Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Outside the Box: Robotics and the jobs paradox

By Chuck Smythe

I’m afraid I only know about robotics what I read in the science magazines (which don’t pay enough attention to applied technology) and articles like “How to Make America’s Robots Great Again” [Farhad Manjoo, NY Times, January 25], from which I share this excerpt:
Here’s what you might call an alternative fact: American factories still make a lot of stuff. In 2016, the United States hit a manufacturing record, producing more goods than ever. But you don’t hear much gloating about this
because manufacturers made all this stuff without a lot of people. Thanks to automation, we now make 85 percent more goods than we did in 1987, but with only two-thirds the number of workers. [Emphasis mine.]
    This suggests that while Mr. Trump can browbeat manufacturers into staying in America, he can’t force them to hire many people. Instead, companies will most likely invest in lots and lots of robots.
    And there’s another wrinkle to this story: The robots won’t be made in America. They might be made in China. [read more]
A few things I’ve learned:
  • The master robot builders are not the Chinese, but the Koreans.
  • In robotics, as in many other high-tech industries, the technology was invented in America but manufactured and sold in Asia. As Tom Friedman said, “That used to be us.” If American workers are ever again to be as rich as we were a generation ago, solving this problem must be the first step.
  • The move to robotic manufacturing is going to happen regardless of politics. Our only choice is whether America gets a piece of the action or not.
  • And those who have studied this have said that automated manufacturing creates more jobs than it destroys. [See, for example, “Automation and anxiety,” The Economist, June 25, 2016*.]
  • The problem is that the new jobs can’t be done with a high school education.
Robotic manufacturing will certainly grow explosively, with America or without.
    Consider that

  • Robotics requires a lot of computing power, and Moore’s Law (“computing power is doubling every few years,” approximately) seems to guarantee that robots will have much more computing power in the near future.
  • IBM’s victory at Jeopardy started something. I am learning about it only from the press, but there have been sudden, great advances in the ability of computers to “think” about the world in sensible ways.
  • Toys such as 3D printers have made it far easier and quicker to prototype things, or even make them in small batches.
For all of these reasons, I expect factories to automate to an extreme degree. Manufacturing will mainly employ those who know how to work with robots. Perhaps we, like the Germans, should offer free technical education at the community college level?
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* Excerpt from “Automation and anxiety”:

Yet in the past technology has always ended up creating more jobs than it destroys. That is because of the way automation works in practice, explains David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Automating a particular task, so that it can be done more quickly or cheaply, increases the demand for human workers to do the other tasks around it that have not been automated.
    There are many historical examples of this in weaving, says James Bessen, an economist at the Boston University School of Law. During the Industrial Revolution more and more tasks in the weaving process were automated, prompting workers to focus on the things machines could not do, such as operating a machine, and then tending multiple machines to keep them running smoothly. This caused output to grow explosively. In America during the 19th century the amount of coarse cloth a single weaver could produce in an hour increased by a factor of 50, and the amount of labour required per yard of cloth fell by 98%. This made cloth cheaper and increased demand for it, which in turn created more jobs for weavers: their numbers quadrupled between 1830 and 1900. In other words, technology gradually changed the nature of the weaver’s job, and the skills required to do it, rather than replacing it altogether.
    In a more recent example, automated teller machines (ATMs) might have been expected to spell doom for bank tellers by taking over some of their routine tasks, and indeed in America their average number fell from 20 per branch in 1988 to 13 in 2004, Mr Bessen notes. But that reduced the cost of running a bank branch, allowing banks to open more branches in response to customer demand. The number of urban bank branches rose by 43% over the same period, so the total number of employees increased. Rather than destroying jobs, ATMs changed bank employees’ work mix, away from routine tasks and towards things like sales and customer service that machines could not do.
    The same pattern can be seen in industry after industry after the introduction of computers, says Mr Bessen: rather than destroying jobs, automation redefines them, and in ways that reduce costs and boost demand. In a recent analysis of the American workforce between 1982 and 2012, he found that employment grew significantly faster in occupations (for example, graphic design) that made more use of computers, as automation sped up one aspect of a job, enabling workers to do the other parts better. The net effect was that more computer-intensive jobs within an industry displaced less computer-intensive ones. Computers thus reallocate rather than displace jobs, requiring workers to learn new skills. This is true of a wide range of occupations, Mr Bessen found, not just in computer-related fields such as software development but also in administrative work, health care and many other areas. Only manufacturing jobs expanded more slowly than the workforce did over the period of study, but that had more to do with business cycles and offshoring to China than with technology, he says.
    So far, the same seems to be true of fields where AI is being deployed. For example, the introduction of software capable of analysing large volumes of legal documents might have been expected to reduce the number of legal clerks and paralegals, who act as human search engines during the “discovery” phase of a case; in fact automation has reduced the cost of discovery and increased demand for it. “Judges are more willing to allow discovery now, because it’s cheaper and easier,” says Mr Bessen. The number of legal clerks in America increased by 1.1% a year between 2000 and 2013. Similarly, the automation of shopping through e-commerce, along with more accurate recommendations, encourages people to buy more and has increased overall employment in retailing. In radiology, says Dr Barani, Enlitic’s technology empowers practitioners, making average ones into experts. Rather than putting them out of work, the technology increases capacity, which may help in the developing world, where there is a shortage of specialists. [read more]
Copyright © 2017 by Chuck Smythe

1 comment:

  1. Chuck, the most telling points in this discussion seem to me to be that “the new jobs can’t be done with a high school education,” and “perhaps we, like the Germans, should offer free technical education at the community college level." Our society, and its individual people, are faced with challenges to adapt and adjust to emerging realities.

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