Five Dumb Things People Believe About Automation And Jobs

One drum I’ve been banging pretty hard on, over the last few years, is the prevailing view about automation is wrong. Robots are not going to take our jobs, or at least not all of our jobs. Just why I believe this means we’ve got to address a few basic assumptions about robots, jobs, and economics, but the short of it is this: If anything were going to take our jobs, it would have taken our jobs already.

“All This Happens In A Vacuum!”

Let’s start with this. One of the fundamental, and deeply flawed, issues here is the idea that somehow a vast technological revolution would be implemented and that somehow, some way, only burger joints and factories would be affected. Are you kidding? The idea of robots taking all the jobs has huge implications, social, economic, and political, well beyond whether or not a robot fries up your burger.

Let’s start with the most basic Econ 101 analysis, which is that labor for most products and services (not all: We’ll get to that) will go from a rising cost based on market demand and a complex network of goods and services and social issues to a fixed cost that’s more or less constantly being driven down by new technology. Consider that fifteen years ago, the idea of storing terabytes of data for pennies was science fiction. That is, long term, literally the kind of scale we’re talking about here.

So, basically, that would mean the bottom would drop out of the price of, well, everything. “But the one percent!” you wail. The one percent depend on you and me to spend all our money, whether it’s on credit cards or temporary tattoos. If the robots take our jobs, nobody will have any money, and now that there’s no labor costs, no health insurance, no OSHA inspections, no need for factories to have breathable air or even be located somewhere accessible to humans, some ruthless businessman or another would brutally undercut his alleged friends and the price war would well and truly be on. Prices would deflate at lightning speed, and drag currencies down with it. The one percent would still be rich but if the workforce was all robots tomorrow, they’d collectively lose trillions of dollars.

They’d also suddenly be facing their worst nightmare: A level playing field. What nobody insisting robots are going to take all the white collar jobs is realizing what they’re saying is that this means they’re predicting a future where anybody can download a lawyer, an accountant, an HR director, invent a widget, and boom! They’re a corporation. A corporation that doesn’t have to rent a skyscraper, a corporation that doesn’t have to pay bloated CEO salaries or hire a dozen useless jerks with Harvard degrees to disrupt memo issuing strategy paradigms.

Taking this one step further, in theory, you could with automation reduce the cost of everything to almost nil. Don’t forget, money isn’t tied to any physical thing, anymore, so there’s also in theory an unlimited supply of money. Money is mostly your time turned into paper, at this point. There are more efficient ways to turn time into goods, and if nobody needs to bust heavies for anything, why would they? I don’t think this will happen, necessarily, across the board, but it’s something to consider.

So, yeah, anybody who smugly thinks they can just buy a bunch of robots and keep on chuggin’ on is a damn fool. But, here’s the thing: It’s impossible for robots to take all the jobs.

“There Are A Limited Number Of Jobs!”

Baked into any assumption that the robots are going to take our jobs is the assumption that we just won’t find new jobs. To borrow the old saw tech journalists use, all the guys making buggy whips, back in the day, didn’t suddenly go broke. They started making belts.

Look, there are not a limited number of jobs. Anybody who has been awake and looking for a job over the last fifteen years has seen jobs appear that didn’t exist when they were in high school. The economy destroys jobs, entire careers, entire industries, all the time. It’s part of having an economy in the first place. But it also creates new ones.

Now, there are two very valid criticisms of this statement. One is that the Developed World economy is destroying high-wage, low-skill manufacturing jobs and creating low-wage, low-skill service jobs. The second is that we’re not turning any of those low-skill workers into high skill workers. But I’ll point out that this was happening well before automation came along: It’s not like China is populated by robots. We’d have to deal with this issue no matter what.

“Everybody Wants Robots In Every Job!”

This is another assumption people have, and I can prove it wrong with coffee. When was the last time you saw a Starbucks? Probably today. So when was the last time you saw a coffee vending machine? I’ll bet that’s a bit more of a puzzler, isn’t it?

The simple reality is humans, in a lot of contexts, don’t like robots, and that’s important. Everybody wants the robot surgeon, nobody wants the robot doctor. The self-checkout lane was supposed to banish cashiers to the dustbin of history; anybody who’s been to a grocery store in the US can tell you that’s been overstated, to put it mildly.

The root thing I’m getting at here is there’s an assumption people value the efficiency of robots above all else, and for jobs that are “invisible” to the majority of people, like building cars or harvesting food, I’d wager that’s true. But the more robots have to interact with people, the less valuable their efficiency becomes. If you don’t believe me, dial into a phone system where you can’t reach a human and give it twenty minutes.

“Robots Are Already Taking Our Jobs!”

If you want to truly understand the role of the robot in modern society, do some laundry. Have you ever done laundry by hand? It’s one of the most aggravating and exhausting things you’ll ever do. The robot you dump clothes into is a true blessing.

One of the fundamental misunderstandings here is how we use robots in our society, and it’s not as replacements, but as assistants. At work, at home, if there’s a robot around, that robot’s job is generally to do all the awful, unpleasant, time-consuming and/or gross stuff we just don’t wanna do. In other words, robots are not taking our jobs: They’re taking our tasks.

A good example of this can be found on the phones of bougie jackholes like me: The Starbucks app. Sure, it’s not a beep-boop Terminator robot, but it’s a robot. It asks me what my order is. I tell it. It tells the barista to make that order.

Here’s the thing: Starbucks’ robot is so good at its job, it needs to hire more humans. People are using the app and Starbucks needs to hire more baristas to keep up. This kind of undercuts the whole concept of robots taking jobs.

We use robots, as humans, to boost our own productivity, to do more stuff in less time. The smartphone is a good example; even if you’re just chipping away at your giant pile of books on Kindle or answering a few work emails, you’re still vastly more productive than you would have been twenty years ago. Is this a good thing? Maybe not! But it’s a good illustration of how we use robots.

Here’s the thing: There’s yet to be a compelling argument that this will truly leap from the personal to the corporate. I happen to agree with the idea that it will, for the record. But there’s also no discussion of what happens when a hyperefficient human runs out of stuff to do.

“This Is A Unique Situation That’s Never Happened Before!”

Finally, it’s worth looking at history here. Humanity has had a string of technological revolutions over its history, starting with agriculture. In the last thirty years alone, we’ve seen the digital computer, the internet, and the cellular phone completely alter social dynamics, economic circumstances, and yes, employment. All of these were supposed to destroy the fabric of our economy and put us all out of work. It didn’t happen.

Could robots break the trend? Quite possibly! But it seems more likely that instead robots will do their jobs, which is to free up our time from bullshit so we can pursue our true future.

At root, the fundamental failure of the idea that robots can take our jobs is that it fails to consider that maybe we, as a species, aren’t meant to sell each other lattes and scream at each other about the value of little pieces of corporations that likely won’t exist by the time we’re dead anyway. That all this is little more than the majority of us marking time or getting distracted by the abstract version of jingly keys. Even the supposed least of us possesses inside our skulls the single most amazing evolutionary advantage that has ever existed, the human mind. For all our progress, all our knowledge, all our innovation, we haven’t even comprehended 1% of the world around us, or what’s inside us. Maybe, just maybe, applying ourselves to that might be a better goddamn use of our limited time on this planet?

Humans are fundamentally pessimists. We hate change, and to be fair we hate it for good reason. It’s messy. People get hurt. And I’d prefer a shift to robots handling the grunt work that doesn’t hurt people, but I’m not sure how we get there. What I do know, however, is the idea of bemoaning that suddenly we won’t spend our cranial circuitry on the accounting for Joe’s Burger Hut or building air conditioners as some great long-term loss for our species is a blinkered way of looking at the world. Maybe instead of complaining robots are taking our jobs, we should ask if they aren’t gently removing all the distractions keeping us from the job we were meant to do.

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