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.
A 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.
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.
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).