, most people look at the impact technology is having on economics from a 20th century perspective. Unfortunately, it’s a mistake to extrapolate past experience into future impact. I’m quite convinced we’re on the verge of major disruption as more and more classes of jobs no longer require human labor. This creative destructive force won’t result in enough new jobs to maintain employment at levels sufficient to keep the engine running. The middle class is going to disappear. Livable wage won’t help when there are too few jobs to go around. We have to figure out how to transition to some form of guaranteed income.

  25. Erwin Gordon

    Yves, If you look at how human desires evolve, once a want is satisfied another want arises. Similarly if the cost of satisfying a want is lower, the disposable income is used to satisfy the next want in the chain. So the first assumption that needs to be challenged is why are people focus on getting a job rather than on creating a business or finding a way to do the thing they are passionate about in a self sustaining way. That’s because the education is system is crap as Charles Hugh Smith and other commentators have pointed out numerous times. It produces, for the most part, mindless drones incapable of original thought. That’s why individuals can go through the education system with top grades and still cannot find a job, when they have should have been prepared to think entrepreneurially from the start. I don’t worry about the machines. I worry more about the inability of humans to use their innate creativity.

    1. Demeter

      How many original jobs are there?

      Not enough for all the original people.

      Most tasks are routine and repetitive. The amount of creativity needed to sustain or develop a civilization is that 1% inspiration vs. the 99% perspiration that Thomas Edison joked about.

    2. jrs

      But can everyone be an entrepreneur if they were taught how to think and maybe let’s assume they aren’t stupid and were determined to become one? There’s likely enough a set need for entrepreneurs much like there is a fairly set need for educated workers, which is why more and more education isn’t raising all boats. Surely someone needs to work for the entrepreneurs right? If so it may work for the individual but it won’t work for everyone (that old fallacy of composition as with education).

      Although I doubt that much boils down to whether people are capable of thought or not (although if the business involves serious engineering knowledge or something that requires education). Much boils down to emotions and innate and learned personality plus assumptions (schemas) about the world. Many people’s natural calling in life is not entrepreneurial, unfortunate if it’s also not to mundane repetitive wage slavery, as there’s not much else out there. Can you teach people to be entrepreneurs in a classroom?

  26. jrs

    For those who want a B.I.G., for those who hate jobs, curse being born a wage slave, you might enjoy Jack Saturday, if you haven’t yet. A blog to read on a Sunday night when filled with depression and foreboding for another week of working. To dream about another world, what if …. what if everyday was Saturday?


    Automation and job loss is a frequent topic.

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