Coding Our Future: What Becomes of Work?

Beginning in 1811 a group of English textile workers, originally based in Nottingham, rioted and destroyed machinery in protest of the textile industry’s adaption of new technology that threatened to replace skilled artisans with low wage labor. They were called the Luddites and to this day that is a name that is used to describe folks who resist change and progress. They also ushered in an ongoing era of distrust of technology by workers.

Mill workers on strikeA century later the same issues in the textile industry played a large role in the development of the U.S. labor movement. In 1913, 25,000 silk workers went on strike in Paterson, N.J. Among the reasons for the strike were technological advances that improved production, reduced the labor requirement and replaced skilled with unskilled labor.

Now, another century later, and labor is equally suspicious of the growth of technology. Many foresee a march of the robots that will forever change the nature of work,

It is widely expected that most manufacturing will ultimately be done by robots. A group of authors writing in the Harvard Business Review predict that by 2020 the industrial robot population will double to 4 million (The Age of Smart, Safe, Cheap Robots is Already Here).

The drive to take manufacturing out of human hands is all about economics. Most large scale manufacturing is done by large public corporations. Large public corporations are focused on maximizing value for their shareholders. That means maximizing profitability. So vast numbers of manufacturing jobs have long since fled developed areas like North America and Western Europe. And now robots offer a solution that is even cheaper that the miniscule wages paid in places like Bangladesh or Guatemala.

Robot at sewing machine

(Lynn Greyling)

Most modern electronics are manufactured in China. This is not because of skilled workmanship. The Chinese company Foxconn is one such manufacturer. It is known for two things. One is that it manufactures most Apple products. The other is the number of suicides among workers at its plants. Foxconn expects to solve that problem by automating 70% of its assembly work in the next three years.

Presumably, someone will have to be employed to build the industrial robots. And as demand increases the robot makers will no doubt outsource this work to the most desparate labor pools around the world. That is, of course, until they come up with robots to make the other robots.

Russian office

(tpsdave)

The march of the robots is not limited to the factory floor. Cube farms are equally susceptible. For quite a while now we have seen how companies have sought to cut the human touch out of what should be the most human of jobs, customer service. Initially the auto-attendant would simply replace the receptionist by routing callers to the appropriate person or department. But now if you call your bank, utility, phone or cable company, you’ll find that every effort has been made to avoid having someone actually talk to you. If you make it through the maze of menu options you enter the twilight zone of being on hold while a recorded message tells you every 30 seconds how “your call is important to us.” Right.

The problem of having to talk to annoying marketers making cold calls has been replaced by the even more annoying robocall. Honestly, does anyone ever buy anything when a robot cold calls you at home or on your mobile multiple times a day? One would expect Washington to do something about this invasion of privacy, except for the fact that when election time rolls around, guess who’s hiring these robots.

The Japanese have taken robo-service a step further. The Henn na Hotel in Sasebo has empoyed robots as receptionist, concierge and porter (Robots Do Check-In and Check-Out at Cost-Cutting Japan Hotel.) Wonder if you can go the front desk and ask the “female humanoid with blinking lashes” for a toothbrush if you forgot to pack one?

On demand ride sharing apps like Uber or Lyft have been widely denounced by taxi and limo drivers for threatening their jobs. It is not clear whether these technology-based services have created and destroyed more jobs. But the endgame for the Ubers of the future will be to provide transportation in driverless cars. No more drivers, just the app.

With customer services reps, call center and help desk staffers on the way out, the robots will be casting a glance higher up the ladder. In last week’s post I mentioned a company called Narrative Science that produces robotic journalism. As if it wasn’t tough enough to find an entry-level journalist job. But many other classes of professionals may soon be casting a wary eye to a new generation of apps.

Software has long since cut into the legion of tax preparers. But thanks to a voluminous set of confusing rules in the U.S., many accountants are still gainfully employed figuring out our taxes. Surely the technology exits that would enable the IRS to calculate our taxes for us based on the information they already get from us with the taxpayer only needing to fill out a simple form with additional deductions and any non-reported income he or she chooses to report. Guess the feds would rather spend their money on spy tech.

The medical or dental check-up might become a thing of the past. A world in which wearable devices measure bodily functions is already within reach and the next logical step is for those devices to suggest remedies and perhaps even prescribe medications. I have even heard it suggested that implants can identify dental issues and smart diapers can monitor infants’ health. And do we really need multiple consultations with lawyers rather than smart apps to create wills, finalize divorces and complete real estate transactions?

Imagine the impact on the economy if there is not enough work for the hordes of doctors and lawyers our higher education system churns out. How many lab and legal assistants, collection agents and insurers lose their jobs? And what do we do with all the suburban office buildings and downtown storefront offices?

Will there be nothing left but to be a cop or a coder?

Not everyone thinks this will be a problem. Many experts believe technology creates as many jobs as it displaces and some others welcome the changes in work that the march of the robots will bring about. In next week’s post I’ll take a look at why some think we should embrace these changes (instead of acting like Luddites).

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19 Responses to Coding Our Future: What Becomes of Work?

  1. patweber says:

    Ken I suppose I fall into the group of “Not everyone thinks this will be a problem. ” I started in the computer industry in the late 1970s (I know I just dated myself.” Back then people were touting, and some were hopeful, they would replace employees! It hasn’t happened yet has it? I love the perspective of the history you’ve brought to this issue. Thanks for that!

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  2. Do you think it’s fear of technology or fear of change? One of the problems I see is that we have a tendency to personalize and give human attributes to the cooperate world. Statements such as, “They owe us, we were loyal workers” have little meaning to business;Their bottom line is profit, not workers. It’s tough to embrace change, especially when it has a negative impact on your livelihood. Navigating the translations and adjusting to the changes in technology is one of the major causes of the rise in depression in our society.

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  3. Donna Janke says:

    I like your historical background to today’s concern about technology replacing jobs. I think I’m more in line with Pat’s thinking that this won’t be a problem. (I too started in the computer industry in the late 1970s.) However, I admit to hating how hard it is to talk to a real person when you have an issue or question that doesn’t fall into one of the standard “For x press 9”. categories. I’ve come across some companies where you just loop back to another recording. It’s enough to turn me into a non-customer. I’m looking forward to your next post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. lenie5860 says:

    Ken, I love how you took the 1811, 1913 and today’s labour look at changing technology. That really puts things in perspective. Really, the world is changing all the time and we tend to adapt. Look at now where so many people make a living online, never leaving their homes? Who would have thought of that even as much as 30 years ago?
    The one change that I wish corporations had not instituted is the ‘customer service by phone’. That really doesn’t qualify as customer service but more as customer annoyance. But again, we adapt. We may not like it but we do put up with it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sabrina Q. says:

    When I graduated from college, a family friend said to me, “You may not know where your career path will take you. You may be working in a field that isn’t even developed yet.” I truly believe this. Job positions will be created as the demand is needed. Thanks for sharing.

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  6. jacquiegum says:

    Great historical perspective on this issue Ken. I guess I currently don’t see it as much of a problem either. However, I’d like to see us bring manufacturing back to this country and maybe producing robots can be key to that. Just as computers spawned a whole new industry of computer repair/maintenance/programming, I suspect this might be the same.

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    • Ken Dowell says:

      So instead of operating the machinery we’ll have people operating the laptops that control the robots. My only concern is that you might be able to replace 100 of the former with one of the latter.

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  7. What will happen to full time employment is no secret: – it will become a thing of the past. IT will take over a lot of jobs and the workplace will become global. More and more people will be self employed and work on a global scale. Uneducated people in the West will need to move to wherever in the developing world the lowest wages in manufacturing are paid in order to survive.

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    • Ken Dowell says:

      Many people in our society do not have access to decent, meaningful education. While it is easy to say “well they should have,” in the meantime I am not prepared to tell them to ship off to Nicaragua. Nor is the developing world in any position to handle an influx of the world’s “uneducated.”

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  8. Thx for this insightful post, Ken. As a frequent traveler, I must tell you, I would avoid a hotel with robots replacing humans at the front desk. I love the opportunity to receive a warm welcome from staff at the front desk of many hotels and having the ability to ask for personal recommendations regarding nearby restaurants and attractions worth visiting.

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  9. Erica says:

    I’m really enjoying this series, Ken. My pet peeve which you referred to is when you call into customer service, and have to navigate through many menus before even being given the option to speak to a person. I remember not too long ago when you would call in and after being given just a few options, you would be given the option of pressing 0 to speak with customer service. It seems those days are over. The thing that is totally frustrating is when you have to pick an option before reaching customer service, and none of the options exactly describe your need. So frustrating.

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  10. Arleen says:

    Thank you for the history background. Yes technology today has gone to a new level but we can embrace it as long as we still use our minds. Technology stills needs the human mind to built them.

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  11. Andy says:

    Man, these posts are getting bleaker and bleaker; maybe in the future if enough people are thrown out of work there’ll be an anti-robot revolution or something. Anyway, I wanted to comment on the tax preparer thing. I’m a big believer in the saying, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence.” But you now have me wondering if there’s some sort of collusion between government tax code writers and tax preparers so as to keep the latter in work – what do you think?

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    • Ken Dowell says:

      I have a different conspiracy theory Andy. As long as the tax laws are so voluminous and confusing there are opportunities to work the system and take advantage of the loopholes. The beneficiaries are probably the same folks who underwrite our political parties.

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  12. As a luddite myself, I have thought of this before. What will we do, when we create enough machines to do everything for us? What if they end up being able to write code themselves, and build others like them?
    I am not so convinced this is a good thing. Years ago, the hot item was to learn computer code, now we outsource it to Indian. So now it is not a high paying job. This occurs almost every time with technology.
    The millionaires we have in this country, are the ones who make money on outsourcing, they make money off their fellow countryman losing their jobs.
    I am unsure what I conclude from my ramblings, it is what it is.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Good book along this line: Dan Pink’s “A Whole New Mind,” about knowledge workers in the world today. First made me think about the things you’re bringing up in your post. I would like to think there is room for technology and craftsmanship in the world, but I tend to wear rose-colored glasses on a daily basis. Now my brain is going to be contemplating this all day, Ken!

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  14. Pingback: Coding Our Future: Technology and Jobs | off the leash

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