Friday, April 24, 2015

Through Even These Good Times, Technology’s Effect on Jobs Continues

It’s been quiet.  The American work situation, except for conservatives emphasizing its bad aspects to carp about Obama and liberals trying to use its good side to push a minimum wage higher than latent demand for employment can justify, has just about dropped out of the press.  There haven’t been many reports of automation-related work losses.  However, we've been seeing technology-progress accounts that effectively predict them.

One was published Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal.  Titled “These Robots Serve Up Cocktails, but Can They Tell if You’ve Drunk Too Much,” it gives the status of something I predicted two years ago, in Choosing a Lasting Career, when I gave bartenders poorer prospects than other food service jobs, pointing out that automated drink mixing and serving would not only save labor but reduce legal liability, and that a “thoroughly automated bar” would be around long before the book’s 2033 horizon.  In the article, we learn about a variety of these cocktail robots (an already established name), and how they are being developed to be more interesting than just generic machines, with one a “rocket-shaped device with a large red start button that releases steam,” another with flashing lights, and one more with “plastic crystals and a fake flame.”  Giving them entertainment-machine bells and whistles may help with customer acceptance, a potential problem I noted before, and they are already in use for customer-facing applications on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, along with, no doubt, large numbers of service bars.  The story makes clear that cocktail robots figure to proliferate, and replace many jobs.

A second article came out Thursday, in the Detroit Free Press.  It was a note on one area on which has strengthened since 2013, self-driving cars.  That year I gave taxi drivers and chauffeurs Very Good prospects for lasting 20 years, and said they had a “low automation threat.”  The story described discussion opening the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress, in which a panel speaker, and prominent industry figure, talked about the need to reduce the one million-plus people dying annually, worldwide, due to car crashes caused by driver error.  The software for self-driving cars has been in development for over a year now, and although perfecting it has been challenging, another panelist said that laws, not technology, could ultimately hold back its use.  It is clear that driverless cars will be ready, and demonstrably an improvement over human-operated ones, before the decade is out, meaning that anyone who drives for a living may have his or her livelihood imperiled sometime in the next one.

Third, there was a story on Sunday’s New York Times, “The Machines Are Coming,” by Zeynep Tufekci.  It was not chosen for publication in the Times’s op-ed section by presenting the old issue of automation costing jobs, but for its reminder that work replaced by technology will not all be at or near the minimum-wage level.  Despite its future-leaning title, capabilities the article attributes to current machines include diagnosing medical test results, emotion detection, making hiring decisions, and providing accurate and spoken responses to people calling help desks.  There have already been many cases of what we would call good jobs being swept away by automation, especially in electronically-compatible areas of analysis that turn out to be completely algorithmic, and evidently there will be many more. 

These three articles show that further technology-caused job losses are, if not with clear timetables, on the way.  A major point Tufekci makes is that rising automation takes away workers’ power, in ways such as facilitating employers to “”optimize” worker schedules in a way that devastates ordinary lives.”  That brings us a fourth piece from the past week, a column by Robert Reich.  Its title, “America’s “flexible” economy is making worker’s lives hell,” published in Salon, nearly says it all, with its contents describing how software helps companies determine when employees are not needed – information some, such as Target and The Gap, now use to call off workers only minutes before their starting times.  The idea of what Reich said could be called “just-in-time scheduling,” “on-call staffing,” or “on-demand work” is nothing new – I experienced it, along with many of my scheduled work times being cut short, in a restaurant job 30 years ago, but the practice now seems more widespread, and fits with the ethics of the sharing economy in which income is irregular. 

What we can learn from these articles is not that automation will cost employment.  We knew that already.  It is that, despite relatively peaceful times on the number of jobs, technology, and our ways we are using it to that end, are still marching along.   

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