Like Paul Revere, I and others have spent time shouting, “The robots are coming. The robots are coming.” I’m unsure what to do about it, but as writer Jennifer Alserver notes, these machines are becoming smarter, more people sensitive and more versatile. (“Is This Robot A friend – Or A Foe?” by Jennifer Alserver Fortune, March 15, 2017 pgs. 22-24.) Any repetitive task can be performed by a robot. Assembly line work is a piece of cake but so is delicate work, like carving fine furniture. High school dropouts, beware. You are about to become obsolete.
Worse, robots are growing more affordable. In the past, a single machine could cost $100,000. Now that same machine costs $25,000. (Ibid pg. 22) Manufacturers have noticed. In 2005, 18,200 robots were shipped from North America. In 2016, the number doubled to 34,600. (Ibid pg. 22.) As a result, the future for unskilled laborers everywhere looks gloomy. “A 2016 World Economic Forum survey estimated 1.6 million manufacturing and production jobs will be lost globally due to automation between 2015 and 2020.” (Ibid, pg. 24.)
Companies, on the other hand, face an economic boon. Says one CEO who has moved to automation, “Instead of five people doing these jobs, I have one guy running five robots… Plus the robot shows up for work every day and doesn’t get the flu…” (Ibid pg. 24.)
Not all human work is destined to disappear. Skilled workers are in demand. Employers are looking for people capable of abstract thinking in engineering analytics and creative design, for example. (Ibid pg. 24.) Also, because technology changes, the new workforce must be flexible.
No one expects the transition to automation will go smoothly. Disruption disrupts. Wealth will likely concentrate in the hands of a few, probably large corporations, banks and Wall Street, the financial institutions we love to hate. The country needs a plan to distribute the wealth once its pooled, and I’ve written several blogs on the subject. Happily, greater minds than mine are at work. Bill Gates suggests we tax robots the way we tax employers: based on their number of employees. Larry Summers, economist and Deputy Secretary of the Treasury under President Bill Clinton, disagrees. At tax will stifle tech innovation, he says. That’s why Greek economist, Yanis Varoufakis proposes another approach: a “universal basic dividend.” (“Briefing,” Fortune, March 15, pg. 14) In other words, he wants a basic living wage for all. (Click)
The working class will be most affected by the upcoming changes, so unions have a role to play. So far, I haven’t read much from them. If they don’t muscle in soon, the fanfare for the common man is likely to become a dirge.