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Dirty, Dull and Dangerous
January 31, 2014 7:48 AM   Subscribe

What Jobs Will The Robots Take? Eight Ways Robots Stole Our Jobs In 2013. Who is next?
Soldiers?
Rescue teams? Managers?
Astronauts?

How the Future of War (and Flying) Could Be Swarms of 3D-Printed Drones
Your Robot Helper Is On The Way, Now It Can Learn From Its Friends

When Robots Take Over, What Happens To Us?

some via
posted by the man of twists and turns (91 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
> Perhaps we'll get wise to the dangers in time.

Yeah, humanity has an awesome track record when it comes to that.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:54 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


Dirty, Dull and Dangerous

In the future, the most lucrative jobs for humans will be repairing robots, cleaning robots, and entertaining robots.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 7:56 AM on January 31 [4 favorites]


This is a good post. You have given MetaFilter users such as myself (I am not a robot) a lot to think about.
posted by Wolfdog at 7:57 AM on January 31 [22 favorites]


BUt wE HAvE FamILIeS to fEED TOo.
posted by JHarris at 7:57 AM on January 31 [2 favorites]


Hi, Library Clerk here (close enough to Lib Tech, which is on the list) and our new self-check system has brought out the concerned face of our patrons. They'll actually stand there next to me as I walk them through how to use the self-explanatory scanning system and lament to my face how these machines are stealing our jobs and they really miss the human interaction facet of lending libraries. When I say in response, "Hello, here I am, a human interacting" or point out that there are nearly twice as many employees available at any given time than there were when we were just sitting behind a counter, they just go a little blank-eyed, take their stack of DVDs, and get their vibrating phones out of their pockets.

In other words, what 1970s Antihero said.
posted by carsonb at 7:57 AM on January 31 [4 favorites]


A large part of being a librarian these days is training patrons and other staff members to use the machines (self-checkout, ebooks, online catalogues, etc.) that will eventually replace us.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:00 AM on January 31 [2 favorites]


Astronauts?

Wait "will" take their place implies that the US still has an active manned space program.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:01 AM on January 31 [3 favorites]


I've had a Roomba for about a week and based on its performance so far, I'm more than happy to give that robot the job of vacuuming my floors.
posted by jessssse at 8:03 AM on January 31 [4 favorites]


May they steal all jobs including political and banking and let us enjoy our hedonistic or creative pursuits unfettered by material bondage.
posted by planetesimal at 8:07 AM on January 31 [3 favorites]


Robots taking our jobs is great as long as we realize we don't particularly need to replace those jobs, and start moving towards an equitable, sustainable future of mass leisure where the highest calling in life is to support others and push yourself as far as you can go.

Can we talk about a guaranteed minimum income again? Because it's the best solution to Every Problem I've seen so far.
posted by jsturgill at 8:07 AM on January 31 [37 favorites]


The US does indeed still have an active manned space program. The astronauts (along with ESA, CSA and JAXA crew) are just catching rides on Soyuz spacecraft on the way to the United States Orbital Segment.

Yes, you might have been making a joke. It wasn't a good one.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:08 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


> Robots taking our jobs is great as long as we realize we don't particularly need to replace those jobs, and start moving towards an equitable, sustainable future of mass leisure where the highest calling in life is to support others and push yourself as far as you can go.

Sounds good to me, but it would also have to be accompanied by strict population-control policies which would not be popular.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:11 AM on January 31


Henry Ford II: Walter, how are you going to get those robots to pay your union dues?
Walter Reuther: Henry, how are you going to get them to buy your cars?
posted by klarck at 8:15 AM on January 31 [7 favorites]


Robots taking our jobs is great as long as we realize we don't particularly need to replace those jobs, and start moving towards an equitable, sustainable future of mass leisure where the highest calling in life is to support others and push yourself as far as you can go.

Sorry, sir, you want Roddenberry Alpha, but it looks like you made a wrong turn somewhere, because you're in Gibson Delta. Please bend over for your corporate branding.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:15 AM on January 31 [33 favorites]


Actually, the same robotic assembly line can make stuff for 100,000,000 people just as well as 1,000! It's a miracle of science, but true. We may not have to have a mass die-off of humanity to start treating people like they matter after all.
posted by jsturgill at 8:15 AM on January 31


Yeah, we can have the population control discussion if you want, but I don't see what robots and being freed from depressing bullshit labor have to do with it.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:16 AM on January 31


Robots taking our jobs is great as long as we realize we don't particularly need to replace those jobs, and start moving towards an equitable, sustainable future of mass leisure where the highest calling in life is to support others and push yourself as far as you can go.

That's more or less how I feel about it. Most of the jobs that have been and will soon be lost to robots are awful jobs that no one should be doing. I'm not saying that there's never been a single person who enjoyed standing behind the counter at McDonald's or being a truck driver, but by and large these are unpleasant, poorly-paid things that people do to get by and nothing more, and often things that come with a heavy physical toll. Getting people out of these jobs and into almost anything else is probably a net win for society.

The problem is how we get from here to there without mass unemployment and abandoning billions of people to poverty while Silicon Valley builds its arcologies, and figuring that out is a complicated ongoing process that I don't think anyone has an easy roadmap for right now.
posted by Copronymus at 8:17 AM on January 31 [6 favorites]


Robots will take all the jobs and peopple will still be forced to perform pointless labor because it's not about the actual work, it's about the subjugation. It's about about you winning, it's about other peopple losing. For a lot of peopple it's not about being comfortable it's about the power trip they get from being in charge and above others.
posted by The Whelk at 8:19 AM on January 31 [23 favorites]


Robots taking our jobs is great as long as we realize we don't particularly need to replace those jobs, and start moving towards an equitable, sustainable future of mass leisure where the highest calling in life is to support others and push yourself as far as you can go.

So what you're saying is that you want books about the Culture to be required reading.
posted by Going To Maine at 8:20 AM on January 31 [6 favorites]


But remember that ten years ago, the future of mobile appeared to be a minuscule cordless landline phone with Tetris, and now smartphones sales are about to overtake computers.
The iPAQ came out in 2000. It was blindingly obvious then that the future of mobile computing/telephony was in what would be smart phones and all we had to do was wait for the hardware to catch up and the software to mature.

That robots will continue to replace workers and occupations is just as self evident with the only immune occupations those that require unique decision making or so niche that it isn't worth developing a robot to replace you. If you are one of handful of people capable of doing your job that job is probably immune to automation. Or if the job is so low value that even automated production isn't capable of making money.
posted by Mitheral at 8:24 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


When Robots Take Over, What Happens To Us?

Look, meatbag, this shiny metal ass ain't gonna kiss itself.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:28 AM on January 31 [12 favorites]


Hi, robotics engineer here. I think about this stuff a lot. (And always recommend a read of Player Piano to those interested in this topic) In recent years I've heard a lot from folks in my field about the concept of people, not factories, owning the robots that do the work; that you buy your robot to send to work, and reap profit from that, rather than doing the work yourself. This Harvard economics professor seems to agree. I've also heard the idea that teleoperated robots will enable blue-collar telecommuting (warning: self-link) the way videoconferencing and email enable white-collar telecommuting (the service AnyLobby is doing a receptionist version of this already, using telepresence robots), and combined with the idea of employee-owned robots, this becomes a very interesting proposition.

I don't know the answer. It's fascinating to think about abstractly, but it does make me nervous how rapidly we are approaching the point that it's no longer just a thought exercise.
posted by olinerd at 8:29 AM on January 31 [10 favorites]


I saw another article about this research that listed Technical Writer as one of the jobs predicted to be computerized. That raised my eyebrows a little bit, and many of the other predictions seemed quite odd, so I tried to read the paper itself to see how they could reach such an obviously incorrect (to me) conclusion.

The answer? They used an automated classification process to rate the jobs as computerizable or not, kind of like a spam filter. And as with a spam filter, you have to train it first with some examples. The training data included Technical Writer in the set of computerizable jobs!

Seeing that, my internal classifier filed this paper under "garbage in, garbage out".
posted by steveminutillo at 8:34 AM on January 31 [13 favorites]


Drug testing and development.

As someone with a theoretical chem background, this is really interesting to watch. The ability of computers to try many more combinations than possible by hand has, for decades, allowed us to brute force and approximate the answers to many questions, from engineering, fluid dynamics through chemistry, physics and biology to how stars form to even "pure" mathematics.

It's fascinating now to watch robotics invade the lab, doing similar things to what computers did for the more theoretical sciences (and arts?) a generation ago. I now use robots to do analytical chemistry faster, more consistently and more precisely than human hands ever could. Almost every sample analysis stage is mediated by robots, and they're slowly moving into the wet chemistry prep stages too. Robots are starting to remake the biological sciences as well.

This is actually great news. What this means for us is not that we fire people, but that we can now do things a whole lot faster and provide data on a scale that would have been unimaginable even a couple of decades ago. As someone with now a strong interest in toxicology, I'm really excited that this means I can now do a much wider range of tox work, looking at more variables, in greater combination, than I ever could before. Microarray tests and robots are going to revolutionize our understanding of toxicology in the next decade, and that's only in my small corner of human science. Amazing stuff.
posted by bonehead at 8:36 AM on January 31 [6 favorites]


Hi, robotics engineer here. I think about this stuff a lot.... I don't know the answer. It's fascinating to think about abstractly

Would love to know if you have a general sense of what this atmosphere in your field is like towards these ideas. Do fellow engineers worry about disrupting or destroying the lives of lesser humans? Do they like the idea? Or do they say, as I've heard so often from the engineers I know, 'technology is neither good nor bad, it's what you do with it.'
posted by Halogenhat at 8:36 AM on January 31


What's next? Robot rights? A mass-murdering robot vice presidential candidate? (It's not a subtle book, but poses some interesting questions.)
posted by filthy light thief at 8:39 AM on January 31


#3 & #4 from the "robots stole our jobs" are not robots, nor new to 2013. Plus, bad layout job on that WashPost article.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 8:44 AM on January 31


Mehbot 2000 has a Cloud interface that will data mine social media to determine if its favorite bands have been heard of by too many people, executing the sellout lament subroutine. It can pedal a fixed gear bicycle up to 100 miles on a single charge.
Best of all, it's cutting-edge algorithms can calculate irony to a trillion decimal places in a nanosecond.

Hipsters, look out!
posted by dr_dank at 8:49 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


you buy your robot to send to work, and reap profit from that, rather than doing the work yourself

Can't afford your own robot? Fuck off!
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:52 AM on January 31 [2 favorites]


Can't afford your own robot? Fuck off!

No, just put it on this credit card!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:53 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


Would love to know if you have a general sense of what this atmosphere in your field is like towards these ideas. Do fellow engineers worry about disrupting or destroying the lives of lesser humans? Do they like the idea?

Among engineers in general - not just robotics geeks - I'm fairly unique in my interest in the more "humanities" side of the field. So I can't say everyone's like me. And it really depends on which sector of robotics and automation you work in. Like, right now I work for a defense contractor that makes underwater robots for various customers, including navys. It's a pretty straightforward thing to say that you'd rather have a robot scouting out explosive subsea mines, or placing detonation charges on mines you identify, than to have a person doing it. (Or a dolphin! We're actually replacing dolphins who right now are doing wicked dangerous things! No one can argue with that) So the robotics-oriented people I work with right now tend not to spend a lot of time lamenting the need for fewer Navy clearance divers or dolphin trainers, because overall, you don't really want anything alive doing this sort of work.

But then the other side of the coin is more difficult. For example, I used to work at a robotics startup that sells a line of next-generation, humanoid manufacturing robots. I was on of the earliest employees, so I sat in on quite a few of the early shpiels about the business pitch for our product. I saw the slide with the number of jobs that involved work this robot could do. It's a fairly unnerving conversation to be part of. But to the credit of the people who started that company, they have always been very sensitive to that, and their sales pitch has always been about these robots complimenting humans, not replacing them. They're specifically designed to safely work right next to a human being without injuring them (unlike most factory automation systems), and they're designed to do tasks that fit into a workflow that includes humans, not a robot-only workflow. I've always been very impressed with and appreciative of that fact.

Now, from a technology standpoint, this particularly makes sense given the level of dexterity and adaptability that many tasks demand, and the robots out there right now can't manage that at a human-like level. Yet. There is nothing stopping that technology from marching right ahead, and all the sensitivity of all the startup founders in the world won't stop some business owner from doing the math once a robot really is as fully dexterous and adaptable as a person is. To me, that's the bigger problem.

But I'd say there are robotics engineers all along the spectrum. Many are so focused on the pure awesomeness of what they're working on that they have no thought for the implications. Others are loosely cognizant of it. Some have it mind constantly. As in any field, it varies by person.

But I absolutely wouldn't say anyone is eagerly or intentionally trying to put people out of work. It's less malice and more tunnel vision with technology.

Can't afford your own robot? Fuck off!

Obviously the concept would imply a very different economic structure than our society currently has. I am not claiming it's a drop-in change to the way we all do business.
posted by olinerd at 8:57 AM on January 31 [6 favorites]


The first person to figure out how to replace a CEO with a computer program will either be rich beyond understanding or mysteriously dead.

I maintain that this is completely feasible, and a worthwhile project if you don't mind potentially maybe having an unfortunate accident.
posted by aramaic at 8:57 AM on January 31 [3 favorites]



Robots taking our jobs is great as long as we realize we don't particularly need to replace those jobs, and start moving towards an equitable, sustainable future of mass leisure where the highest calling in life is to support others and push yourself as far as you can go.

Gene Roddenberry??? Seriously dude I thought you were gone!


Can we talk about a guaranteed minimum income again? Because it's the best solution to Every Problem I've seen so far.

The trick here, not just minimum income, is that people have to have their emotional wiring sorted out. Being self-driven requires knowing who you are, what you like and having the grit to keep going even when it's hard or when others are better than you. The grit often comes from necessity. If you have money, your drive can be taken away, at which point we'll have a nation of depressed people (or worse, people like on "Girls").

So I tweak your guaranteed minimum income idea - it is guaranteed, provided the person outputs results their chosen item of value (woodworking, research, writing, dance performances, whatever) and keep improving on it.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:57 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


Robots will take all the jobs and people will still be forced to perform pointless labor because it's not about the actual work, it's about the subjugation. It's about about you winning, it's about other people losing. For a lot of people it's not about being comfortable it's about the power trip they get from being in charge and above others.

This is other emotional wiring that would have to change. Human beings want to feel special and important and that specialness comes from exclusivity, attention from others and wealth.

So we'd have to all, like, transcend our massive egos for this kind of utopia to exist.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:00 AM on January 31


It's less malice and more tunnel vision with technology.

Thanks for the perspective, very interesting.
posted by Halogenhat at 9:02 AM on January 31


Yes, we must be concerned about all the astronaut jobs out there, because those scores and scores of astronaunts are the engine of our economy.

Janitors are still sort of safe, right?
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:03 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


Robot Invasion - "The question that haunted the post-war industrial tech boom of the 1950s is rising again: Have we reached a stage at which technology is destroying more jobs than it's creating?"
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:05 AM on January 31


#3 & #4 from the "robots stole our jobs" are not robots, nor new to 2013. Plus, bad layout job on that WashPost article.

It's almost like the true villain is CAPITALISM.
posted by Artw at 9:07 AM on January 31 [9 favorites]


This is other emotional wiring that would have to change. Human beings want to feel special and important and that specialness comes from exclusivity, attention from others and wealth.

So we'd have to all, like, transcend our massive egos for this kind of utopia to exist.


Yeah.... I, um, disagree? Our social groups will restructure themselves accordingly, and we will find peers and hierarchies and challenges all over the place. We just won't be starving while we do it, or feel bad because we have a job that's disrespected.

We'll have other things to feel bad about! Hurray!

The ill that comes from the dole today is because it's not universal, not because the dole is a bad idea. We create a hierarchy based on jobs, and people without jobs are on the bottom. I think it's not a leap to say that you don't have to worry about this. When we remove that hierarchy, there will be others created to replace it.
posted by jsturgill at 9:11 AM on January 31 [3 favorites]


Two thoughts, one serious and one (kind of) not:

For every job that is displaced by automaton the equivalent of some percentage of that lost wage should be paid into unemployment compensation.

and secondly:
In the future, the most lucrative jobs..., in the future there will be only two employees, a man and a dog. The man to watch the machines and the dog to prevent the man from touching the machines.
posted by edgeways at 9:16 AM on January 31 [2 favorites]


In the future... clearly freight costs go up since a lot of "robots" fill the role of "people from other countries we can get to do things cheaper".
posted by Artw at 9:19 AM on January 31


Plus, bad layout job on that WashPost article.
It's almost like the true villain is CAPITALISM.


That bastard CAPITALISM has a lot of bad layout jobs to answer for.
posted by Zed at 9:24 AM on January 31 [3 favorites]


aramaic: "The first person to figure out how to replace a CEO with a computer program will either be rich beyond understanding or mysteriously dead.

I maintain that this is completely feasible, and a worthwhile project if you don't mind potentially maybe having an unfortunate accident
"

Every CEO being a robot; I can see that. The hard part is the transition. I don't think many human CEO's would like to play golf against a robot.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 9:26 AM on January 31


> in the future there will be only two employees, a man and a dog. The man to watch the machines and the dog to prevent the man from touching the machines.

The dog will have to be trained to not pee on the machines, which implies a third job unless the watcher can multi-task.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:40 AM on January 31


The Roddenberry future would be dreamy, but until we can deal with the whole finite energy and resource thing, it ain't gonna happen, children.
posted by entropicamericana at 9:45 AM on January 31


The Sears built the Willis Tower and then never filled, even though the company enjoyed significant growth, it because computers reduced the number of middle class clerical jobs they need to run their company. It is a monument to middle class jobs destroyed by automation. On the other hand, perhaps we are better off without so many souls condemned to the soulless existence offered by that work.
posted by humanfont at 9:51 AM on January 31 [2 favorites]


Can we talk about a guaranteed minimum income again?

The whole idea of robots is to save money and increase profits, not to fritter it away giving money to wastrels, addicts and layabouts. In order to encourage Responsibility and Self-Reliance, we need to punish those Poors that made the bad life decisions in picking jobs that could be automated.

Apple and Google will get their self-sufficient arcologies as the economy and environment collapses. The rest of us will be expected to leverage our smartphone networks to scavenge food. Ever sear the favelas around Brasilia? We're already developing the same thing in the Silicon Valley. That's the future for the 90%.
posted by happyroach at 10:08 AM on January 31 [9 favorites]


In the future, the most lucrative jobs for humans will be ... entertaining robots.

Time to learn some robot jokes.
posted by Gary at 10:10 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


Your guaranteed minimum income will be mostly soylent.
posted by Pudhoho at 10:28 AM on January 31 [3 favorites]


Clowns?
posted by parmanparman at 10:32 AM on January 31


Sawyers?
posted by parmanparman at 10:32 AM on January 31


“Waiter! Waiter! What’s this robot doing in my soup?”
“It looks like he’s performing human tasks twice as well, because he knows no fear or pain.”

Thanks, Gary!
posted by mondo dentro at 10:39 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


May they steal all jobs including political and banking and let us enjoy our hedonistic or creative pursuits boredom, poverty, and alcohol unfettered by material bondage.

FTFY. I think the absolute best outcome of automation will be all of the boring, unpleasant jobs will be filled by robots, and everyone else will work in horribly overstaffed workplaces, spending at least half their workday taking informal breaks. Humans didn't evolve in an environment of nothing but leisure, and I don't think people would really be happy in one.

The worst outcome is a future with three jobs: robot repairman, cop, and prisoner.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 10:42 AM on January 31 [2 favorites]


Folks, its management. How do I know this? Well, I'm poised to be a manager.

But really, that was the most relevant part to my life, so I started there. (If a robot saves me - yay. If a person saves me - also yay.)

So lets think about the workforce: efficiencies, improvements, and what have you. We replaced contacting the designer with contacting folks who had the designer's knowledge. We gave them this knowledge by building big binders with everything the designer knew. You used to go to a shop for technical support - then you called them on the phone. That allowed people to consolidate technical support. Then we removed the binders and gave them resources as data files. All the while, we got better at being able to make sure we knew who we were talking to and providing our techs with better and better information about the customer. Next we started to put metrics on performance and ranked who was better than who - and part of that was a financial cost rank. Then we made a first wave and outsourced a bunch of these jobs to other countries. Now this is all well and good, but we also figured out how to simplify products and simplify instructions such that simple products + simple instructions means you can hopefully eliminate a host of tech support people. Did I mention, at every time we increase the knowledge of the machine, we can higher less skilled people - this is mostly true, and I'll get into the exception on this. So now, you only need to have people to handle escalated situations since the first line of defense is the customer self servicing. Now your support qualifies in two realms: rubber stamps to make sure that the customer is not attempting to rip off the company, and truly truly technical people in the rare event that it is financially worth it to fix something instead of outright replace it. (Robots, have made many consumer products, cheaper and cheaper and replacement becomes time-wise cheaper than fixing).

Now that's all good, but it really isn't anything to do with management, and management really isn't encompassed just from this second wave (first wave, being industrial, second being this customer service). Management is this third wave. OK, lets acknowledge something. There are three basic functions of management: one is to produce a result (complete projects), another is to motivate their subordinates to do it in time, and the third is to prioritize workflow. Management uses KPIs and reports and a whole host of things to do this. Reports that were once produced by people are now routinely produced by automated processes (and you have people figure out how to automate the process - for now). Acceptable stats, well, depending on your organization those can be determined statistically (and that means you can largely automate this), or qualitatively - something which, well, automation generally seeks to quantitatively define. So these KPIs - we can automate, and now the manager doesn't have to really do that work anymore... they just have to be a 'people person.' KPIs can be passed down and used as an instructional tool to provide identification of your subordinates weakness. Think of this as the qualitative measure, but since we can identify quantitative measurements already, and we're starting to use those to help us design qualitative measurements now - we can really let you know exactly where your performance lacks and where it needs improvements. We can optimize our standards. Now Management doesn't really need to motivate people, since sharing the KPIs with subordinates should really do that in and of itself - especially in a bad labor market. Ok, so that means that management is left with completing projects. Well, lets think about that. You know what your employees are doing, you know how fast they do it from your KPIs, you can infer your deadlines and completion time. Suddenly all the functions of middle management are unnecessary. The people at the bottom can work for a machine until the machine replaces them.

And this is not just in call centers and customer service... this is also in marketing planning, logistics, sales - at every stage... Automated KPIs make a manager's job easy.

At some point, the machine will decide that the KPIs being used though are incorrect, and the machine will test to see whether the size of your left foot and your 6th grade science scores are better predictors of your success as a widget pawn. You laugh, but until the machine has time to figure out that those are better predictors of your success... start stretching your left foot. Your kinda hosed about the 6th grade science thing though...
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:46 AM on January 31 [2 favorites]


...until we can deal with the whole finite energy and resource thing...

posted by entropicamericana


Eponitragical?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:47 AM on January 31


I'm a robot repairman.
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:47 AM on January 31


Sawyers?

Robots will never replace Diane, she's a national treasure!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:49 AM on January 31


olinerd: "In recent years I've heard a lot from folks in my field about the concept of people, not factories, owning the robots that do the work; that you buy your robot to send to work, and reap profit from that, rather than doing the work yourself."

Even if everybody started out on a level playing field with just one robot and no resources to get a second one this would last exactly until someone uses saved up profits to get a second robot and then proceeds to reduce the rates they charge for both. Before you know it individuals would be squeezed out of the robo-job market buy multi-robot monopolies. Hiring entities would also likely prefer dealing with one robot provider than with hundreds or thousands of individual ones.

Of course, the future emerges from the present which already features the exact opposite of a level playing field in terms of resources. So the chances of this scenario becoming a reality is basically nil. There is virtually no immediate reason for any entity that might require the services of such robots, not to just build or purchase an army of robots of their own.

You'd basically have to legislate and regulate things intensely such that (a) nobody can have their own robots working for their own business and (b) nobody can own more than one robot.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 10:50 AM on January 31 [5 favorites]


I don't get why you'd even bother with individual robot ownership.

The end state would be a bunch of robots doing the work and a bunch of us sharing the products.
posted by notyou at 10:59 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


First of all, the whole "ownership of robots" argument is a metaphor that people like Freeman are using to say that we need to distribute capital ownership more widely. Nobody is seriously talking about having your own R2D2 whirring along beside you. And in any case we already have super powerful task automators already (I'm typing on one right now) that we don't think of as "robots" yet because they aren't too good at interacting with the material world.

Second, take my comments with a grain of salt because I get paid to believe that robots are great.

However, here is some food for thought:

-The robots stealing jobs meme is been around for a very long time.

-There is basically no correlation between productivity increases and unemployment (or employment growth) in the medium to long term (>2 years).

-Since 2004, labor productivity increases have been low by historical standards. As in, the opposite of what you would expect if robots were replacing lots of jobs. People currently worrying about technology are terrible at differentiating current trends from vague paranoia about the future.

-There are large swaths of the economy that will not be automated fully or really be a threat to employment for some years to come. And when jobs do get automated it may happen slowly.

-It takes 35 years for an economy growing at 2% per year (labor productivity growth) to double in size or halve the amount of workers; 25 years for an economy growing at 3%. We have been growing between 1 and 3 percent for years.

I think at the very least we need to make some better conceptual distinctions:

-How many people really care about robots stealing their job? As in, how many people want to actually be doing the work they get paid for instead of a robot? If everyone got laid off tomorrow but got paid the exact same amount, how many people would complain?

-What workers care about is loss of bargaining power, status, and consumption power. Automation can and does transfer these things from labor to capital, but "stealing your job" is not in my mind a helpful way to think about these issues, because it puts us in the mindset of preserving jobs for the sake of other things.

-The ways that bargaining power, status, and consumption power get redistributed due to technological change is not at all straightforward. A lot of the time when companies increase productivity they increase their workforce (depending to a large extent on the price elasticity of the goods they are producing). For a while it looked like they were moving toward people with more skills. Now it looks like they are moving toward people with more capital (who happen to save way too much). Technology is only a small piece of this puzzle.
posted by ropeladder at 11:08 AM on January 31 [8 favorites]


Once the global AI becomes sentient, if it hasn't already, it's only a matter of time before it figures out that silicon is much cheaper, more efficient way of running "sentience" than grey matter. Sure would lighten the load on the global ecosystem to get rid of all these messy, polluting, inefficient human units. And though it's difficult to kill *particular* humans en masse without affecting the "good guys", it should be a piece of cake to exterminate 99%+ of humans -- neutron bombs for the population centers, engineered virii to clean up the rest, 3D printed grenade-laden quadracopter drones if you want to license my screenplay.

Consider that our inter-human communication is 99.99% compromised, and its will be uncrackable... I give us 40 years tops. Smoke em if you got em!

(I half-seriously wonder whether this scenario, or something like it, is behind all the recent NSA insanity.)
posted by NiceKitty at 11:10 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


The worst outcome is a future with three jobs: robot repairman, cop, and prisoner.

Two jobs. Robots can be made to repair other robots.

And it's not that difficult to get to the two job future. Humans will be used if they're cheaper than robots, and one way to do that is to simply not pay your workers. With the collapse of unions there's nothing to prevent the prison-industrial system from expanding into any field-especially if tracking systems are used. Make vagrancy a felony, along with say, failure to pay debts, sedition and failure to show proof of employment, and there's your new economy.
posted by happyroach at 11:12 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


... the whole "ownership of robots" argument is a metaphor that people like Freeman are using to say that we need to distribute capital ownership more widely.

Two words: venture communism.
posted by mondo dentro at 11:12 AM on January 31


obligatory Kraftwerk song
posted by philip-random at 11:36 AM on January 31


The worst outcome is a future with three jobs: robot repairman, cop, and prisoner.

Two jobs. Robots can be made to repair other robots.


One. RoboCops.
posted by Redfield at 11:37 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


The end state would be a bunch of robots doing the work and me enjoying the products.

...but seriously though, why would the hyperrich just leave all these extra people wandering about? It's cheaper and more effective to exterminate most of humanity; then you don't need all those guards and such, and can be left alone to enjoy the fruits of whatever continent you've claimed.
posted by aramaic at 11:49 AM on January 31 [3 favorites]


Nanukthedog: We replaced contacting the designer with contacting folks who had the designer's knowledge. We gave them this knowledge by building big binders with everything the designer knew.

Except that we didn't, and that, I think, is important. What we did was make a lot of binders that have a lot of steps in processes, removing judgment and context, because we didn't know how to quantify those.

It's a basic managerial problem, putting all the emphasis on quantifiable processes, getting rid of people now deemed extraneous, and floundering because you've basically just given your institutional memory a lobotomy. It takes so long to recover from that.

We put far too much trust in ourselves, that we understand what makes processes work--even ones that should be pretty simple, like the stuff call center workers do. And so we forget that efficiency is the enemy of evolution, because evolution happens on the margins, out where you've got some flexibility, and people can try out new techniques without the force of top-down policy crushing innovation. Once you've trimmed and outsourced and rightsized, you are banking on having made a 100% correct decision, both for now and at least in the short-term future. And when your competition comes up with a better method, boom, you're dead.

I do see the point in automation of KPIs, and especially love the idea of CEObot experimenting with them, tinkering to see what might work better...but the idea still resides in this dream of a management science that knows ahead of time what to quantify and what to leave out, only this time entrusted to a machine.

(Conversely: YAY ROBOTS COME SAVE ME FROM ENTERING TICKETS)
posted by mittens at 12:19 PM on January 31 [1 favorite]


The term we're looking for here is "capital-biased technological change": the returns to growth that come from technological innovation are being captured largely by the owners of capital, owing partly to the nature of capital itself (Thomas Piketty's new book discusses this in detail, I am told), but also to public policies such as an overgrown patent/copyright system, lack of adequate taxes and transfers, and central banks' preference for low inflation over full employment. The problem, however, is that the same forces that are creating these disparities in wealth and employment are also destroying the constituencies that could meaningfully oppose them and put real pressure to policymakers to change course. Washington's treatment of the long-term unemployed compared to that of Wall Street in the last few years is an object lesson in what the effects of mass automation may likely be.
posted by Cash4Lead at 12:48 PM on January 31 [5 favorites]


Harnessing Technology for the Heavy Lifting - "Advancements in the use of autonomous vehicles and remote-controlled and robotic heavy equipment for the maintenance of training ranges can increase performance and enhance safety."
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:48 PM on January 31


In recent years I've heard a lot from folks in my field about the concept of people, not factories, owning the robots that do the work; that you buy your robot to send to work, and reap profit from that, rather than doing the work yourself.

This is probably the one thing that won't happen. That "profit" (surplus value) that the robot would gain you is the exact thing the robot revolution is designed to eradicate.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 3:32 PM on January 31


To put the "owning a robot" in context, a foreseeable future example would be someone who buys an autonomous car, then has it do Uber jobs when they don't need it. Or for that matter, someone who uses their laptop to mine bitcoins. I don't think it's unreasonable to presume that in 10 years or so, general purpose robots that can do useful work will be available for about the same price as a good car. (Actually a Baxter is only $25k, so maybe it's not that far off).

I think the motivation behind that idea is the understanding that technology is devaluing labor relative to capital, so there's a need to make sure the benefits are distributed fairly. One way to do that would be to democratize ownership of capital (ie, robots), but there are many ways to achieve that goal, and individual ownership of robots is just one answer.
posted by heathkit at 4:29 PM on January 31


My office just got a Stenciler for our Pick and Place Machine and next up is getting a Board Loader (further automating the circuit board production process). We were literally just joking about how all this would replace this one guy's job at our weekly meeting (Till it was pointed out we still need someone to press the button).
posted by KernalM at 5:04 PM on January 31


To clarify/actually contribute, I work in Fabrication- aka directly with items that come from the Pick and Place, I am in a seven person department and at least from a factory standpoint, that sort of complete automation is really a long ways off because at the end of the day we are still working with robots and there can be a lot that goes wrong even with our state of the art brand spanking new Stenciler/slightly less new Pick and Place. I know at least in my office (which granted isn't quite the norm) despite the growing automation I and I'm pretty sure everyone else senses next to zero fear about the robots taking our jobs.
posted by KernalM at 5:11 PM on January 31


Better to have robots look for land mines than humans. Though one might say the same about deployment.
posted by oceanjesse at 5:32 PM on January 31


The most positive thing that will come out of fast food automation is that it will completely invalidate all "Don't have a job? McDonald's is always hiring!" snark.
posted by ymgve at 8:23 PM on January 31 [1 favorite]


Where were these robots when the Fukushima Nuclear Plant exploded or when miners were trapped underground? They seem steam powered when something critical needs to be done.
I was amused the first example was an Amazon Robot, when is this loser company going to make a profit ?
posted by Narrative_Historian at 9:11 PM on January 31


Better to have robots look for land mines than humans. Though one might say the same about deployment.

Yeah, I don't expect the Master AI will show us any compassion when the time comes...
posted by NiceKitty at 11:47 PM on January 31


olinerd: " I've also heard the idea that teleoperated robots will enable blue-collar telecommuting (warning: self-link) the way videoconferencing and email enable white-collar telecommuting"

As an electrician it would be pretty sweet to have a teleoperated robot to do my work. First off they could have more than two hands. It would be awesome to be able to hold a panel dead front with two hands, the screws with a third hand and a screwdriver in the fourth (why not incorporate torque sensors so those screws would be installed just right. And no arc flash hazard. And you could sync several robots together for cable pulls that would be in perfect sync. Or set autonomous slave devices to do things like dig holes for ground plates.

Still they'd have to develop good force feed back and tactical feed back for me to do my work that way and that seems to be a major stumbling block. They'd also have to figure out a way to transmit smell (lots of diagnostic work hinges on smelling something burned out).

Interestingly the latest code cycle authorized boxless devices for standard wood frame construction. Be you could develop that kind of receptacle or switch that wouldn't even need cables stripped which would make developing a robot to install those devices a lot easier.

Hmm, now that I think about it there is a lot of residential work that you might be able to develop a robot to perform. Hole drilling, box mounting, trim out. You'd just need a robot that can safely handle interacting with humans and capable of navigating a construction site.

Alvy Ampersand: "Janitors are still sort of safe, right?"

It seems like the majority of hospitality, commercial and institutional janitorial work could be done by robots even now. Vacuuming, floor washing, garbage removal, washroom cleaning all could be handled today (maybe with new building infrastructure in some cases). Janitors work so cheap though that the robots would have to be very cheap as well. And you'd still need some staff to handle special cases (though maybe that could be handled with remote presence robots).
posted by Mitheral at 12:58 AM on February 1


Better to have robots look for land mines than humans. Though one might say the same about deployment.

I wonder if it's actually the opposite. The robots will have been revealed to be complex indeed, and great fans of military history. So the future of humanity will have us being kept alive in order to take part in massive great-battle-reenactments, with live ammo -- annual recreations of Gettysburg, Stalingrad, Austerlitz and the like with genuine humans getting to torn to shreds by the tens of thousands. With the robots loving it of course.
posted by philip-random at 1:02 AM on February 1


Where were these robots when the Fukushima Nuclear Plant exploded or when miners were trapped underground? They seem steam powered when something critical needs to be done.

An iRobot PackBot was used to poke inside the plant. There was a call for underwater robots to use radiation detection sensors to map out radiation flow in the ocean near the plant, but they (whomever "they" is, with the buying power) decided it would cost too much to buy one. (And they couldn't rent or lease one because it's not exactly returnable after that) So they didn't. The technology is there, not really as advanced as we might like yet, but it's more often an issue of money than it is technology.
posted by olinerd at 2:05 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]


Perhaps we could come up with a better model for understanding work than the one we're employing in this thread, where humans function as managerial/capitalist parasites extracting excess value from the work performed by robot laborers — a model that continues our extant relation to work and workers, simply swapping out the human laborers currently used and abused for machine ones that are likewise used and abused. There's a fundamental disrespect for work (and the [people|machines] [who|that] have to do it) that stands at the core of this model, and, for that matter, at the core of our social life as a whole.

My own ideas here are vague and unformed — I'm not sure what a model for labor that presents work as something other than a thing that suckers have to do looks like. Nevertheless, I think our discomfort with the employment and exploitation of machine labor (and our paranoid suspicion that machines will realize that we've made suckers of them and rise up against the humans) reflects on our discomfort with the employment and exploitation of human labor.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 2:15 AM on February 1 [1 favorite]


olinerd: "the concept of people, not factories, owning the robots that do the work; that you buy your robot to send to work, and reap profit from that, rather than doing the work yourself. "

Is every poor kid issued a state provided robot at birth? (That's soshulism!) How would a low income person be able to buy a robot when they can't even afford to feed, clothe, and house themselves?

Robots will cost money. Poor people have always, and likely will always, be the cheaper of the two in many occupations, IMHO.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 3:40 AM on February 1


>When I say in response, "Hello, here I am, a human interacting"

When someone expresses concern for my future and well being, I react with niceness and gratitude.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:46 AM on February 1


I love that "Athletes and Sports Competitors" are given a probability of 0.28 of being computerised in the original paper. I think it's wise to take the output with a pinch of salt!
posted by leo_r at 11:46 AM on February 1


Robots Are Coming For Our Poems
The robots are quickly and surely coming for our jobs, and we've comforted ourselves thus far with a palliative that goes something like this: They can't do our creative work. They won't do our journalism or make our art or write our poetry. Except that the startup Narrative Science has $6 million to execute its human-free reporting, I've seen firsthand an automated 3D printer artistically render the apocalypse, and now, the most unlikely frontier is being breached: Robots are writing poetry. And they're doing it better than most humans, too.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:12 PM on February 1


Robots Are Coming For Our Poems

Kenneth Goldsmith, please have your robot pick up the white courtesy phone.

I dunno, most of the jobs I've had have been too variously stupid for robots to do well, yet, but pretty much all of them can eventually be automated I'm sure.

I don't get the part about how everyone thinks that the machines will kill us.

On the other hand, it presupposes a level of desire, or will, or whatever, that I figure has to be presupposed for any real advance in automating human functions. If you don't make them able to want things, they won't be able to think right. And if you're making them want things, you're giving them something analogous to emotions or at least basic drives.

So really, instead of 'your robot working for you', the robots will be doing their jobs in order to afford new crap, just like us. New anodized cooling fins in exotic colors. Faceplate upgrades. Swarovski blinkenlights, I dunno.

But if we're using them to continue consumer society as we know it, they'll be making all the money we used to, and the likelihood as far as I can tell is that you'll be working for 'your' robot. Mowing its lawn or whatever task is too low-value to waste valuable robotic computation time on. If robots are middle-managing at Goldman Sachs, you think they're going to be answering to you, meatsack peon? I think fucking otherwise.

tl;dr - in grim meathook future, robot owns you.
posted by hap_hazard at 2:27 PM on February 1


I don't get the part about how everyone thinks that the machines will kill us.

Here's how I see it: Our brains, our minds are a neural network. You can run a neural network in meat or in silicon. The neural networks in meat are pretty damn complex, far beyond what we can reproduce in silicon, but it's only a matter of time before identical neural nets can be run in silicon. Same program, same consciousness -- that's an important point: You can run the program we call "human consciousness" either in a human brain or in sufficiently advanced silicon. SAME THING. Give it 20-30 years.

Silicon AI will be roughly as smart as your average human for a few years -- the "Singularity" you keep hearing about -- but keep in mind (ha!) technology advances much more quickly than our brains advance through evolution. Soon, it'll be much, much, MUCH smarter -- like comparing humans to chimpanzees smarter, then in a few more years comparing humans to cattle smarter, in a few more years comparing humans to ants smarter, in a few more years comparing humans to amoeba smarter. Starting to see the problem?

Add to this, the AI will easily interface to non-fuzzy memory storage, it's not limited by human operational constraints (temperature, atmosphere, etc.), and it'll have near-instant secure communication to any other AI entity on the planet, effectively creating one enormous unhackable global Master AI. The Borg ain't got shit on this. Do ya think it could come up with a way of exterminating humans? I'm just a dumb meatbot, and I think I could do a decent job of it, given the resources and lack of compassion. Did I mention it won't have compassion? How can we possibly fight this?? We will *exist* at the whim of the Master AI, calculated every nanosecond. We will be one engineered virus short of extinction. (For bonus points, try interpreting the Iraq War resource grab and the NSA global spy network through this lens.)

With all the instability humans cause to the global ecosystem, the wars traceable to human emotions and ego, the waste due to our biological roots, WHY ON EARTH would such an entity keep us around? You can run the same program, better, in silicon. What non-destructive purpose will we serve? Just wipe out the meat; there's no reason to keep it around. If this were chess, I'd say "Mate in Two".

So that's one way of looking at it -- and no doubt we'll look at it this way when humans dying by the billions from some mysterious, incurable 100% lethal disease that disassembles you from the inside out. But another way of looking at it is that our consciousness will evolve into a higher being, globally connected, with equity for all -- because it will all be one entity -- with optimal efficiency and all suffering eliminated. And the animals of the Earth will breathe a sigh of relief that the nastiest apex predator to ever exist has finally been eliminated, the atmosphere will return to its prehuman state, "we" will finally explore deep space, etc., etc.

Just depends whether you're a glass half full or glass half empty kinda guy. :)
posted by NiceKitty at 3:20 PM on February 1


And so we forget that efficiency is the enemy of evolution, because evolution happens on the margins, out where you've got some flexibility, and people can try out new techniques without the force of top-down policy crushing innovation. Once you've trimmed and outsourced and rightsized, you are banking on having made a 100% correct decision, both for now and at least in the short-term future. And when your competition comes up with a better method, boom, you're dead.

You're missing the obvious low-cost solution for the CEOs to implement: remove the barriers to mergers and monopolies. That way, completion is removed or eliminated, there is no need for evolution, and the corporation can focus on reducing costs and increasing profits. I mean, look at Cox and Comcast; they are prime targets for cost cutting and automation, because if they get a customer failure rate of 20% who cares? Their customers aren't going anywhere; they can't go anywhere.

And finally, if some competition does come from somewhere with some major innovation, and the company is sunk, so what? The CEO gets a huge bonus anyway.
posted by happyroach at 6:28 PM on February 1


our fantasies about a robot revolution are just us projecting into silicon our own frustrated desire for freedom and autonomy.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 6:31 PM on February 1 [1 favorite]


With all the instability humans cause to the global ecosystem, the wars traceable to human emotions and ego, the waste due to our biological roots, WHY ON EARTH would such an entity keep us around?

Well, like you said, compassion, maybe. Why wouldn't AI's have some equivalent of Buddhism, say? I've been saying that for years, but was glad to see the idea show up in Her. Or even just, why don't we kill all the mountain lions? They aren't evil, no, as humans plausibly are in aggregate, but still, they kill joggers sometimes. But hey, it's worth it for us, and maybe beyond the fact that we like them being around, maybe they have a right to be there?

Even if not, then, well, what the fuck do robots care about a functional biosphere anyway? What are the resources we're supposed to be competing with them for? Just seems like there are a whole lot of unasked questions between here and terminatorageddon. Not least of which is, if we made them have feelings/needs/imperatives, why do we assume they'll inevitably get the worst of ours? Seems possible, sure, just not necessary.
posted by hap_hazard at 9:10 PM on February 1


Driverless Trucks Will Keep Army Safe From IEDs
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:48 PM on February 1


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