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.)
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.
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.
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.
- Episode 484: Inside The T-Shirt Factory (npr.org)
- Will These Burger-Making Robots Change Food Entrepreneurship? (smallbusiness.uprinting.com)
- The Clothes You’re Wearing Killed Someone (urbantimes.co)
- Future uncertain for Bangladesh factory collapse victims (nimithu.wordpress.com)
- How Isaac Asimov correctly predicted 2014 tech in 1964 (techhive.com)