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Every so often on Ricochet, I read another thread about automation, the decreasing demand for factory workers and what this bodes for the future. Or about education and training our workforce for tomorrow. Someone on these threads always asks the titular question, although I’ve never seen it put so indelicately: “Your robot factory of the future will need scientists and engineers, but not guys turning wrenches on the assembly line. What about the people who just aren’t that smart? What will they do when their jobs get automated away?”
Well, I walk the concrete for a living and I’m writing this just after my night shift support tech job let out. I’ve got a couple points to make, which the pundits don’t usually cover.
Automation Is A Diminishing Returns Relationship
That bit with Charlie Chaplin? He’s the next guy to lose his job to a machine. It’s very easy to build a robot to tighten a bolt. It’s much harder to build a robot that can feed you lunch. Setting aside the implausibility of that particular brainstorm, any particular job in a factory will range on a scale from “Very easy for a robot to do” to “extremely difficult for a robot to do.” A clever engineer will be able to put a price tag on each robot on that scale.
People Are Robots
We see the converse in science fiction all the time. But think about it from a management standpoint? You can design a really kick-butt and expensive piece of vision software to inspect your parts for defects, or you can employ a legion of low-wage drones to do your inspections for you. It’s often economical to use each for different tasks. It’s always a question of cost.
Machines Are Fallible
You know that vision software just mentioned? It will lie to you. It will tell you good parts are bad and bad parts are good. Again, it’s a cost question; how much do you lose in scrapping good product versus how much does it cost to upgrade your inspection program? It’s cost effective to back up your vision software with more people to evaluate the results. (Sure, they’ll lie to you too, but you can fire them for that.)
Case in point, I work for a company that make hard drive parts in lots of about 250,000. Early in the process, we have a machine that inspects each one for defects. It spits out a yield figure, say 90% good parts. Then, because that’s not good enough, we have several people auditing the images the machine gave us to see what happened to our product and why. This isn’t charity for the low-IQ: we do it because we make more money that way. The machine simply can’t give us the answers we need on their own.
Humans Can Cheat
From the standpoint of the guy making the rules, that isn’t always a good thing. On the other hand, rules systems need some grease around the edges to keep things moving. When Google made its self driving cars they had a problem with stop signs: the robot would follow right-of-way laws, which isn’t how intersections work in the real world. So the car would just sit there.
Our machines at work have route enforcement: they check the incoming product for the process step it ought to be on and only allows the correct material through. Then a new product number rolls around, someone forgets to set the correct permission and I get called out to override the route enforcement. You can’t build a robot that knows when to break the rules.
People Are Easy To Program
It might not seem that way when you find the toilet seat up again, but it’s easy to tell a person to do a relatively complex task and have a reasonable expectation that they’ll be able to do it. You could build a lawn-mower bot (and usher in the robot rebellion, mind you), but it’d be very difficult to then train it to clean the bathroom. Some days, your factory owner just has to say “grab a mop and come with me,” and you darn well need a human for that.
So What Does All That Add Up To?
Same thing I’ve been hammering on: it’s a question of costs. At every point, your business owner has to balance the cost of hiring people to do the task at hand, versus the cost of building and maintaining robot. Every time the robot is the right choice, they will build that robot. But in many cases, it’s just cheaper to hire some schlub to do the grunt work. Despite all the clever people designing a better robot, we’ll still have factory jobs for low-skill, uneducated, low-IQ workers for decades to come.
There’s a simple way to make sure the jobs are still there: make it cheaper to hire people. Forget wages; the real problem holding back American labor is — you guessed it! — government. There are a thousand-and-one regulations protecting worker safety and the environment, making sure people can’t be fired and that you’re hiring enough people of the preferred sort, fining you thousands of dollars because you missed a jot or tittle, and all the other myriad headaches you have to endure to run a business. Some of those things are necessary, but darn well not as many as we have right now.
Photo Credit: “Toyota Plant Ohira Sendai” by Bertel Schmitt – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Toyota_Plant_Ohira_Sendai.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Toyota_Plant_Ohira_Sendai.jpg