Matthew Biggins


Manufacturing the End of Labor: Automation, Unemployment, and Society

*Click* A car door shuts; a repairman walks up to a factory door. A card key swipes; the repairman squints. Then he pulls out a flashlight — the only light bulb in the entire factory. He references his order number, then walks past aisle after aisle of machines whirling about. Finally he finds what he is looking for, a robot out of commission. The repairman sets down his toolkit and begins fixing the machine. In the darkness around him there are no other people. In fact, there has not been a human being there for the past 30 days. This is the present, year 2030.

Tesla Motors

Does this scenario sound far-fetched? Well, a factory such as this has existed since 2001. Japanese robotics firm FANUC has factories where machines build replicas of themselves. These factories “can run unsupervised for as long as 30 days at a time” without lights or air-conditioning and heating turned on. This is dubbed lights-out manufacturing.

For an example closer to home, consider America’s largest grocer: C&S Wholesale Grocers. Never heard of it? Sounds about right. They live behind the scenes, but provide groceries to the likes of Target, Kroger, Safeway, and 6,500 other retailers. C&S hasn’t obtained lights-out status yet, but they are moving in that direction with subsidiary Symbotic. The company is disrupting the food distribution industry through its use of fully autonomous warehouse robots. At a Target facility only 6 people monitor the factory at a given time. That’s it.

This may remind you of that other company that ships a lot of things from warehouses, Amazon.

Did you catch that? It’s a 15 second snippet starting at about 1:58. “That’s because our focus on automation is about helping people do their jobs, not replacing people.”

But 2 years after the news story with that line there was this:

Not looking to replace people? Right.

But this is unfair. While it is true Amazon currently uses 30,000 Kiva robots (the orange guys that drive around the shelves with items), human employment has increased from 154,000+ to 230,000+ from 2014–2015.

All that said, automation will lead to less manufacturing and warehouse jobs in the future, not more. It’s just basic math. Once a robot can do the same job as a person at lower cost than the worker, why wouldn’t a company use it and fire the employee? It’s cheaper. And this is not even to mention productivity gains.

So here we are, 2017. We will never get these jobs back. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the manufacturing sector fluctuated around 17.5 million jobs from 1980–2000 and in the last 17 years has dropped to 12.5 million jobs, a loss of 5 million.

But this is good, right? Factory jobs are generally physically draining, repetitive, and mind numbing. These are things we want to free people from, right? And given a choice wouldn’t most people want to have a safer, more fulfilling job if they could? So, in theory automation is freeing people to pursue more productive occupations. But…

“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.” — unknown

In the long run, the idea of freeing people to do better work has held true. In the short run, however, it is a lot messier. Take the introduction of cars as an example. This essentially put every blacksmith making horse carriages out of business. It enabled massive benefits to consumers through less expensive transportation and better wages for workers in factories. But if you were a blacksmith at that moment in history, you were unemployed. So you had three options: retire, retrain for a different job, or go onto the government dole.

This is our fundamental problem: how to cope with short-term joblessness in order to get to higher productivity, wages, and lower prices in the long-term. There is a discussion to be had about the potential of jobs not coming back and universal income, but that is for another time.

This article does a good job laying out major industries being affected and 3 action steps we can follow today to cope with short-term displacement. Summarized here:

1. Educate yourself on the automation and its economics effects. This is the best book on the subject.
2. Talk with your friends and family about automation. We can’t ignore it just because it’s scary and unpredictable. We need a public discourse on this so we can decide as a country what to do about it — before the corporations and their bottom lines decide for us.
3. Contact your representatives and ask them what they’re doing about automation and unemployment. Tell them we need a robot tax, universal basic income, or more money invested into technology education — whichever of these best aligns with your political views.

Before you get too worried though, it is important to remember that technology freeing us from labor is good. It is a path towards the opportunity to have happier more fulfilling lives. How good or bad this ultimately will prove to be depends on how government, society, and individuals change to embrace it.

We don’t always choose our own battles, but we have a choice in the future we hope to create.

“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” — John Adams

We just may be on the cusp of more fully realizing that vision.

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