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Relentless Robots Replace Human Animals

August 21, 2012

“Skilled Work Without the Worker” an article in Sunday’s NYTimes, included this arresting quote from the CEO of Foxconn, the firm that manufactures I-pads on the first page: “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache”.

So instead of asking its Chinese employees to do arduous and dangerous work for low wages so that Americans can afford low cost computer gadgets, FoxConn will lay off those workers and replace them with robots who work 24/7 without a coffee break… and without human rights activists squawking. Is this a case of “be careful what you wish for” or a case of technology run rampant.

Since I am not a Luddite, I see it as neither: the disruption caused by these robots seems to be a natural consequence of the speed with which change takes place in our wired world… and our reaction at this point seems to be one of complete denial. The article cites the transition that took place in farming as a precedent for this change, where jobs in the farming sector fell from 40% of the economy to 2%… over the course of a century.  Over the course of a CENTURY adjustments occur gradually… but this article suggests similar massive shifts occurring in the course of a DECADE. That means that this year’s seniors couldn’t have seen tis coming and, given the glacial speed of change in large systems like education, this year’s second graders are unlikely to be prepared for the workplace they will face in 2022 when they graduate from high school— unless they start taking hammers to the robots being installed in factories and warehouses across the country.

So where ARE the jobs going to be, especially for unskilled workers?

Some jobs are still beyond the reach of automation: construction jobs that require workers to move in unpredictable settings and perform different tasks that are not repetitive; assembly work that requires tactile feedback like placing fiberglass panels inside airplanes, boats or cars; and assembly jobs where only a limited quantity of products are made or where there are many versions of each product, requiring expensive reprogramming of robots.

But that list is growing shorter.

The list is growing shorter for both skilled and unskilled jobs… and the unemployment lines today are getting longer… and the number of unskilled laborers, those without college degrees, is getting longer too. There are only so many beds to be made in motels, so many fast food franchises to operate, so many bed pans to empty— assuming there is any money at all for health care. Something will emerge from all of this so that we can muddle through… but the chance of the robust middle class returning seems slimmer and slimmer.


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