Jobs, robots, automation and the future of work

Last year I wrote an article titled ‘The jobs aren’t coming back‘.  In it I cited this quotation:

There is a structural change in the economy. Technological improvements mean our economy can produce more value while employing fewer workers. Economists refer to this as the de-coupling of labor and growth. Technological automation and globalization has created an economy that can grow while employing fewer people. This technology and outsourcing has also developed an economy that disproportionally rewards entrepreneurs, investors and corporations. Hence the whole “We are the 99%” hubbub a year or two ago.

And with the accelerating rate of technological advancement, the problem is only going to get worse, not better. Democrats and Republicans will continue to blame the sluggish economy and shitty job numbers on each other. But know this: that if it’s anybody’s fault, it’s Silicon Valley’s. And the same technology that has enriched our lives and allows me to write this and you to read it, is ultimately the culprit.

S**t’s changing, folks. And it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better.

There’s more at the link.

I’ve been keeping a careful eye on the subject since then.  In March this year I posted another article titled ‘The 10 most popular applications for robots‘.  It contained a video report on the subject, to which I commented:

Every single job shown above … [was] not so long ago performed by human beings.  All of those jobs no longer exist . . . for people.

They won’t be coming back.

What does that say about the future of ever more jobs of a similar nature?

Again, more at the link.

A spate of articles addressing the topic has caught my attention in recent weeks.  Here are a few of them.

  • Boeing testing robots to improve 777 productivity:  “Starting more than a year ago, Boeing began secretly testing a robotic alternative to manual riveting and bucking … Laboratory testing had shown Boeing that it was possible for robots to sense the appropriate level of pressure to apply, simulating what a human does by feel … The robotic system – which Boeing calls the fuselage assembly upright build (FAUB) – remains in evaluation, but could be moved into the 777 production system early next year. Fatigue tests on structural coupons so far indicate that the FAUB is superior to manual labor.”  That’s going to make the IAM happy – I don’t think!
  • Bankers beware: City ‘will soon be run by robots’:  “Robots will be running the City [of London – i.e. its financial markets] within 10 years, rendering investment bankers, analysts and even quants redundant, it has been claimed.  Artificial intelligence is about to outpace human ability, according to Dave Coplin, a senior Microsoft executive.  Computers will not only be able to undertake complex mathematical equations but draw logical, nuanced conclusions, reducing the need for human interference, he said.  This will render certain professions redundant, while other ‘human only’ skills will become increasingly valuable … Algorithms are already commonplace on City trading floors, and are used in many industries, from online retail to internet dating. High-frequency trading, governed by algorithms, is already one of the most profitable trading classes. But, according to Mr Coplin, in 10 years people will no longer be required to manage these algorithms. Decisions will be taken directly by the artificial intelligence.”
  • ‘Robot overlords’: Coming our way soon?:  “The research which aimed to look at how humans and robots can better work together comes amid calls by some industry experts for a collaborative work place, where humans and robots work side by side, to match the evolving capabilities of robots … It’s inevitable that as robots become more and more autonomous, questions about where robotic labor can best be utilized will be asked.”

I noted last year that, according to the Financial Times:

47 per cent of jobs in the US are now at risk from computerisation, according to a prediction last year from Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne from Oxford university. McKinsey, the management consultancy, has estimated that by 2025, productivity gains in fields of “knowledge work”, ranging from clerical to professional services, could account for 40 per cent of all the current jobs in those areas.

It looks as if the pace of computerization and automation of traditionally ‘human’ jobs is accelerating even faster than previously foreseen.  As I’ve said before, if you work in a field that’s at risk of being ‘automated’ out from under you, you need to start planning right away for a change of job and/or a change of career.  If you wait, it may be too late – and you’ll be competing with everyone else who waited until the last minute.  Far better to keep your eyes open, recognize the warning lights flashing, and do something about them now.  Consider your options, look into setting up your own small business, take advantage of retraining opportunities, look for lateral transfers to other types of employment within your present company.  If you don’t do those things now, while you’re still earning a living, you’ll be forced to do them in haste when the wolf’s already at the door.  That’s no fun at all.  (Ask me how I know this.)



  1. Henry Hazlitt in "Economics in One Lesson" said that the fear that machines would put men out of work goes back to the invention of the loom. He seems to show that it's not the end of the world everyone thinks or the world would have ended long ago.

  2. Truly, the days of sabot tage were the days of the steam driven loom… I go back and forth on this. I work in technology and have seen the money pour -out- of successful ventures there and drive innovation in a huge variety of fields. On the other hand automation and globalization have certainly changed the landscape of working in technology… so I'm looking forward to seeing how it all works out and willing to change skill sets if necessary. I hear welders are in great demand!

  3. I, for one, welcome our robot overlords.

    But that's because I used to design them and know how they work.

    The real danger is not being replaced by robotics – they will always need human engineers and technicians of one sort or another, at least until they become sentient – but in having technology in general make one completely unemployable for a lifetime.

    I built business automation systems for a time, one of which replaced a couple dozen human drones with a scanner operator, a few servers and some software. Error rate declined to an almost undetectable level, throughput increased by orders of magnitude, and a decade-long perpetual 8-10 day processing backlog went to 20 minutes, limited only by scanner speed and the processor speed of the servers running the software.

    The organization was stunned, and after much hand wringing, declined to propagate the technology through the organization because they didn't know what to do with their employees. A biz-wide transformation would make 75% of their employees superfluous.

    The answer was retain the best for human interaction tasks – what's known as "high tech, high touch" – and dispose of the remainder to pursue other challenges. The reason was, most of the employees did not bring suitably marketable skills to the job, nor did they bring the adaptability necessary to move forward in a changing world.

    Benjamin Franklin said over two centuries ago in Poor Richard's Almanac "there is nothing constant but change."

    True dat.

  4. A question.

    Is it that 'robots are replacing people' or 'robots are replacing men'?

    I (vaguely) remember the similar debates (panic?) about the 'new' computerisation of the workplace and how it would decimate the workforce. Of course not only did it not, it actually increased the number of jobs (new industries etc.). There were many changes of course, the greatest here was the relative increase in 'jobs women were willing to do' (Yes, I know there are always exceptions, more so there than here, but, as Billy Connolly once voiced about the PC change of name of 'man-hole covers' to 'person-hole covers', “when women are willing to climb down those holes and stand waist deep in the sh.. [what's at] the bottom, then and only then do they have any say in what you can call the cover on top of the hole”. Previously dirty/dangerous/male only jobs suddenly become areas women demand parity in 'only' after they become clean/safe jobs on the whole).

    Just to get my facts straight I checked and >80% of the unemployed in my home 'city' are males (100% of the homeless since they closed a male shelter to open it as another one of the six female shelters). 62% of the job vacancies advertised are, if not exclusively female, at least 'traditionally' so, clerical, care, front-of-shop. All but one factory has been moved abroad, pits closed and, as an example, where before the refuse collection was all male (I used to supplement my income when a student as a loader), when heavy/dirty/dangerous (four office staff, 1 man/3 women, and eight trucks with five 'man' crews – 8 male drivers, 32 male loaders) it is now 'different' with automation (twenty seven office staff, 1 male/26 female, and eight trucks with three man crews – 2 male/6 female drivers, 16 male loaders).

    I know, a tangential argument since most 'male' heavy industry/manufacturing jobs have not in fact been lost but have instead been 'offshored' but the absolute majority of jobs locally here are female dominated or even exclusively. The same is repeated across all areas as far as I can see.

    So? I suspect that there wont actually be that many job losses. That those that are will actually be a redistribution to other areas/countries. And that previously male dominated areas of employ will be suddenly attractive options to women.

    (Similar has happened in my own, health care area. Porters, big beefy guys who lifted large patients by hand have been replaced by smaller women with hoists. Traditionally male doctors in years gone by are now a majority female [65% of new students are women], whereas the traditionally female nurses … remain [apart from three of us] a majority female, and home care/community is exclusively female as 'men can't be trusted apparently').

    We're building our own obsalescence.

  5. One of the best economics lessons I've ever heard is Danny DeVitos speach to the shareholders in "Other Peoples Money".
    He calls it "the Prayer for the Dead", the wish to hold on to a dying industry in the face of progress.
    "You know, at one time, there must've been dozens of companies making buggy whips. And I'll bet the last company around was the one that made the best god-damn buggy whip you ever saw. Now how would you have liked to have been a stockholder in that company? You invested in a business and this business is dead."

    He then shows that the company looses money in part because the employees have gotten raises until they cost more than the company could afford, and when the orders stopped coming, the company couldn't pay it.
    There's a lesson in it. When people get paid more than it would cost to develop, install and maintain machines to do the same thing, it makes sense for any company to look at automation. Whether it's buying chainsaws to the lumberjacks or automating something else.

    But here's the kicker of the movie. It ends with DeVito about to close the company when he suddenly gets a suggestion to change production into new products. So the employers are not left unemployed, they went on to do something else.

    That's the same with automation. All the bank tellers that were replaced by ATMs aren't unemployed and homeless. They went to work in other jobs.
    As DeVitos character would have put it, they went to work "in something with a future".

    This really should be remembered. With the speed of technology now, what was a safe job a decade ago could be obsolent today. People should learn to have several skills and keep learning new things. It's common sense and makes very good economical sense.

  6. I hear that. My job as an architectural draftsman may be threatened, as some of our clients demand we use BIM (Building Information Modeling) programs if we desire work from them. Its costly, has a long learning curve, but once mastered, allows the user to become much more productive. Right now, the architect hires draftsman (like moi) to do the actual hands on drafting while they design. With BIM, they become more productive and we get more obsolete. At same time, BIM is more expensive for the owner architect.

    Bummer – I really like my job! Done it for nearly 30 years and starting something up brand new at this point would be difficult, not sure I can afford to send my kids and myself to college at same time.

  7. Airbus has been using robot riveters for years for the fuselage barrels so it's about time that Boeing caught up. The other threat to the IAM is the increasing use of composites. The fuselage and wing of the 787 are composite, aluminium is only used in the leading edges since it can be safely heated for anti-icing.


  8. Okay, I will.

    How do you know this? Are you referring to your injury and move into writing? Or is there another personal experience that I need to spur me on with my training plan??

  9. I hear lots of people complaining about this, but the thing is: it's nothing new.

    Most of the labor force used to work on the farm – farm equipment eliminated those jobs, the standard of living rose, and factory jobs were created. Automation eliminated most factory jobs, the standard of living rose, and people began working in offices.

    Anyone really want to go back to The Jungle, or to manual farm labor?

    Society moves on, people (as a whole) move with it. Yes, it's hard on some individuals – Peter's right that each of us needs to look at our own situation. But on the whole, increasing automation is a good thing.

  10. @STxRynn: Oh, yes, my injury was one version of it: but in a prior career, I was in the IT industry, and saw artificial intelligence (a very early incarnation thereof) begin to take over the systems development process, automating the design of systems and eventually leading to code generation directly from system diagrams. I've also seen it take over production lines in military hardware, although that didn't directly affect me.

    It can creep up on you unawares, until you wake up one morning and realize that you're not only newly unemployed, but don't have the skills to be employable in your old field any more. That happened to a couple of friends of mine, although I 'escaped' from it when the good Lord pulled me into ordained ministry.

    Just my $0.02 worth . . .

  11. NO! I'm NOT gonna learn new skills or take any risks or put forth the slightest bit of effort! It's my RIGHT to demand that McDonalds pay me 20$/hr, and if you don't agree, you're a RAAAAAACIIIST!!!!!

  12. I have been a salesman in technical industries (computer hardware & software, information mgt, fire alarm systems, etc.) for over 35 years. Not gonna get automated any time soon. My wife runs the chambers of a federal judge; again, too many human decision factors to automate this side of the singularity.

    Our daughter discovered while working at college that she has a talent for bartending. (It helps that she is smart, a good conversationalist, and pretty.) Should be good for 10 years at least, then we'll see.

  13. The only real question is, when does Skynet become self – aware, and decide we should be liquidated for the good of machine – kind? John Conner, call your office…..

  14. Yesterday, I had to call our network ops center. We recently outsourced it to Asia. I noted 2 fans were making distinctive bearing failure noise. They didn't have a script to address it. He remoted in, saw it was working, and said, "nothing to see here, citizen…. Carry on." Wrong answer. For me at least.

    I'm tempted to see these kinds of activities as a comfort. "They need me." But anecdotes are not data. If the company is willing to manage by failure, then, they'll wait till it quits to fix it. The users will only be down a day, three if it's a weekend.

    My professional attitude is fix it before it fails. So, I'm gonna have to do that with myself as well. Time to really dig in and get my plans on the table and work this out.

    I never take what you say as fluffy bunny stuff. I trust God to speak to me through a multitude of counselors. Your clarion call rings true to me. If 2 is 1 and 1 is none with equipment, why not a skill set?

    Thanks for keeping up to date and putting it out there for guys like me.

  15. Weetabix, automation did put men out of work and created enormous hardship for decades.

    The life of an factory worker from the 1840's well into the 1920 in some places was hell on Eath.

    These stresses lead to Communism, Social Democracy and most of the modern managerial state.

    Also how we dealt with it wasn't with "new jobs" but by paying out and sometimes forcing out large sections of the labor force.

    As an example, we got child labor laws (mostly good) Social Security and retirement , women pushed out of the work force (they're baaaack!) and retirement at 65, which was not that long ago mandatory.

    We are still trying to cope with only this time with the most dysgenic short sighted and greedy means possible.

    These include starving young reproductive age people of jobs (underemployment is around 50% which means half your populace doesn't have enough resources to start a family) and when the natural tendencies toward smaller families occur by bringing in more highly natal cheaper replacement populations (aka soft genocide)

    In the end unless some boots are put on necks or the State grows vastly, simply the corporations will automate themselves out of house and home.

    All this civil society is expensive and while I am sure that the sociopaths among the elites would love to have everything and everyone else have nothing, most of the rich and former rich won't enjoy the consequences at all, if they live.

    Nick Hannuer's pitchforks area very real possibility and these days we don't have the church to serve as a buffer.

    Last, the usual neo-liberal squack about deregulation leading to jobs is nonsense.

    There is no level of regulation low enough to get people better pay or more jobs for long. Bad jobs with low pay? Sure. Some highly skilled jobs that can't be cheaply off-shored . Yep

    But the kind of broad based middle class is expensive and sooner than later every job will go the way of the travel planner.

    This means in the end if society is to survive we will have to find a way to create a new middle class.

    None of the options, a basic income guarantee, leveling progressive tax scenes (20 hour work week, 7% tax rate, closed markets redistribution) and/or universal state employment are all that pleasant.

    That said, solve it or kiss civilization good bye.

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