The Robots are Coming

A casual discussion about the automation of work and the decreasing relevance of humans to productivity.

Archives: Page 3

Automation and The Minimum Wage

October 21, 2015

The tail end of this NY Times opinion piece on raising the minimum wage includes this bit about the threat of automation as a reason not to raise the minimum.

Senator Marco Rubio has been trotting out this scare tactic at every opportunity: “I don’t want to deny someone $10.10. I’m worried about the people whose wages are going to go down to zero because you’ve made them more expensive than a machine.”


World Summit on Technological Unemployment

September 21, 2015

There’s an upcoming conference on technological unemployment:

The World Summit on Technological Unemployment is the first high-level forum and workshop for thought leaders across all disciplines and domains designed to begin the critical task of confronting the vast challenges ahead. The goal of the Summit is to create a proactive partnership of the brightest minds in academia, government policy, industry, and the media that will construct a framework to define, measure, and ultimately craft solutions to the jobless future that increasingly threatens our global workforce.


Pilotless Planes

September 09, 2015

It seems that planes don’t even need pilots.

Advances in sensor technology, computing and artificial intelligence are making human pilots less necessary than ever in the cockpit. Already, government agencies are experimenting with replacing the co-pilot, perhaps even both pilots on cargo planes, with robots or remote operators.

This in the wake of the Germanwings crash where the co-pilot purposely flew his plane into a mountain. Remove the human, remove the threat.

According to the aticle, the crew of a Boeing 777 spends just seven minutes per flight in manual control of the plane.


Server-less Restaurants

September 09, 2015

We don’t need waiters anymore, apparently, as a new place in San Francisco is trying to prove. (And it’s not just Applebees...)

At this restaurant, customers order, pay and receive their food and never interact with a person.

[...the restaurant is] almost fully automated. There are no waiters or even an order taker behind a counter. There is no counter. There are unseen people helping to prepare the food, but there are plans to fully automate that process, too, if it can be done less expensively than employing people.

The article has 7-image slideshow of pictures from the restaurant.


The Onion on Automation

September 08, 2015

The Onion offers this humorous respite: Secretary Of Labor Assures Nation There Still Plenty Of Jobs For Americans Willing To Outwork Robots :

During a morning press conference, Perez told reporters that while he sympathizes with the frustration felt by out-of-work Americans, the nation currently has more than 8 million jobs open to anyone who will work harder, faster, and more dependably than an industrial robot specially designed to perform the same set of tasks.

“If you’re available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and able to repeat an extremely precise sequence of movements up to 150 million times without pause, there is work for you in this economy,”


We Live to Work

August 24, 2015

Here’s an interesting article on how white collar work in the U.S. will resist automation because we will simply invent more work, because that’s what we do in this country.

[...] in white-collar jobs, the amount of work can expand infinitely through the generation of false necessities—that is, reasons for driving people as hard as possible that have nothing to do with real social or economic needs.


Money for Free

August 09, 2015

Here’s an interesting documentary from a Dutch “future affairs” television series on the idea of a “basic income” and how it might work. The idea is that when there’s not enough jobs to go around, you might simply have to pay people money for not working.

The video is unabashedly in favor of it, and details several small-scale experiments in progress to make it happen. It concludes with a look at the universal oil fund in Alaska, which I think is curious since that clearly has an external funding source—large amounts of oil revenue.

And therein lies the rub, really. Every proponent of basic income that I’ve seen gets really vague and sketchy about how to fund it over the long term without money coming in from outside the system. In the video, you see an experiment with crowdfunding, but even that would require an external funding source.

I don’t think there’s any way to fund it perpetually and sustainably outside of large-scale income redistribution (admittedly, I’m not an expert) and that brings massive problems in terms of political palatability, especially in the United States.


Writing Gigs; Payment By The Page

August 07, 2015

Inside an article about Amazon’s business practices, there’s an interesting note about how the “gig economy” is coming to book writing:

Amazon announced that it would be instituting a new payment system for authors who use its Kindle Select publishing platform (in other words, authors for whom Amazon functions as both publisher and distributor), according to which authors will be paid each time readers turn the page of a book.

As Peter Wayner notes, “instead of paying the most ambitious, long-winded authors for each page written, Amazon will pay them for each page read.” An analysis of the details by Hern concluded that “an author will have to write a 220-page book — and have every page read by every person downloading it — to make the same $1.30 they currently get from a book being downloaded.” Casey Lucas estimates that author royalties could decline by between 60 and 80 percent.

For authors, the minimum billable unit (MBU) used to be the entire book, Amazon is using software to drive that down to the page. The entire book used to be the gig, Now a book is 200 smaller gigs, bound into one.


Replacing Humans with Robots

August 06, 2015

The title of this post is apparently the title of an official Chinese government program which subsidizes and rewards companies for actively displacing humans with robots, (Talk about truth in advertising...)

This article and 6-minute video explain the program, and talk to some Chinese workers affected by it, In true authoritarian form, there’s the official version of it, and then there’s the off-the-record version that the filmkaers get by talking to workers outside of the factory.

Here’s China’s problem, in a nutshell:

Workers are scarce partly because of the government’s “one child” policy and the rapid expansion of the university system.

Government rules limiting most couples to just one child halved the birthrate in China from 1987 to 2003. The birthrate then leveled off at a lower level per 1,000 residents than in the United States. So China has lots of workers in their late 20s, but an ever-shrinking supply of workers now entering the work force each year.

As a bonus, the video has some great shots (and weirdly terrifying) shots of Kuka, which is one of the world’s largest robot manufacturers—they make the robots which make other stuff.

It looks like something out of a sci-fi movie.


Will Your Job Be Automated?

August 06, 2015

NPR has come up with a cute, if simplistic, app to tell you if your job will be automated. The parameters it reviews are:

You select the field and the job, and it does some magic calculations, to come up with numbers like this:

So, get to medical school, clearly.