What The Future Looks Like


Isaac Asimov, futurist
credit: androidworld.com

The future is getting closer all the time, and it looks like . . . machines.  And something else, which I will get to later on here.

The development of machines to expand productivity is of course an old story.  It has been happening since the start of the industrial revolution and is still growing because of the computer and the global economy.  What is new is the accelerating pace with which machines are taking over jobs formerly belonging to human beings.  If you go to board a plane these days, you don’t submit your ticket to an attendant.  You don’t even have a ticket.  You slide your passport with its embedded microchip through a slot in a kiosk.  You still get groped by a human in TSA uniform, but who knows how long that’s going to last?  (Can’t happen too fast.)

car robots

credit: technews24h.com

Robots are taking over, but they are not the autonomous kind depicted by Isaac Asimov.  Despite the startling success of Moore’s law here’s no indication that engineers are anywhere close to creating machines that can think independently, deal with the unexpected or pass the Turing test, but they are doing just about everything else.  Robot welders have been used in the auto industry since the 1980’s and are now standard.  Surgical robotic machines allow surgeons to perform the most delicate operations with minimal invasiveness, and some machines are now doing warehouse work, storing, resolving, retrieving and mailing for companies like Amazon.com.

Few people, except illegal immigrants of course, do actual muscle work anymore.  On one web page of a dealer in electro-hydraulic utility vehicles I counted over 50 versatile attachments available for one of the things.  Agriculture, which in 1870 comprised half of all jobs, is one of the most automated of industries and now employs only 2% of the work force.  (I’m not sure if that includes the seasonal stoop-labor still needed, for fruit especially.  Probably not.)

The list of jobs NOT impacted is shrinking rapidly:  vehicle drivers, plumbing, hair styling, counseling, and sewing in the garment industry.  Oh, and there’s doing people’s taxes, although come to think of it, software is making that easier every year to do myself.

Of course, until robots do become autonomous there will always be service-industry jobs:  flipping burgers, cleaning rooms, nursing, teaching, machine maintenance, waste disposal, finance, and sales.  And maybe entertainment and gambling fit that category too.  And law of course, although the evening news last night featured a young lawyer who was having trouble coping despite his law degree.  In his late 20’s he is making only about $15,000 a year with three part-time jobs and still lives with his parents.  This isn’t the first time I’ve heard that we are graduating too many lawyers.

What’s left?  Mainly jobs that involve creativity, managing other human beings, and coping with the unexpected, including of course, the design of structures, machines and machine systems.

All this leads me to the other thing the future looks like.  It looks like the garment industry in Bangladesh and Indonesia.  NPR’s Planet Money is currently doing a series on the industrial process that is about to produce a T-shirt for them.  Their reporters have been visiting all parts of the sophisticated chain of suppliers in the global process that is to result in their order of thousands of T-shirts, from the fields that grow the cotton to the delivery of the final product.  The cotton is coming from all over the world, including from the U.S., to a vast factory the size of several football fields in Indonesia where it is being spun into fine and very uniform thread by giant machines.  From there they followed the process to Bangladesh where one of many, many factories employs more huge machines to “weave” the thread into fabric.


credit: rediff.com

Where do the people come in?  It is mostly in cutting, sewing, dyeing, and labeling the final products made from the fabric.  Each worker has a tiny step to perform in the process, and that step never varies, day in and day out, month after month.  The average worker has a 7th grade education and makes about a dollar a day.  She has virtually no hope of ever doing anything else because each has a family depending on her wages.  One worker’s job is simply applying a sticker to the neck of each shirt, nothing more, over and over.  Surely that job is on the machine-endangered list.

The production workers are aware of their circumstances.  The common hope is that their children will become better educated than they and thereby qualify to be something more, but so long as their rote, monotonous, repetitive jobs are the support of their families there is no time for their own further education and there are no other industries to speak of.  How long will it be, I wonder, until someone designs a machine that can cut and sew?  NPR said that’s a concern being discussed among factory managers because if that happens, the entire Bangladesh economy could collapse.  Even now, it is hanging by a hair because of intense competition.  Utilities are unreliable and government services almost nonexistent.  (Many factories have their own electric generators.)  Roads, water and sewers are primitive, as is healthcare.

I robot

credit: signal-watch.com

Increasing numbers of people in the United States are trying to survive on the minimum wage and are having to use food stamps and other public support to do so, hence the recent rather pathetic attempt at a nationwide strike.  Meanwhile, our schools are failing to produce a quality product in the areas the nation needs most, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.  The people at the top, those who have jobs involving creativity, are doing increasingly well financially, but if there is no recognition that more unionization and regulation are necessary to support a humane standard of living, they may find themselves at the top of a pyramid that looks a lot like Bangladesh.  The GOP likes to tout competition as the solution for the economy.  Bangladesh has competition in spades and it’s also what the future looks like.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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9 Responses to What The Future Looks Like

  1. Jeff says:

    Good post. The transition from 50% agricultural workers to 2% agricultural workers was complicated by the fact that with increased automation comes decreased bargaining power. The communists are wrong because without an incentive to innovate progress slows, but the free-market thinkers are also wrong because the easiest and possibly the only way to reward innovation of the most effective producers is for less effective producers to exercise buying power that might exceed their “value creation” as measured by the rewards they can do if they are not near the top of the ability pyramid (the producers innovation production benefits, if they are not utilized and society as a whole, including the rich, lose the benefits of scale and of mass production).

    The solution seems to be a system that acknowledges that both extreme problems cause severe problems and that the problems in the middle are comparatively manageable.

    I am in absolute agreement that a heavily unionized work force in an otherwise free market system will be superior to an un-unionized work force in terms of both absolute economic growth and growth in quality demanded of the highest tranche of consumption.

    I would suggest that we have several ways to deal with the “productivity problem”.
    1) We could heavily encourage unions and the negotiating leverage of the bottom portion of the economic pyramid.
    2) We could disincentivize imports from countries with lower worker negotiation capability.
    3) We could disincentivize large companies in such a way that they are still profitable, but they have to innovate on top of their scale advantage to retain that high profitability status.
    4) We could decrease the ability of large corporations to gain tax advantages over small corporations by playing states off against each other by increasing national taxes and funneling a portion of those taxes directly to states.
    5) We could just manually redistribute income from the top to the bottom whenever we get out of balance by more than a certain ratio.
    6) We can take certain industries, like health care, highways, and prisons, where incentives are lined up more with negotiating ability than value creation and move them to the public domain.
    7) We can take a few highly-automated industries or very low industries on Maslow’s need hierarchy, strive for 100% automation, and establish them as free baseline services.

    Any solution we provide should be aimed, not only at striking a fair balance between labor and capital, but should also be done with a pragmatic eye toward the challenges and risks we face as a nation. For example, our nation probably has far more to worry about Tyson and Butterball getting bird flu than it has to worry about Iran getting nuclear weapons. Subsidies to small farmers would have the impact of increasing our national food security while subsidies to large farmers would have the impact of decreasing our national food security (a point democrats need to start making in red states, IMO).

    One of my favorite ideas is to measure wealth inequality and trade balance every year and start with a general revenue tax of 5% for all Imports and another 5% of all revenues for any company whose highest paid workers (bringing forward 7 years of stock grant effects) are at least 20 times as high as their lowest paid workers (including workers at 50%-owned subsidiaries and 50% captive suppliers). Then, every year these imbalances get worse we make a small adjustment to these numbers or add another category. A side effect of this is companies won’t be able to hide taxes as easily by producing at a large profit in one country while running near break-even in the sales country because the high price in the production country would increase their import taxes.

    Of course Joe the plumber would have a double benefit of zero taxes from this and an increased ability to raise prices.


    • Jeff says:

      Speak of the devil. After writing about subsidizing something low on Maslow’s needs hierarchy this morning I found this: http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2013/08/nothing-but-the-soylent-were-trying-1-full-week-of-the-meal-substitute/

      (And obviously do should have been something like ‘earn’ in the first paragraph. Or better yet I could have avoided writing the worlds longest sentence… oh well!)


      • Jim Wheeler says:

        Jeff, you offer numerous specific remedies to the problem of runaway capitalism and I am frankly uncertain about the specifics of those, nor exactly how any of those ought to be implemented. But I think you have the direction right. The earned income tax credit in our current tax policy comes to mind as something that probably ought to be increased, as does a significant increase in the minimum wage. I too am in favor of pro-union patches, but am a little apprehensive about it because good checks and balances have historically been hard to achieve. Both sided tend to excess. It also seems to me that there ought to be some kind of government regulation on executive salaries – they have become outrageous. And as you might know, if you have read any of my past posts, I think some form of government-operated healthcare system is essential, such as the public option. The cost of healthcare in this country is so crushing that no other remedy will succeed if we don’t fix it. Perhaps the easiest thing for most to do would be to vote Democratic and then watch carefully.

        I followed your link on Soylent with interest. The first thing that occurred to me was that it is a spoof, and I’m still not convinced that it isn’t. I am old enough to still remember the 1973 sci-fi movie, Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson. It was a memorable dystopian story about the future that seems eerily prophetic considering that the environment is definitely headed in the same direction as in the movie, down the tubes that is. Also, I couldn’t help reflect that the production of a bland, uniform food source is ever so appropriate to the theme of this post. What better to go with a Bangladeshi’s dull, repetitive, never-changing life than a food that also never changes? Of course, here in America that won’t happen. We will always have catsup. (Won’t we?)

        Thanks for your thoughtful replies, Jeff. You are a welcome addition to my little discussion group.


  2. middlechildwoman says:

    A bit depressing but it’s always good to know future reality of jobs. Guess my father wasn’t too far off back in the 1960s when he encouraged his five daughters to become nurses or teachers (2 teachers and one nurse midwife with 2 other successful daughters!). Funny, but no such job suggestions for his eight sons.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Indeed, MCW, job prospects are not good at all. I have thought of this relative to my grandchildren and have come to some conclusions. First of all, each should be careful to follow their talents, whatever those turn out to be and regardless of pecuniary concerns. Few things are as sad, it seems to me, as a square peg in a round hole. But that aside, the best security for a happy life with security and benefits would come from a government job, and that includes the military if they can qualify both physically and mentally. If they decide to go that way I would advise them to opt for one of the many specialties that do not involve the front lines – there are many such.


  3. ansonburlingame says:


    A good blog showing reality, technology replacing human labor. So what to do becomes the issue on a broad scale.

    You and the above commenters, and progressives in general, call for more from and by government to “do something”. Well a lot of people right now want American government to “do something” about Syria as well. But what, exactly becomes the question, in both cases. I note part of your “solution” for your grandkids is to consider government work in the future, even in the military but NOT a “front line job”. I submit that anyone that volunteers for military service MUST be ready, willing and able to go to any “front line” and fight to win. No other reason to even have a military. It sure as hell should not be an employment agency.

    Manual labor was at least an option for you and me, not a good option but at least one where we could have lived middle class lives. Now that is becoming NO option, at least to live a middle class life. So what to do, at the individual level? The obvious answer is to aim far higher, beginning at a young age to NOT be a “manual laborer”, a minimum wage earner (or even a close to such wages). Aim for the “stars” and do one’s best to reach the “stars”, beginning at a very young age.

    Government will NEVER force people to do so. People must do so, become the “best that they can become”.

    Quick example. We are currently pulling out hedges, old ones around our house. Tough physical work for sure. Our “yard guy” (a GREAT man) has a young man helping him. But the young man said, “don’t expect me to work on Saturday or Sunday”. Why was asked. “I’m going to get drunk this weekend and will be too hungover to work”!!! He was PLANNING on getting drunk, and though he needed the money, refused to do such work!!!.

    Do you really think that is not going on all over America today??? How is government going to fix THAT, I wonder?



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Anson, I expected some blow-back on advising my grandkids to avoid combat and you didn’t disappoint. Obviously, anyone who opts for military service needs to be ready to give his or her all if and when required, but being a pragmatist and from the vantage point of a completed military career I can not ignore the obvious statistics. Even Dwight Eisenhower deplored the sometime-necessity of war and the loss of young lives. I see no dishonor in stacking the odds as best one can, especially when one has technical talent.

      Just as the nature of the military is changing, with more technology and less cannon fodder, so is the nature of government service changing, or at least I hope it is. I’m counting on government to save the country from becoming Bangladesh, and that, I submit, is a noble calling.

      Sorry to hear about your yard man’s helper. His attitude is alien to me and it brings up the age-old unresolved issue of nature versus nurture. Is it possible that this young man is one who has no kind of talent at all? Or did the educational system fail to direct him to such talent at some point? You seem to imply that the prospect of bad outcomes is necessary to promote ambition, but it sure isn’t working for this guy. At some point in his life he apparently lost his self-esteem. Would harsher prospects change him? I rather doubt it, but I still have hope that government efforts to improve education could change such people. To believe otherwise is to dismiss them as hopeless.


  4. ansonburlingame says:


    Of course you would get “blowback” from me to encourage a military career but not one to fight if needed. I remain firm in such a position however. Never would I encourage someone to expect to serve a full and complete military career only as a “staffer”. OK, some doctors, some lawyers, sure, even some supply guys and gals as well. But the BULK of ANY military MUST be fully capable “line guys”. You at least know what I mean by that for sure, though some of your readers may not.

    For such readers I only offer the following obvious point. NO NAVY exists to support sailors. A Navy’s job is to be ready to fight at all times and when it fights, do so to win, period. I would not pay a nickle to any Navy unless that was the mission, the goal and the total focus of such a Navy!! EVERYTHING else is secondary, for a Navy, an Army, etc.

    As a “sea going sailor” for most (about 90%) of my career, I viewed big SHORE (not fleet, and there is a difference) staffs as a burden as well. I also viewed those in uniform (for a career almost) in DC as ……… I for one put “bureaucrat” in the dots, and yes, I was ORDERED to be just that for the two most miserably years in my Naval career!! I then left the Navy in disgust after that tour.

    As for this “kid”. When he works he does a reasonable job and I have worked with him. As well, he is a HS grad and part time at MSSU. For sure he needs money and I do not pay minimum wage, either.

    But to demand time off while PLANNING to get a hangover????? I worked with hangovers for sure, but never called in sick with one, much less ask (demand) for “vacation” while anticipating a night on the town. With that kind of work ethic just how far do you think the “kid” will go. Not far if he ever pulled a stunt like that with me in charge of a business!!!

    I also seriously doubt that with such an attitude, he will graduate from college, must less get a degree really worth something (too hungover to study?). My guess is a trademan he will remain for life and not a very good one at that if such becomes a pattern of behavior. To aspire today to be a tradesman is misguided at best as well, as you point out in your blog.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      You have a hell of a nerve to misinterpret what I said, Anson, which was,

      Obviously, anyone who opts for military service needs to be ready to give his or her all if and when required . . .

      What I was talking about, as you surely must know, was to choose a specialty that would favor not just safety but post-retirement employment advantages as well. Your naval advice is condescending.


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