Friday, March 3, 2017

Robots and Jobs: Scary Pizza and Way Beyond

For those who think robots won’t cut many jobs – and we’ll meet a couple of them here – how about “a new pizza delivery truck equipped with 56 ovens and staffed by just one employee, whose only tasks are driving the truck, slicing the pizza, and delivering it to the doorstep”?  Zume Pizza out of Mountain View in Silicon Valley is doing just that, per The Christian Science Monitor on October 2.  And it started in 2016, not 2036.

What views have we heard about robots since then?  Futurist Elon Musk came out for a guaranteed income, not now but eventually (CNBC, November 4), saying that “there is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation.”  The New York Times also made the distinction between that and globalization, in Claire Cain Miller’s December 21st compendium of workers’ stories “The Long-Term Jobs Killer Is Not China.  It’s Automation.” 

While foreign employees have replaced Americans and will continue to do so, technology is more responsible for work going away.  That correct conclusion of Miller’s was strengthened if not explicitly echoed in “Robots Are Coming to Take Your Job” (Fox Business, December 29, credited to  This investment-focused piece mentioned what is shaping up as one of the most commonly implemented automation areas this year, used by the pizza company above, McDonald’s and Starbucks per this article, and widely publicized this week as soon to arrive at Wendy’s, the use of apps and kiosks instead of counter workers to receive food orders.  It should take no more than a year for companies diligently refining this technology to find that the clear majority of customers, even without phones, will prefer to order this way.

The best thing about “The Robot Revolution Will Be the Quietest One” (Liu Cixin, The New York Times, December 7) was its intriguing title.  Otherwise, we didn’t need Cixin, a nine-time winner of China’s highest science fiction writing award along with a Hugo, to tell us what’s here, even if he said “it’s my duty.”  We already know that “the robot revolution has begun” and that driverless vehicles will replace various jobs, and it is still wrong to say that “car ownership is likely to become nearly obsolete.”  (The people who believe that should take a drive, automated or otherwise, into a truly rural area and see how little traffic there is.)  It wasn’t news even in December that artificial intelligence has great potential but is still almost completely in the future.  Cixin does get points for noting that people not needing to work may have something in common with old-time “aristocrats” who “have often spent their time entertaining and developing their artistic and sporting talents while scrupulously observing elaborate rituals of dress and manners” – that’s a form of futurist Herman Kahn’s idea of quaternary activity, as described in his now 41-year-old The Next 200 Years – but it’s not mentioned enough.

On the other hand, how quickly will these changes occur?  Steve Lohr’s “Robots Will Take Jobs, but Not as Fast as Some Fear, New Report Says” (The New York Times, January 12), concerns an excellent recent McKinsey Global Institute study.  The findings of the research include that “what is technically possible is only one factor in determining how quickly new technology is adopted” (time lag, cost-effectiveness, and high early prices being only three reasons), and that in the “near-term” many more jobs will be changed than eliminated (and in what we might call the medium-term, positions will go away as human workers take the nonautomatable tasks from multiple jobs).  The McKinsey study named “natural language processing” as a great facilitator of employment losses, and said, again correctly, that “the jobs of America’s 1.7 million truck drivers” are not, driverless technology or not, “in imminent peril.”  The article implied, rightly once more, that delayed automation effects should not fool us into thinking they won’t happen, as, eventually, almost all work which can be quantified into algorithms will be endangered.

These conclusions would have been useful in influencing Jay Wacker’s views in a Forbes piece released only six days later, “How Much Will AI” (artificial intelligence) “Decrease The Need For Human Labor?”  Wacker, an “ontology architect,” was asked to comment on the title’s subject, and came up with too much wrong.  Saying that “generally, other professions grow to fill the loss” does not recognize that we know of no major phase of work beyond services.  “Computer, mathematical, engineering, and science occupations” don’t look like a “growth industry,” but rather areas vulnerable to both automation and globalization.  The vast reduction in number of agricultural jobs does not assure the remaining ones.   When robots can’t make up a hotel room, I doubt that “robots and AI will decrease the need for cleaning.”  He also failed to distinguish between jobs rating to go away within the next few years and those almost certain to be lost by, say, the mid-2030’s, which would tell us why driving positions are not yet “imperiled” in the same sense that warehouse workers, which Wacker mentioned in the next sentence, already are.

A February 20th Washington Post editorial, “No, Robots Aren’t Killing the American Dream,” landed somewhere between these two last pieces.  It pointed out that people have been concerned about losing work to automata for centuries, and “that today’s fear of robots is outpacing the actual advance.”  From there, though, the article went into a rather fuzzy advocacy of liberal talking points, in particular unions, “a robust federal minimum wage” (why federal?), and even “legislation to foster child care.”  How these requirements could get jobs to return, or even slow their departure, is beyond me.

We finish with’s February 21 “Bill Gates’s Plan to Deal with Job-Stealing Robots:  Just Tax Them.”  Yes.  But let’s go with what I wrote half a decade ago, that we should factor the number of jobs created or maintained into corporate tax rates, so that, for example, restaurant chains employing hundreds would, all other things being equal, pay much less than law firms with fewer than a dozen.  Yet the image of an automaton, such as my toy John Robot, getting a W2 and paying taxes (would they be charged for Social Security as well?) injects some badly needed humor.  Which, yes, we can use.  

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