Toyota Plant

The Robot Revolution Will Be Delayed

 

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

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  1. ctlaw Coolidge
    ctlaw
    @ctlaw

    Hank Rhody: 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 victim groupies, fining you thousands of dollars because you missed a jot or tittle, and all the other myriad headaches you gotta endure to run a business. Some of those things are necessary, but darn well not as many as we have right now.

     Agreed. There are other things we do even beforehand that reduce worker productivity and make them less competitive. The educational system is a big source of problems.

    • #1
  2. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Excellent post. 

    There are always jobs for people because so many of the “stupid” jobs cannot be done by machines. For starters, operating the machines. 

    The union shops I know that do the best are the ones with very high degrees of automation. They still employ people, but usually not as scientists. They babysit.

    • #2
  3. Guruforhire Member
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    1.) You underestimate technology

    Outside of loading materials and watching it, there is no part of a fastfood restaurant that cannot be automated.  The technology exists and is sold now.  So we have a regional materials person, a few people per region to deal with problems, and a regional repair person, all replacing multiple shifts of stupid people.

    2.) You underestimate just how stupid people are
    No, really, people are really really stupid.  Parts checking and problem resolution are beyond a lot of people’s grasp.

    3.) You underestimate the elasticity of demand for low wage work.

    I used to have a cleaning service.  I don’t anymore.

    The larger problem with automation isn’t necessarily low wage work.  Its middle wage work.  People with “analyst” in their title are probably going to go the way of the typing pool.  The world of cloud IT is going to eviscerate IT services firms, in house IT staff, and a host of other consequences we can’t predict.

    • #3
  4. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    Hank Rhody: 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 victim groupies, fining you thousands of dollars because you missed a jot or tittle, and all the other myriad headaches you gotta endure to run a business. Some of those things are necessary, but darn well not as many as we have right now.

     Amen. Great post.

    • #4
  5. Guruforhire Member
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    Now we have lets say half of the former IT mid-skilled types trying to get the same regional McDonald’s machine babysitter.

    Massive centralization of services, and associated economies of scale, and inelastic demand is going to be a big problem with dislocation.  Sure eventually markets will find their new equilibrium, but the former middle will mostly be gone, and lots more middle skill people taking the new middle skill automation jobs (watch machine spit out hamburgers), that further dislocate the low skill jobs.

    Its not just a single disruption in one part of the value chain.  We are looking at disruptions up and down the value chain.

    Hell drone delivery, and driverless cars aren’t far away……

    Replacing 100 low aptitude people, with 10 middle aptitude people is a problem.  especially when we are also replacing 100 middle aptitude people with 10 high aptitude people at the same time.

    Lastly, Always Has =/= Always Will.

    • #5
  6. Guruforhire Member
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    So another story.

    There was a company in Minnesota who made canoes.  (high end) canoes used to be a fairly labor intensive process, and not terribly difficult.  It was bought out by a non-profit that employed mentally disabled people.  Which is fine.  (it went under because they had no clue what they were doing and alienated all their distributers).

    But then another company developed a technology to rapidly produce the canoes, using a big vacuum pump and a plastic bag.  So the entire years run of canoes could be made in a much shorter period of time, with fewer people.  The work is seasonal.

    The market for canoes didn’t expand with lower prices.  Only so many canoes are going to get sold at any price.

    • #6
  7. user_494971 Contributor
    user_494971
    @HankRhody

    Guruforhire:

    1.) You underestimate technology Outside of loading materials and watching it, there is no part of a fastfood restaurant that cannot be automated. The technology exists and is sold now.

    I still like people to spit in my hamburgers manually. Joking aside, I’m not saying it can’t be done, I’m saying it isn’t as cost effective as people assume. It wouldn’t be cost effective to replace fast food workers if government wasn’t driving up the cost of employment.

    2.) You underestimate just how stupid people are No, really, people are really really stupid. Parts checking and problem resolution are beyond a lot of people’s grasp.

    You say that, and I start thinking of names. See, I’m the tech people call when they can’t figure out what’s going on, and I get to explain it to them. I still say they’re easier to program than machines.

    3.) You underestimate the elasticity of demand for low wage work. I used to have a cleaning service. I don’t anymore.

    Not sure what you’re driving at with this point. Could you elaborate?

    • #7
  8. user_494971 Contributor
    user_494971
    @HankRhody

    Guruforhire:

    But then another company developed a technology to rapidly produce the canoes, using a big vacuum pump and a plastic bag. So the entire years run of canoes could be made in a much shorter period of time, with fewer people. The work is seasonal.

    The market for canoes didn’t expand with lower prices. Only so many canoes are going to get sold at any price.

     Sure. Factories go under. Creative destruction. People have been harping at me for longer than I’ve been alive that you can’t trust a job to be there twenty years from now like in the probably-mythical good old days. I took my current job with a reasonable expectation that my company might not exist five years from date of hire. (We make platter style hard drives. Market hasn’t been favoring us.)

    Those same reforms I suggested to make hiring people cheaper? They also make it easier to start new companies. Ideally someone hires the displaced workers to produce something new, so society gets their canoes and something else. Sucks to be job hunting, but that chance is always there.

    • #8
  9. Guruforhire Member
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    1.) Your right and I agree.  But there is some point where starving and working is the same as starving and not working.  

    At the same time superior product at lower cost always wins.  Imagine a whopper that was made well and consistently?  No more 1 sad little piece of lettuce because really who cares?

    2.) Yeah I do.  My cousin cannot find people who can measure parts with basic measuring tools.

    3.) At some point you cannot even give away more stuff.  There will only ever be some many canoes and hamburgers consumed in a given unit of time.

    Your right.  Dislocations happen, and it is wise to plan on them.  But the problem is creative for who, and destructive for who and over what time period will the people dislocated have new opprotunities.  There is this belief that if we just give people firmware downloads humans are infinitely interchangable.

    • #9
  10. Guruforhire Member
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    I agree, utilizing resources is a matter of balancing the costs.  So we are going to let wages and employment hassle float infinitely.

    But how do we manage a society predominately made up of wage slaves?  Can a peaceful democratic society exist in such a fashion?  A sword of Damocles over the laborers head is that there is always a robot.  At some point violence becomes a more reasonable option.

    We just have to hope that new goods and services can be invented that result in new markets with new supply and demand curves that require labor.  I am just not as optimistic that we will create those as fast we create opportunities to eliminate labor.

    Then there is the issue of time.  Dislocation from supply or demand shifts, or dead-weight loss from wage controls aren’t immediate.  They take time, as does new opportunities created by new products and markets.

    • #10
  11. Guruforhire Member
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    Personally, I think the thing is on rails, and nothing we do in the government fundamentally is going to change the dystopian hellscape that will be the world of the low aptitude worker in the future.

    We can “slow the bleeding” or “make the patient more comfortable” though.  Like say, a rational interest rate floor.  Low interest money biases the markets in favor of robots, we probably ought not do that.  But James Pethokoukis will be a long to scream at me for that one.

    • #11
  12. user_494971 Contributor
    user_494971
    @HankRhody

    Guruforhire:

    1.) Your right and I agree. But there is some point where starving and working is the same as starving and not working.

    I’m still ignoring wages; government artificially inflates the cost of employing people.

    2.) Yeah I do. My cousin cannot find people who can measure parts with basic measuring tools.

    Interesting question, would like to explore it further but don’t want to get sidetracked.

    3.) At some point you cannot even give away more stuff. There will only ever be some many canoes and hamburgers consumed in a given unit of time.

    You sure about that? I’m not.

    Dislocations happen, and it is wise to plan on them. But the problem is creative for who, and destructive for who and over what time period will the people dislocated have new opprotunities. There is this belief that if we just give people firmware downloads humans are infinitely interchangable.

    Sure, people aren’t infinitely malleable. But for your high intelligence guy, if he can’t re-invent himself in a way that makes money, I got not much sympathy for him. For the rest of us, the problem isn’t the robots, it’s the government.

    • #12
  13. lesserson Member
    lesserson
    @LesserSonofBarsham

    Hank Rhody:

    Sure, people aren’t infinitely malleable. But for your high intelligence guy, if he can’t re-invent himself in a way that makes money, I got not much sympathy for him. For the rest of us, the problem isn’t the robots, it’s the government.

     This is kinda tongue in cheek but I sometimes worry that even while I hold this same philosophy I’ll still find myself on the losing side of it. Then again, I’m pretty confident I can accurately measure widgets if it comes to that…

    • #13
  14. user_494971 Contributor
    user_494971
    @HankRhody

    Sure. A weak point in my argument is that I’m implicitly saying that government can or will be changed for the better. Doesn’t seem likely. Okay, I’m anticipating changes, but not ones consistent with an orderly society.

    Government raises the minimum wage to $20 So
    McDonalds automates; replaces all but one or two caretakers per restaurant with robots But
    It costs them three times as much in construction, So
    they raise the base cost of a cheap burger to $3. Which means
    the illicit food truck with it’s family-member labor policies can now underbid with the cheapest slop in town. All they have to do is get away with ignoring all those regulations McDonalds has to follow.

    Black marketeering is probably the least destructive potential consequence.

    • #14
  15. Guruforhire Member
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    I am sure about that.

    I agree with all your reforms, but I consider them “slow the bleeding” reforms and not solutions to inexorable problems.

    I imagine a world of 3-d printers making everything and nanomachines turning CO2 into food, with conscripted shifts of people manning the nuclear power plants.  Humanity is pacified by a 3d printed morphine drip mixed with cocaine.  Until eventually we turn into the society featured in the “merchant” portion of The Foundation, and we forget how to fix them.

    Technical post scarcity is impossible, but “who gives a crap” post scarcity isn’t.

    That is of course if we manage to avoid killing each other in a communist revolution which has its own dystopian hellscape future.

    • #15
  16. user_494971 Contributor
    user_494971
    @HankRhody

    lesserson:

    Hank Rhody:

    But for your high intelligence guy, if he can’t re-invent himself in a way that makes money, I got not much sympathy for him.

    This is kinda tongue in cheek but I sometimes worry that even while I hold this same philosophy I’ll still find myself on the losing side of it. Then again, I’m pretty confident I can accurately measure widgets if it comes to that…

     Life’s a game. Play to win. Doesn’t mean you’re always going to. Or I will, for that matter.

    Yes, it sucks to be the guy who’s creatively disrupted. I spent a couple years unemployed and reeducating myself because my job in the door factory disappeared when the housing market crashed. Couple simple rules: They fire the incompetent people first. In this day and age, working hard puts you ahead of the crowd. People don’t starve in America. Subject to change, but right now getting fired is probably less painful than ever. Hiring people sucks; if you’ve got a job, inertia is on your side. Even so, keep an iron in the fire. You might need that next job.

    • #16
  17. user_494971 Contributor
    user_494971
    @HankRhody

    Guruforhire:

    I imagine a world of 3-d printers making everything and nanomachines turning CO2 into food, with conscripted shifts of people manning the nuclear power plants. Humanity is pacified by a 3d printed morphine drip mixed with cocaine. Until eventually we turn into the society featured in the “merchant” portion of The Foundation, and we forget how to fix them.

    Technical post scarcity is impossible, but “who gives a crap” post scarcity isn’t.

    That is of course if we manage to avoid killing each other in a communist revolution which has its own dystopian hellscape future.

     Got a degree in nanoscience. Don’t expect nanoassemblers in the near to mid term future. Long term, who knows? Been trying to think of a good way to make money off of 3D printers for a while. Keep coming up with busted plastic doohickeys from modern appliances it’d be neat to replace, but still doesn’t justify the cost of the machine.

    It won’t be a communist revolution; the communists are in power.

    And I’d love to keep talking, but I gotta be awake again for work in six short hours, so I really need to sleep now.

    • #17
  18. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    While this is all true, we are a technological breakthrough or two away from the dynamic changing.  

    Once we’ve created programs that are good at teaching themselves new tasks via experience, machinery is going to take a large leap forward.

    • #18
  19. Guruforhire Member
    Guruforhire
    @Guruforhire

    There is a design firm that developed a robotic arm based upon the way an elephant trunk works.  I want to take that and develop a lettuce/apple/peach/cherry/strawberry picking robot, and put an end to illegal immigration.

    • #19
  20. user_1938 Member
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    Hank Rhody: 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.

    From that article: 

    While the car picks up pedestrians who may jaywalk and deer that could bolt across the road, squirrels are still too small for its sensors. The team is constantly working to pick up more and more detail, but hasn’t “done a squirrel test,” Urmson said. 

    This is a case in which a human being’s intelligence actually gets in the way. While avoiding squirrels is nice, it isn’t safe. People often overreact or ignore other elements in their surroundings in their intense focus on the stray critter. 

    On a practical level, sometimes improving the “intelligence” of a robot or program involves excluding features of human intelligence. 

    • #20
  21. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    oopsie.

    • #21
  22. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Hank Rhody:

     

    3.) At some point you cannot even give away more stuff. There will only ever be some many canoes and hamburgers consumed in a given unit of time.

    You sure about that? I’m not.

    There’s an old science fiction short story [I’ll have to search for the author/title when I get home tonight] positing such super-abundance from the production generated by robots that consumption becomes mandatory and reverse-rationed – the poorer you are, the more you are required to consume in a given time period.  The rich are allowed to live simply, while the poor have extremely lavish lifestyles.

    • #22
  23. JimGoneWild Coolidge
    JimGoneWild
    @JimGoneWild

    Building things doesn’t just happen. We don’t build automated factories for new products. There is a progression. First it’s hand built. Then, as processes and procedures are created, automation slowly replaces them. People with all levels of skill are needed to in the initial phases. When someone helps develop those early processes and procedures, they provide the expertise for implementing the automated versions. Later, they become supervisors or project managers, product managers. If the product is successful it will need to become cheaper to produce, so there becomes openings for logistics experts, shipping and receiving positions, warehouse workers and on and on.

    No one sits at the same factory job, doing some robotic-like function for their entire working life–And there never was a time like this. That’s a liberal fantasy.

    Think Dynamics.

    • #23
  24. Mark Krikorian Contributor
    Mark Krikorian
    @MarkKrikorian

    Hank Rhody:

    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.

    I don’t disagree with the broad point that automation won’t necessarily fulfill the breathless wishes of boosters, but the bathroom-cleaning example shows a limitation in the way people consider the issue. Would cleaning your bathroom, as it is currently configured, be hard to automate? Sure. But that’s why bathrooms will, over time, be redesigned specifically with automated cleaning in mind. For instance, see self-cleaning public bathrooms, which are popping up all over. 

    It’s similar with harvesting fruit. A few years back I met with the then-CEO of Vision Robotics, who told me they first approached the problem of automating the picking of citrus fruit for fresh sale (as opposed to juice oranges, which can be shaken off the trees, since they’re all going to end up as juice anyway) by simply trying to replicate the way humans did it. But that didn’t work well, so they re-thought the problem and now scan the tree, create a 3-D digital image showing the location of each orange, and only then calculate the most efficient order in which the robotic arms can pick them.

    The point is that automating the specific steps currently taken by humans to complete a task may well seem impractical, but automation may proceed nonetheless, by changing the way the task is done.

    • #24
  25. Rob Long Editor
    Rob Long
    @RobLong

    I agree with most of this, but especially this:  “A clever engineer will be able to put a price tag on each robot on that scale.”

    The key, I think, is to become a “clever engineer.”  I think it’s hard to argue that automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence (“machine learning”) won’t increase in power and complexity over the near term.  But all of that will be driven by engineers.

    Here’s what I don’t understand — and this is probably a subject for a new post:  why don’t all of those giant, hugely-capitalized engineering-dependent companies — Google, Apple, Cisco, HP, Oracle, etc. — each kick in $2 billion or so a year to create or endow engineering scholarships across the country?  Instead of trying to rig the immigration laws to allow for more engineers to immigrate?  Grow your own, so to speak.

    • #25
  26. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    Rob Long: why don’t all of those giant, hugely-capitalized engineering-dependent companies — Google, Apple, Cisco, HP, Oracle, etc. — each kick in $2 billion or so a year to create or endow engineering scholarships across the country?

     Isn’t that why Gates is so focused on Common Core?

    • #26
  27. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    Son of Spengler:

    Rob Long: why don’t all of those giant, hugely-capitalized engineering-dependent companies — Google, Apple, Cisco, HP, Oracle, etc. — each kick in $2 billion or so a year to create or endow engineering scholarships across the country?

    Isn’t that why Gates is so focused on Common Core?

     I had assumed that was the dementia.

    • #27
  28. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    Frank Soto:

    Once we’ve created programs that are good at teaching themselves new tasks via experience, machinery is going to take a large leap forward.

    I agree that AI has the potential to be unbelievably disruptive.  The thing about it is, it’s real difficult to predict what something orders of magnitude smarter than you is going to do.

    • #28
  29. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    Frank Soto:

     

     

    I agree that AI has the potential to be unbelievably disruptive. The thing about it is, it’s real difficult to predict what something orders of magnitude smarter than you is going to do.

     Which brings us to questions of what is intelligence.  Does a machine that can learn new tasks have a will?  Only if you gave it one.  It’s simply following instructions, no matter how complex they are.  Some will argue that this is all people are doing as well, but people are motivated by more than just their intellect, making our behaviors far less predictable.

    Program the machines to leave us alone, and they will.  The singularity will be awesome.

    • #29
  30. FloppyDisk90 Member
    FloppyDisk90
    @FloppyDisk90

    Hank Rhody: Same thing I’ve been hammering on: it’s a question of costs.

     Minor point of 101 Economics:  productivity also matters.  An efficient business will employ both capital and labor (both of which exhibit decreasing marginal returns and increasing marginal costs) to the point where the marginal revenue per dollar spent on each factor is the same.  In other words, employ capital and labor to the point where each factor’s profit per dollar spent is the same.

    • #30

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