Is it happening already?

I'm pretty ignorant of the details of economics and society, but "the robots are taking our jobs, its happening now," gets my attention. But, isn't this approximately analogous to the industrial revolution ? Mechanical fabrication moved jobs out of cottages in the countryside into city factories, and workers into tenements ? Perhaps this is a prevailing trend : progress eats aways at the middle class, but somehow we've managed to tolerate this in the past. It seems like, perhaps, existing but rare middle class jobs have historically expanded to fill the gap. The article mentions manufacturing, call centers, nurses, and technicians, as jobs scheduled to be replaced by robots in the near future, or have already been encroached upon. This seems odd : manufacturing jobs are middle, rather than lower, class, due mainly to unionization, right ? Perhaps ... simply working out a way to raise minimum wage will help us all out ? Socialism is pretty nice. Call centers came about as a result of a new technology, I feel like we can adjust our education system to create equivalent positions : robot-techs and classifier trainers, etc. I mean, the reason so many people are able to be employed as nurses is that we've added in social supports for the ill and disabled, funneling tax dollars to pay for this care, and providing rewarding, gainful employment for many individuals. If theres any trend here, its that increasing technological sophistication requires increasing government intervention to maintain a basic standard of living for everyone. But, we already knew that.

Actually, this post is just a form of procrastination from other papers I ought to be working on, there was no actual direction. Goodbye.


  1. have you seen THX 1138

    society=prohibition of sex+mandatory drugs
    not exactly relevant to this post, but the perfect distraction.

    happy trails.

  2. it seems to me that very few people have anything intelligent to say about this.

    even the article itself says little more than "maybe people will demand change if this keeps up"

    dave writes: "[It] just means we need to keep an eye on it and make sure that jobs are being created just as much as they are replace."

    But dave, how do we "make sure"? What are you even talking about? If the middle class shrivels and wilts before your very eyes, what do you want Congress to do, have a massive bailout project, where "only humans allowed"?

    I mean, part of the issue is that, when it no longer makes economic sense for a human to go to work, its very difficult to subsidize humans doing that work -- it will make more sense for a human to buy his robot replacement, perhaps on a mortgage, and then send it to work, maybe doing something on the side. So even the middle class themselves won't cooperate.

    I'm going to go ahead and say, entire fields have been made obsolete all at once before, and people have retrained. And the ones who couldn't retrain became irrelevant. But it doesn't herald the end of time.

    It may very well be that, the amount of training needed to succeed in future economies will be such that a liberal arts education, where you don't prepare for a job and just focus on nontechnical pursuits for four years, sets one back too much. Is that going to be "the last straw", prompting middle class rebellion? No, of course not, nor should it be. People who want to read literature for four years should just do it on their own time -- don't let your schooling interfere with your education.

    Unless someone points out some reasonable course of action that could be taken in response to this process, we should just stop talking about it and see what happens.

  3. @E: Great article, and I thought you'd given up your cool stuff feeds. I don't agree with your analysis about technology and the middle class. Pre-industrialization, society was either medieval rural poor and elites, with a small minority of market town burghers. Industrialization moved the rural poor into cities, but freed up enough people from the basics of production (food, shelter, etc), and made objects of material wealth cheap enough that the former poor could afford. If we look to the the high point of the middle class, post-War America, we see excess industrial and innovative capacity being shifted from the military to civilian sectors, with a commensurate massive decline in costs.

    When we're talking about why robots are replacing people, we need to figure out what robots do better than people, and vice versa. Robots are good at repetitive tasks, and bad at making decisions.

    The problem is that over the past 50 years, we've removed as many aspects of decision making for as many jobs as we could. Decision making is slow, and inefficient, and people make wrong decisions all the time. When a tech support job mostly involves reading off a script, you know that's a job ripe for robotificiation. One of my classes covered a similar shift in medicine, where the standard of knowledge changed from expert judgement to randomized clinical trials. (too be fair, RCTs produce better information about drugs.) Basically, any element of society where we have replaced choice with a script can replace that script with an algorithm.

    The solution is to recognize what people do well, interact in a social context, and prepare people for jobs that involve that. I'm not sure how a cash economy will fit into that, but hopefully the robotic productive sector will be so cheap and efficient it won't matter.

    @Beck: A liberal arts degree never served any purpose. It's like a peacock's tail, a profligate waste of resources to demonstrate your reproductive fitness.

  4. I don't know, a lot of liberal arts majors will pull off speaking four languages and explaining bits of political philosophy to me that I don't understand. Biff, don't you have a liberal arts degree ? I think there are definitely some people who make good use of their degrees, but also those who could have gotten the same education from the internet, without using so many resources. The issue, then, is that a lot of jobs that could be done without at liberal arts degree expect it, because you have a trusted 3rd party verifying the qualifications. A liberal arts degree, typically, at minimum guarantees that you can write. A self-taught liberal arts degree of reading books and publishing essays on the internet is much more time consuming to verify as a qualification. I am forever resentful, however, of liberal arts majors who worked 25% as much as me and could never understand why I was so busy. At one point I tried "because I'm doing a real major" and they defended themselves with vigor, explaining that "organizing parties" had more of a direct positive effect on humanity than anything I was doing. yeah. ok. lost my train of thought.

  5. I do have a liberal arts degree, which is why I can say with absolute certainty that it mostly a social signalling system, (and mostly about reproduction, sigh).

    If a liberal arts degree acts as a credentialing system, we're in a lot of trouble. Writing is important for surprisingly few jobs, academic writing less so (and too many liberal arts students can barely write.)

    What general skills might a employer desire? Ability to complete tasks, working in groups, and learning without guidance. Can we honestly say that a 4 year degree teaches you any of that? Highly structured classes, endless extensions and second chances, and group-work that is mostly bullshit.

    See this great Charles Stross blog post about why higher ed is totally SNAFU. Basically, we're in the midst of a diploma bubble. We're one technical innovation in data mining and background checks away from diplomas losing all worth as an indicator of ability.

  6. Can we invent, patent, and sell this hypothetical innovation in data mining that renders accreditation obsolete?

  7. Seems I forgot the article: http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/10/sheepskin.html

    Can we do this? Maybe. I don't know anything about data mining, and I'm not sure I want to be complicit in something that gives employers so much power, and destroys my precious ivory tower.

  8. Anonymous7.11.10

    Well you have two possiblities (or rather a spectrum of possibilities between these two):

    Robots do all the mundane boring shit, and we spread the benefits acros society leaving everybody free to do creative, liberal arts type stuff like write poetry and play bongoes.

    Robots do all the mundane boring shit and generate spectacular wealth for the tiny few who own the vast robotic factories. The rest of us live on what we can scrounge from the rubbish tips and fight amongst ourselves for drinking water.