The Human Side of Trade
Russ Roberts

“ The worry is that people with very general skills — the ability to show up on time and do physical labor — are going to struggle to find appealing and lucrative kinds of work.”

I think you’re a little too pessimistic in that you’re missing what’s impressive about even ‘unskilled’ workers in comparison to automation. People, unlike, existing robots are wonderfully flexible, with fantastic vision, communication abilities, and manual dexterity. They can navigate uneven terrain easily, climb stairs and ladders and use (and carry) a wide variety of tools. And their power source is incredibly advanced — no noisy internal combustion engines or heavy, potentially dangerous batteries that last only a short time. They can operate for hours powered only by a ham sandwich, and in a pinch can keep going using only energy stored from previous ham sandwiches.

Imagine, for example, trying to build a robot that can do the job of a hotel maid — one that can vacuum and dust, wipe down surfaces, make beds, clean toilets, fold and hang up linens, talk to guests, detect and report damage or broken items needing repair, and distinguish between garbage and valuable items that guests have left behind. Robots are nowhere close to doing any of these tasks well, let alone all of them.

Manufacturing is a special case where the individual tasks are simplified, specialized, repetitive, with flexibility not required, and where the human or machine performing the task can remain rooted to a spot. This is an environment that’s ideally suited to robots, despite all their limitations, but very few other ‘unskilled’ jobs are like this. Which isn’t to say that people with general skills will easily find ‘appealing and lucrative work’. But they never have — not because of automation, but because of competition from other people.

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