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3 levels of lasers. It's rescanning the udder and looking for the teats
April 23, 2014 11:39 AM   Subscribe

Something strange is happening at farms in upstate New York. The cows are milking themselves. Rise of the Milkbots.
posted by cashman (89 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm all about contented cows.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:43 AM on April 23 [6 favorites]


I can't be the only one to see the header here and immediately think of laser cows, can I?
posted by baf at 11:45 AM on April 23 [4 favorites]


It's fascinating to watch the smaller professions get wiped out one by one.

Sad, but fascinating.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:46 AM on April 23 [4 favorites]


It's fascinating to watch the smaller professions get wiped out one by one.

These could also be used by your local boutique raw milk dairy.
posted by planetesimal at 11:49 AM on April 23 [6 favorites]


The smaller profession being the guy who used to walk around and turn on the milking machine? Manual milking has mostly disappeared a long time ago.
posted by dhoe at 11:50 AM on April 23 [14 favorites]


Yay! I keep telling people about the milking robots, but didn't have anything to actually link them too.
posted by Phredward at 11:51 AM on April 23 [2 favorites]


I dunno. That Milk-Bot looks a lot like a primitive Dalek. I expected to hear "Express! Express!"
posted by octobersurprise at 11:51 AM on April 23 [9 favorites]


Yay happy cows! Yay raw milk!
posted by Melismata at 11:55 AM on April 23 [2 favorites]


These milking barns are AWESOME. I got to tour one a few years ago, and the difference it makes for the cows' ability to do more natural behavior on their own schedule is such a nice benefit. Hooray laser barn.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 11:55 AM on April 23 [10 favorites]


"I had to fire Johnny."
"Why?"
"He kept running into the milking barn and yelling 'TAKE THE RED PILL! THE RED PILL!' at the cows."
posted by zarq at 12:01 PM on April 23 [13 favorites]


I keep find myself thinking about the brutal and miserable life of farm laborers (so brutal and miserable, in fact, that it looks pretty bad even in light-hearted and nostalgic books like All Creatures Great and Small) and I imagine a wonderful future where regular working people are all dead of starvation, preventable disease and war, and a tiny fraction of elite humanity - the descendents of the Pinochets, the Kissingers, the Fricks, the Thatchers - enjoys a paradisical robot-coddled existence. "Oh, how great it is that the cows are happy," they'll say, as they eat their artisanal raw-milk cheese on their private islands. "How sad it must have been to live in the past when people suffered so."
posted by Frowner at 12:02 PM on April 23 [21 favorites]


It's a super-cool concept, and is obviously much better for the cows.

But still, it reminds me of The Matrix.

posted by zarq at 12:02 PM on April 23 [2 favorites]


i calculate that a $1.2 million investment that pays off over 8 years would displace 3 workers making $50,000 a year, or 6 earning $25,000.
posted by rebent at 12:02 PM on April 23


zarq: "He kept running into the milking barn and yelling 'TAKE THE RED PILL! THE RED PILL!' at the cows."

Who knew that Steve Oedekerk was such a far-thinking visionary?
posted by Strange Interlude at 12:10 PM on April 23 [2 favorites]


I thought Mr. Show taught us the dangers of automatic milk machines. I guess this generation must learn its lessons anew.
posted by vorpal bunny at 12:11 PM on April 23 [4 favorites]


Dang it Strange Interlude! Beaten by a minute!!

(Uh never mind Steve Oedekerk != Bob Odenkirk)
posted by vorpal bunny at 12:11 PM on April 23 [3 favorites]


"Oh, how great it is that the cows are happy,"

Well, if it cheers you up, anything that wipes out all but a small fraction of humanity will probably take the cows, too.
posted by octobersurprise at 12:12 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]


My cousin's barn (which was my uncle's barn, and before that my grandfather's barn) burned down last December. He had about 50 cows, all dead, except for a couple of heifers who lived outside the barn. He's considering getting a robot, but he would need to get a larger herd to make it profitable. This could be very expensive, since Canada has a quota (supply management) system and quota has become extremely expensive. Most dairies here are deeply in debt, with farmers investing again and again but not seeing enough return on their investments to be really profitable.

Robots are not completely new to farming: my uncle bought a feeding robot back in the early nineties and my cousin had been running it until the fire.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:16 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]


This is just Google practicing for the Matrix.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:18 PM on April 23


California, the nation’s leading dairy producer, has been a curious holdout, in part because there were problems at some farms that adopted the technology in its early years.

THE RISE OF THE COWBORG.
posted by JHarris at 12:28 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]


Welp, there goes m' last marketable job skill. Off to bein' a greeter and cart wrangler at Walmart I suppose...
posted by jim in austin at 12:31 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]


The smaller profession being the guy who used to walk around and turn on the milking machine? Manual milking has mostly disappeared a long time ago.

Yeah, I just toured a dairy a couple weeks ago. Milking all the cows without this new thing currently only takes one guy - the milking machine does most of the work. The cows at the dairy I went to went through an automated shower before going into the milking barn, and then the one guy would hook them all up one by one (about 40 cows at a time in the barn) to the milking machine. The machine had a vacuum pump, so he'd just hook up the suction thingies, one to each teat, on each cow and move on to the next one, with each cow only taking 10 seconds or so. Once the cows are done, the machine automatically senses it and releases the suction, detaching itself from the cow.
posted by LionIndex at 12:31 PM on April 23 [3 favorites]


i calculate that a $1.2 million investment that pays off over 8 years would displace 3 workers making $50,000 a year, or 6 earning $25,000.

But a farm with 100 cows would not have that many workers to begin with. Remember the 2 owners themselves were in the headcount as well, so that would mean they had 5-8 workers before the robots. More likely they had just themselves and two others at most. A lot of the payback is going to come in the form of higher yields, reduced feed costs (less waste) and healthier cows.
posted by beagle at 12:33 PM on April 23 [4 favorites]


Dairy cows produce an astounding amount of milk. Most dairy cows are milked two to three times per day. On average, a cow will produce six to seven gallons of milk each day.

I think it's kind of creepy.
posted by vapidave at 12:37 PM on April 23 [3 favorites]


The process LionIndex describes has been in place since at least the 1980s, though the autosensing machines and showers are newer (so you might have to wash the udders by hand and keep an eye out to release the teats). With autosening but not shower, my cousin could milk 50 cows by himself, though it was much quicker with an employee.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:40 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]


I imagine a wonderful future where regular working people are all dead of starvation, preventable disease and war, and a tiny fraction of elite humanity - the descendents of the Pinochets, the Kissingers, the Fricks, the Thatchers - enjoys a paradisical robot-coddled existence.

That's the plot of Asimov's "The Naked Sun," I believe.
posted by Melismata at 12:47 PM on April 23 [4 favorites]


Calculating how many people are laid off by technology advances is the very originating definition of luddite thinking, and hopelessly short-sighted. Think of all the crutchmakers put out of work by Salk's vaccine!

OTOH, it's not like the dairy industry was being held back by manpower/state of technology. The US already far outproduces its needs, and subsidizes the industry to keep prices up.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:50 PM on April 23 [5 favorites]


This is the thread I was born for. Just yesterday I was sitting in a meeting at which we were discussing the proper way to handle records from cows milked by robots (milked more often) and cows milked by regular machines (usually 2x or 3x milking). These things matter when adjusting lactation records so that they are all on a comparable base for use in genetic evaluation. Selective breeding has resulted in dramatic increases in animal productivity. Holstein cows born in 1960 produced an average of 13,813 pounds (a gallon of whole milk weighs ~8.5 pounds, so ~1,625 gallons) of milk, while Holsteins born in 2010 produced an average of 26,654 pounds (~3,153 gallons) of milk in a 305-day lactation (https://www.cdcb.us/eval/summary/trend.cfm). A substantial amount of information about genetic evaluation can be found on the USDA Animal Improvement Programs Laboratory and Canadian Dairy Network sites.

Disclaimer: This is what I do.
posted by wintermind at 12:58 PM on April 23 [40 favorites]


vorpal bunny: "(Uh never mind Steve Oedekerk != Bob Odenkirk)"

There was a stretch of time in the late '90s/early '00s when I thought the Thumb Wars guy (Oedekerk) was also the Mr. Show guy (Odenkirk) and I was really disappointed in his career trajectory.
posted by Strange Interlude at 1:01 PM on April 23 [2 favorites]


The dairy industry is so depressing. I'm happy this seems to be more humane for the poor cows, though. Anyone who has lactated knows how uncomfortable it is to wait for milking...poor dears.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:01 PM on April 23 [5 favorites]


All those improvements are why my uncle's farm (who only herded cows and grew feed) was different from my grandfather's farm (who also had pigs and hens, and grew potato and turnips on the side), and why my cousin's farm will be different still.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 1:02 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]


My brother-in-law had a Dutch robot milking parlour back when he was running a dairy farm. Saving labour was of importance to him, as only he and his brother were available to milk.

As well as being easier to run, he was of the strong opinion that it was better for the cows too. Being on-demand meant that cows could set their own schedules, with some milking twice, some three times, as the cows themselves preferred. The cows, in fact, would try to go through the system more often than was good for them---they got a cow cookie when they were milked. Some cows liked the treats too much.

He still needed to go to the barn twice a day to check the cows and feed them, but the iron schedule of milking that every other farmer in the area lives and dies by he didn't have to worry about. He liked it so much, he became, briefly, an unofficial sales rep for the company in eastern Ontario.

However the realities of the getting enough quota to make a living under the supply management system in Ontario meant that he had to sell the business to one of the big producer families. He did get a good price---the buyers were really keen to get the robot when they saw how well it worked.
posted by bonehead at 1:23 PM on April 23 [11 favorites]


I love the freedom this gives to the cows. "Hm, I'm starting to feel a bit uncomfortable, I should see to that."
posted by MissySedai at 1:25 PM on April 23 [5 favorites]


Dairy cows produce an astounding amount of milk. Most dairy cows are milked two to three times per day. On average, a cow will produce six to seven gallons of milk each day.

I think it's kind of creepy.


Wait 'til you find out how much Gary Busey produces, then.
posted by delfin at 1:55 PM on April 23 [4 favorites]


Calculating how many people are laid off by technology advances is the very originating definition of luddite thinking,

Ignoring consequences for the people on the lowest rung of the economic ladder is the very definition of Republican... :-)

and hopelessly short-sighted.

I'm not sure why. There is this weird unquestioned faith held by many people that for every job destroyed a new one (plus a little to cover population growth) is created. Where does this come from? What possible reasoning leads people to this conclusion?

As long as we have an economic system that assumes everyone will have jobs we need to keep a close eye on anything -- including technological advances -- that disrupts the number of jobs available. True, we're not going to do anything about it until white collar jobs start getting hit, but we should be paying attention nonetheless.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:58 PM on April 23 [6 favorites]


The smaller profession being the guy who used to walk around and turn on the milking machine? Manual milking has mostly disappeared a long time ago.

Yup. He was the last remnant of a type of job that lasted thousands of years. His demise is pretty much the capstone on human involvement in milking animals. (You could argue it was earlier, but this feels like an appropriate moment of closure to me.)
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:03 PM on April 23


Yup. He was the last remnant of a type of job that lasted thousands of years. His demise is pretty much the capstone on human involvement in milking animals. (You could argue it was earlier, but this feels like an appropriate moment of closure to me.)

Frankly, I'd be more worried that 67 dairy farms in my state closed up shop just last year, continuing a declining trend. And that's closed, not bought out - no more milk being produced period. If a robot allows dairy farms to stay in business by milking more cows so that they have more production, that's fine with me.
posted by LionIndex at 2:22 PM on April 23 [4 favorites]


Skynets gonna be one sick puppy
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 3:03 PM on April 23 [2 favorites]


Thanks for that, Strange Interlude . I thought it was the same guy.
posted by dr_dank at 3:10 PM on April 23


Ok, Tell Me No Lies, what do you propose to do here then?

The little exchange that just happened is a call and response chestnut that seems to always come up whenever people are discussing this sort of thing.

And yet, what's transpired so far is an entirely philosophical discussion of what we should be thinking about this sort of thing, and not what we should actually be doing, if anything.
posted by emptythought at 3:28 PM on April 23


First they milk the cows. Next, they milk us.
posted by oceanjesse at 3:30 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]


From like 5+ years ago, there was a dairy farm near Waterloo, Ontario that not only used robotic milkers and free-milking, the machines tweeted each time a cow got milked.
posted by GuyZero at 3:38 PM on April 23 [2 favorites]


However the realities of the getting enough quota to make a living under the supply management system in Ontario meant that he had to sell the business to one of the big producer families.

Funny. I too have a relative that ended up selling his quota in eastern Ontario for the same reason. Now he gets to sleep in (slightly) and just farms cash crops.
posted by GuyZero at 3:40 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]


I think it might help to note that robotic milking is still uncommon in the US. It is growing in popularity in Europe because of regional labor shortages. In my opinion, anything that reduces the drudgery of dairying is a good thing.

LionIndex, the trend is towards far fewer, far larger farms. This is driven by the tight margins in dairying: US farmers aren't interested in a producer-operated quota program like Canada has, resulting in a race to the bottom, and the perishable nature of milk gives processors (the people who buy and bottle milk and manufacture other products, like cheese and ice cream) huge leverage over farmers. Consider this: if milk is selling for $20/cwt that's 5 pounds/$1, or $0.20/pound, so 1 gallon of milk is about $1.76 to the farmer. Be generous and give the processor $1/gallon for haulage, pasteurization, and bottling costs ($2.76/gallon). Consider what you're paying at the grocery. Not much of that is going to the farmer, so you have to be pretty big to make any money at the margins.

The Midwest droughts and market-distorting ethanol subsidies have contributed to huge jumps in feed prices, which is the largest component of your production costs. A few people ended up on the right side of the futures markers, but not many. Dairying can be capital-intensive, and it's pretty hard to get a loan right now. The one bright spot is that the US is an exporter of dairy products, and demand for whey powder and cheese is growing in India and China. China is spending a lot of money to develop and grow their dairy industry, but they're still playing catch-up.
posted by wintermind at 3:59 PM on April 23 [4 favorites]


My cousin's farm just installed these. Apparently it can sense mastitis somehow as well and discards the milk accordingly. I have no idea how it's going to affect the labor situation for them long-term.
posted by gerstle at 4:23 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]


How long before some poor teenage boy needs to be sub-waisted jaws-of-lifed out of one of these things at 11pm after 8 or 9 beers? Won't anyone think of the children??
posted by nevercalm at 4:27 PM on April 23


> Calculating how many people are laid off by technology advances is the very originating definition of luddite thinking, and hopelessly short-sighted.

As I keep commenting here, those people who claim that automation will magically create just as many jobs as it destroys really need to identify what those jobs might actually be, and point to an example.

Please do NOT say that "we have no idea what those jobs will be" because that certainly hasn't been humanity's experience in the past. When bicycles and cars replaced horses for transportation, everyone knew the new frontier was going to be bike and car production and maintenance - you can see it in the literature of the time. But what, exactly, is a farm-hand going to do when his cow milking job goes away? Is he really going to manufacture robots - which, increasingly, are being manufactured by automated systems as well?

The United States in specific is experiencing what appears to be a permanent shift in employability for the lower and middle class. If you claim this isn't happening, you need explain how this will happen and not hope that the magical technology fairy will show up with new jobs just in the nick of time.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 4:36 PM on April 23 [4 favorites]


Ok, Tell Me No Lies, what do you propose to do here then?

Me personally?

I propose that we switch over to a basic salary system and allow people who want something above and beyond the basics to knock themselves out keeping American capitalism up and running. Then we can play at this game of destroying jobs without the side effect of destroying lives.

Oh and by the way, this is hardly an abstract issue for me. I turned down a well paid and extremely interesting job automating a manufacturing plant in rural Pennsylvania because I knew the men and women working there, and it wasn't going to be me who forced them to leave generational homes to find work elsewhere. I would be similarly dubious about deploying one of these.

In any case as I said above nothing will happen until white collar jobs are under threat.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:40 PM on April 23 [2 favorites]


Tell Me No Lies: "His demise is pretty much the capstone on human involvement in milking animals."

Many lactating humans are still milked directly by humans, albeit underage ones with no work permits.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:59 PM on April 23 [13 favorites]


oceanjesse: "First they milk the cows. Next, they milk us."

I have important news for you about fully-powered hands-free breast pumps, probably milking humans IN AN OFFICE LACTATION ROOM NEAR YOU.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:01 PM on April 23 [3 favorites]


I propose that we switch over to a basic salary system and allow people who want something above and beyond the basics to knock themselves out keeping American capitalism up and running. Then we can play at this game of destroying jobs without the side effect of destroying lives.

Exactly. If the robots are producing enough for everyone, and there's very little reason for folks to work, then why should we base our economy on earning money from labor? The problem isn't that we're losing jobs, but rather that our way of thinking about distributing resources is out of date.
posted by sam_harms at 5:01 PM on April 23 [11 favorites]


Ah back in the mid-1990s I spent a year training AI systems to navigate the intricacies of cow's udders, for a milking robot proposal. If I never have to look at yet more data on udders I can die happily. The bottom line at the time was the systems were so imprecise and cows so unpredictable that there was a high probability of hurting the cow and provoking a reaction that would damage the fragile equipment frequently enough that it simply wasn't cost effective given the milk yield benefit. I'm glad they got that sorted.
posted by meehawl at 5:14 PM on April 23 [6 favorites]


OFFICE LACTATION ROOM

a) New sockpuppet name
b) Aphex Twin's new album
c) A sign, barely seen, on a door down a dark corridor in Hannibal's apartment
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 5:37 PM on April 23 [3 favorites]


The United States in specific is experiencing what appears to be a permanent shift in employability for the lower and middle class. If you claim this isn't happening, you need explain how this will happen and not hope that the magical technology fairy will show up with new jobs just in the nick of time.

There is no magical technology fairy. But people have inherent incentive to work and they will find something to do. I'm not sure why your argument couldn't have been made about farmers at any point in history or manual cotton combing or whatever.

The reality of how market economics works is that if you don't automate, someone else will and they'll put you out of business. Or someone will import a competing product from a region with lower costs.

Once something can be automated it's going to happen whether you like it or not. Refusing to automate to save jobs simply won't work.
posted by GuyZero at 5:40 PM on April 23 [2 favorites]


> But people have inherent incentive to work and they will find something to do.

Just stating this is not any sort of argument that it will happen. "They will find something to do" is again magic - there's no mechanism specified. Are we seeing this happen right now in the world?

> Once something can be automated it's going to happen whether you like it or not. Refusing to automate to save jobs simply won't work.

No one here suggested or even hinted at that, so I'm not sure what you're responding to. What many of us are doing is expressing justifiable concern that, yet again, this is a set of jobs that are being destroyed, to be replaced by nothing at all.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 6:02 PM on April 23 [2 favorites]


Thank you for the link. My dad owned dairy farms and he would have loved this so much, he was really interested in the robotic options because farm labour is such an issue - not many people want to work 16-hour days with little off-time and low pay for the amount of skill needed to be good at a complex operation. I got all teary watching the video, thinking of conversations with him about farming.
posted by viggorlijah at 6:22 PM on April 23 [3 favorites]


ctrl-f mootrix

The Mootrix and the classic Meatrix.

I'm proud to be a cow, where at least I know I'm free. And, reaching back again, Cows with Guns.
posted by BungaDunga at 6:32 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]


Damn, that looks fine.
posted by Bovine Love at 7:45 PM on April 23


The problem isn't that we're losing jobs, but rather that our way of thinking about distributing resources is out of date.

Actually both are problems. Until such a day as we wise up about resource allocation there are going to be people displaced and much other unhappiness. Perhaps the correct approach is to target white collar jobs specifically for automation.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:32 PM on April 23 [2 favorites]


This "destroying jobs" nonsense really is pure Luddism. We've been busily mechanising for 200 years or more, yet we've had an unemployment rate at about 5% for more than a decade. Where are all the jobs going? Into services, health, all over the place. Please don't try to say these aren't "real" jobs. Yes, there are few coopers or wheelwrights or milkmaids left, but there are countless new jobs. Simply observe the unemployment rate, which, apart from a recession that was engineered by finance cockheads (and wasn't global), has stayed low low low for a long time. And, as Maggie Thatcher said, there is no alternative.

I live in Australia's premium dairy area, West Gippsland, and robotic milkers are becoming more and more common. Not because dairy farmers are grubby capitalists who don't like labour, but because getting labour is very difficult (and yes wages are pretty good, about $25 - $30/hr for not highly skilled work). There are labour shortages across the industry, which continues to expand production, exporting to Asia.
posted by wilful at 8:38 PM on April 23 [5 favorites]


What many of us are doing is expressing justifiable concern that, yet again, this is a set of jobs that are being destroyed, to be replaced by nothing at all.

It sounds like concern trolling then. The article is about automation. If you object to the loss of jobs due to automation, then you're objecting to automation. I mean, why else bring it up?

We've been busily mechanising for 200 years or more, yet we've had an unemployment rate at about 5% for more than a decade.

Exactly. The automation of cow milking is no different from the automation of anything else you care to name.

My grandfather was a dairy farmer and only one of his 3 kids followed that path. My uncle sold his milk quota and his own sons have gone into other careers, one a radiologist. It seems silly to have to prove that there are jobs other than dairy farming in the world. Never the less, I have such proof. People have left the farm and not died starving in the streets.

What you position as a loss of jobs I see as a productivity increase for dairy farmers allowing the remaining farmers to earn a competitive income and not be stuck earning the same amount they made 50 years ago. Similarly, not having the price of milk go up is a net benefit to the economy and in general to public health through better nutrition. It's not like milk is the bestest thing ever, but if the only way dairy farmers can keep up their incomes is through raising prices I don't think that would be a great economy-wide outcome.

I'm not sure what you're responding to.

I'm not sure what you're responding to. There's no harm in making dairy farmers more productive. Quite the opposite.

The reductio ad absurdum of your argument is that we should abolish tractors and grain harvesting equipment as well.
posted by GuyZero at 8:58 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]


What many of us are doing is expressing justifiable concern that, yet again, this is a set of jobs that are being destroyed, to be replaced by nothing at all.

There are human endeavors where automation eliminates needed jobs or mechanizes an art form. Milking cattle is not one of them - it's been largely mechanized for decades. There have been several dairy industry people in this thread who've said that dairy farm labor is scarce and valued, and that this innovation lifts a burden off farm managers who generally perform the task of connecting and disconnecting stationary milking machines themselves, rather than employing someone to do so.
posted by gingerest at 9:12 PM on April 23 [2 favorites]


The robots are capital, and the human workers are not. This is just one more instance of capital gaining the upper hand through automation, and everyone looking around and saying "I don't see what the problem is" while eliding the "... for the owner." Surely if you were the last farmhand manually attaching pumps to utters, you could quite quickly identify the problem.

The owners' long term program is to replace every last human worker with a capital investment for just the reasons mentioned in the article and upthread. Robots are never going to sue for back wages, organize for better pay, call in sick, miss work to take their grandma to an ER. All they're waiting on is for the technology to get good enough and smart enough.

Wouldn't you do the same, if you were sitting on the capital side of the table? It's the inevitable long-run outcome of capitalism - see, it's right there in the name. Nobody calls it laborism.
posted by newdaddy at 10:15 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]


newdaddy, it's perfectly clear that you've never stepped foot on a dairy farm, let alone spoken to a farm manager/owner. These small businesses aren't your fat cat robber barons, they're farmers doing an unglamorous job with terrible hours. As you ignored in my post above, they can't get people to do the work, the positions are there but no one wants to do the job. And yes, it's a shit job (quite literally) and the more mechanisation the better for everyone, including the cows.

Mechanisation and automation is a part of your life that I'm quite sure you would miss greatly if it was taken away. Agricultural employment has gone from about 50% to 2% of the economy in the last century. Only a fool would think this was a bad thing.
posted by wilful at 11:35 PM on April 23 [6 favorites]


Are you subscribing to an idea that human-labour intensive agriculture is the best outcome? Fewer resources for more food is a total win in terms of freeing up labour for other things beyond survival.

I know there's a romantic image of plowing the fields with horses and hand picking fresh veggies while milking Betsy in the morning, but farming underpins everything in the modern world and advances that make farming more productive is a good thing. In this case, there are few negatives unlike the cost of industrial pesticides and pressure to short term destroy terrain that needs to be dealt with through law and politics.

Running a farm requires a lot of intelligence and experience. Working in a farm is hard long work and it's difficult to hire for, and always has been historically. Bringing in automation for farming frees up farmers to do more skilled and innovative farming, not simply firing people. If you had to run a small farm with ten people and no tools, you'd do something like potatoes and barley because you dig and plant and that's all you have time and human energy for. Bring in tools and you can start rotating crops more, adding market gardening and fruit trees and a small herd of pricey sheep.
posted by viggorlijah at 12:22 AM on April 24 [4 favorites]


I got to visit a modern dairy farm with my kids a while back, and it really made me realise that the robots truly have taken over, that dairy farming is an entirely different operation from what I vaguely remember it being like at my grandparents' farm. And it's not just the existence of the milking robots, but two other, related things:
  1. I have now seen cows queue up by themselves in order to be milked. I did not know that could happen.

  2. Manure collecting robots exist. And in a modern dairy farm, they're so much a part of the whole deal I didn't even consciously realise this until the next day. Even in the NYT piece, they're only mentioned as an aside (around 1:30). But really, we're talking about an industrial Roomba for cow shit. That's my best proof so far that we're living in the future.
posted by eemeli at 12:51 AM on April 24 [3 favorites]


I helped my dad install robot milkers this last summer when I was back for two weeks (couldn't do Christmas this last year, too expensive and I was dancing that Xmas, however, the thunderstorms and lightning bugs that rolled the nights edges made the wait worth it). We talked a fair bit about the pro's and con's of what he was doing. He had to lay off 4 workers. Some I liked, some I'd known for 10+ years, one fellow I really disliked but my father had a good heart and believes in giving people a chance to better themselves. I personally dislike them but it is the natural progression unless you are going to go totally back to the land and milk entirely by hand. (no. god please no. although, future generations will never have their great aunt Mertyl out milk them at the church social.(phrasing))

It isn't a job many people take, or even want to do any more. My dad paid minimum wage. For most people fast food is a better option. You may be outside more, or working with animals, but it is hard, thankless work where you smell like manure for most of it. That's part of the reason that I left the farm. I didn't want that to be my life. A generation ago, that wouldn't have been an option. I would have taken over the farm and just done my duty to my family.

With robots, my dad has been able to hire someone who really wants to be on the farm with the newest technology on the market. For the first time that I can remember, he has a manager, someone who can do half of the work, competently. My dad has worked 10-14 hour days every day that I've known him. He doesn't take days off, because when he has a day off he goes and picks up scrap metal for missionaries. He didn't have workers he could trust. He couldn't hire them because he couldn't afford to pay competent people.

So it was a big deal for him.

Of course, it wasn't a panacea. This was one of the harshest winters on record, and he had to pretty constantly baby the equipment by using a propane heater next to it (I forget why exactly).

Overall I think that the dairy industry is going this way. Comparing dairy in the US to in Europe is interesting. The farms are smaller overall. There are the same problematic issues with migrant workers that there are here. Some people aren't OK with migrants and in an affluent society I'm guessing that there aren't many who are going to want to do the dirty work, much the same as here.

When I worked in Switzerland on a few dairy's, I worked with Polish, Czech, and Romanians. They were very large dairies for Switzerland, over 100 head, and they needed the extra help but almost all of the other dairies were family only. I'm not sure if it is an anti-immigrant issue but I think that that stance might be informing the switch in Europe, and perhaps in the US as well. I do know that I was raised to consider Mexican's as less than USAin's unconsciously, but not explicitly, given that it was Ohio and it was more of a joke than an issue for most people.

When I worked in Romania on a dairy, there were no shortage of skilled workers. I was there because it was Christmas and it was an orphanage and I was "helping", which, mostly meant I built a wall and went to church twice a day. It was pretty fantastic, because I got to experience the Christmas month of Romania basically with 5 different host families. They didn't need the equipment because each family had 10+ children that were all training to support the community and the dairy, while the dairy and community supported them.

I'm pretty sure that the biggest detractor in jobs has been the construction of mega dairies. Family farms are more manageable and are less likely to cause catastrophic environmental damage. Big farms can absorb costs that small farms can't. Huge dairies push surplus amounts of dairy onto the market and also have immense power because of their economic reach. They do hire lots of workers, but it isn't the same as if they were all independent owners.

It isn't the same culture. You get rid of small dairies and you get rid of cow shows, of the kids who fall in love with cows because everyone else has family in it too.

I go to school in the NW USA and a lot of the kids I go to school with love farms, wanna work on them and are of the hippie persuasion, and some of them can make it work because they find the organic niche, or the permaculture niche or the artisinal cheese niche. Most drop it after a few years though. It's a hard life to get into unless you have the community to support it, and that is fairly rare outside of WOOFing. Like I said, it just isn't the same culture.

Also, one thing to keep in mind is that anythings that stops the suicides, anything that gives a little more hope to the farmers, I'm for. I think it was this article that struck a strong chord in me. I mean. That is my Dad they are talking about, and that article is...accurate. I cry every time I read it, because I see the men that I've talked to, just...dying. They are some of the toughest and most independent and resourceful people I know that can do just about any damned thing you want them to, but they can't save the farm.

When I was born, my mother became allergic to cow dander. She couldn't sleep in the same bed as he was, and their whole life plans changed. They couldn't work the farm together anymore.

They kept on.
Mom eventually was able to stand him enough to sleep next to him after a few months.

Dad was a partner with his brother and father. They lost over 3/4 of the 150 head herd in one year due to a bad load of silage.

They kept on.
It broke them apart, and they never trusted each other again until they broke up the farm 3 years ago. They still don't like each other, but now they are beginning to be able to trust again.

It's hard being a farmer.
It's only going to get harder.
posted by burntbook at 1:15 AM on April 24 [14 favorites]


Well, I can't undercut anybody's story of personal hardship in farming. I understand it's a terribly difficult way of life, and unforgiving of errors or just plain bad luck, and only likely to get more so. Of course if you have family who does it, you want for them any innovation that will make their lives easier or more certain.

I have actually spent a little time in a milking barn, in upstate NY (Strzelec's in Cuba NY) but not since I was very young.

I'm sure I'm not the first to say 'Hell yeah' to the idea of robots to clean up manure. But I'll say it anyway.

Of course I'm not advocating that we go back to a time when 50% of America is employed in producing food. That's kind of a straw man argument - and even if I were fervently wishing for that, it could never be so again.

Everybody is going to make their own best decision - that's what economics is. A handful of dairy farmers in upstate NY isn't responsible for the end of civilization. But their decisions are not going to be different from, or separate from, those of the family who owns a couple haircutting places, the guy who runs a cab company, the people who run a trucking company, the people who manage the county's libraries, the people running pizza joints and fast-food restaurants downtown.

People saying 'oh well for two hundred years we've been automating and I still have a job' are missing the point that man's capacity to do work, and learn to do new kinds of work, is relatively fixed, and the abilities of the machines we make are growing exponentially (whether or not you agree with Mr. Ray Kurzweil.) The abilities of the machines are only going to get better faster and faster. We should be thinking now about what the long-run outcomes of that are going to be.
posted by newdaddy at 4:15 AM on April 24 [4 favorites]


One of the constituents has a reaction.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:08 AM on April 24


Again, I do not see why there's any sort of line from "Automation is destroying jobs which aren't being replaced" to "Automation should be banned."

This isn't going to be stopped - and milking cows for a living isn't a really great job anyway. But what exactly is going to happen to these jobs?

The claim "we've had an unemployment rate at about 5% for more than a decade" - this isn't true. Moreover, as is well known, even those Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers are cooked, because they exclude people who have simply given up looking for jobs, and they exclude people who are underemployed.

> Where are all the jobs going? Into services, health, all over the place. Please don't try to say these aren't "real" jobs.

Telling us not to say something isn't any sort of argument. A large number of service jobs are crappy jobs - jobs without benefits, jobs which pay badly, jobs with no security or unionization, jobs without a future. The job categories that are expanding are for the most part the same jobs that are becoming more and more degraded.

It's not "concern trolling" to worry about this - particularly when I see the sorts of jobs that young people - schooled, intelligent, hard-working young people - are getting.

As should be clear to even a casual reader of the comments here, not one person is proposing that automation "be stopped" - if a mechanism to stop it even existed. And why should people be working dumb jobs that can be automated away anyway?

Automation could be used to to make us all affluent. Instead, it has become another part of the massive and systematic transfer of wealth from workers to capital, something which has made your average American considerably less affluent in the last two generations.

Please remember that there was a prolonged period where an American could graduate from high school, go to work in a manufacturing facility, support a family and buy a house on a that income, and retire in comfort. We could still be doing this - the American worker is more productive than ever before, and this is only set to get better as automation takes over - except that all the gains due to this increased productivity have been captured by holders of capital and none by the workers themselves.

As was suggested above and enthusiastically acclaimed by many of us, a guaranteed income would be a splendid way to share the huge amount of wealth that is being created, without trying to stop the inevitable rise of automation. To read our concern and our suggestions, and then to ignore them and repeat, "You're impractical Luddites", is unfair and unreasonable.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:11 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


As should be clear to even a casual reader of the comments here, not one person is proposing that automation "be stopped" - if a mechanism to stop it even existed. And why should people be working dumb jobs that can be automated away anyway?

So what are you even saying then? Automate but complain about it? It's a non-sequitur.

As was suggested above and enthusiastically acclaimed by many of us, a guaranteed income would be a splendid way to share the huge amount of wealth that is being created, without trying to stop the inevitable rise of automation.

Sure, but that's pretty far afield from milking cows. I'm not agreeing or disagreeing with that point so much as saying that it's only barely tangentially related to either dairy farming or automation. There's no huge body of people being unemployed like in the 30's dust bowl here. What we have is farmers unable to hire workers at all or farmers reducing their employment of unskilled people making minimum wage.

all the gains due to this increased productivity have been captured by holders of capital and none by the workers themselves.

In almost any other situation I'd agree with you. But I'm not sure if farmers are a particularly great example of rapacious holders of capital. Besides, regardless of how automated farms are, American farmers have always been big holders of capital: land and livestock. The existence of a few automated milkers is really a very tiny change compared to that. In spite of having significant capital holdings farmers have a very tough row to hoe (ha) and overall tend towards extremely low (if any) profitability. For better or worse, farm-based productivity gains tend to be captured not by the holders of capital but by consumers (in the form of lower food prices) and middle-men (retailers and processors). Such is the nature of being in a commodity business.

This is like complaining how a move towards renewable energy (wind and solar) is putting coal miners out of work. Reduced demand for coal is going to absolutely gut certain American regions where men with low skills make a solid middle-class wage pulling coal out of the ground. It's absolutely problematic. But you know what? I would not have it any other way.
posted by GuyZero at 9:41 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]


>> As was suggested above and enthusiastically acclaimed by many of us, a guaranteed income would be a splendid way to share the huge amount of wealth that is being created, without trying to stop the inevitable rise of automation.

> Sure, but that's pretty far afield from milking cows.

The question is, "How do we fix the consequences of all these jobs lost?"

>> all the gains due to this increased productivity have been captured by holders of capital and none by the workers themselves.

> In almost any other situation I'd agree with you. But I'm not sure if farmers are a particularly great example of rapacious holders of capital.

No one said "rapacious". Some of these capital holders are rapacious, some are not, but the statement, "Automation is allowing holders of capital to take control of an increasingly large portion of our economy" is still true, and this is still an increasing problem, of which "automation of milking" is a perfectly good - and somewhat surprising - example.

> This is like complaining how a move towards renewable energy (wind and solar) is putting coal miners out of work. [...] I would not have it any other way.

The position that you are arguing with is NOT a position anyone on this thread has taken. Not one person has said, "It's a pity that this mindless and poorly-paid form of manual labor is getting automated away."

It's perfectly reasonable to worry about how coal miners who no longer have jobs are going to support themselves, while still being very much against coal mining. Indeed, I'd argue that this is the only ethically responsible position to take for people who are against coal mining.

(Also, renewable energy generation is also quite labor intensive, so some sizable portion of those mining jobs might well be replaced with jobs in renewable energy - but I think comparatively few farmhands are going to go into robotics...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:57 AM on April 24 [2 favorites]


There's no huge body of people being unemployed like in the 30's dust bowl here. What we have is farmers unable to hire workers at all or farmers reducing their employment of unskilled people making minimum wage.

Let me agree with everything Lupus_Yonderboy said above and again suggest that milking cows is just one of many examples. I can't tell if you're intentionally ignoring the larger point, or if this is just a failure of imagination. In the last six months I've seen articles about robots that make hamburgers, robots that bus tables, robots that weed rows of vegetables. I've read about AIs that do routine legal research, do routine actuarial tasks, make and prove mathematical theorems, make chemistry theorems and then test them experimentally in a lab. Robots that clean gutters, robots that clean out pools, robots that clean exterior windows. Robots that drive cars and trucks long-haul are being prepped. You keep wanting to defend the automation of individual jobs. We're asking you to consider the long-term effects over large swathes of the economy.
posted by newdaddy at 2:27 PM on April 24


And every time some brings up the historical precedent of wide-ranging automation it's summarily dismissed. There is zero reason to believe the changes you list are any different from the introduction of tractors or cotton gins or the industrial production of butter instead of hand-churning it.

We've reduced the size of the agricultural labour force by orders of magnitude and people are still employed. We've auomated vast number of clerical jobs (they invented phones before they invented computers to calculate phone bills) and yet people are still employed. There is no proof that the types of automation you describe lead in any way to permanently increased unemployment. While unemployment has risen in the last few years, it's not even at a historical high. I mean, here's the actual data. That doesn't even go back to the great depression. There's less than no relation with major breakthroughs in automation or productivity increases. Employment rates are tied to overall economic factors. Was it automation that caused high levels of unemployment in 1982? No. The economy is cyclic. Let me go consult my animal spirits. But there have been no corresponding huge waves of productivity increases - it has increased steadily and slowly over time. Here's US productivity numbers. It won't let me link to a version covering a wider period of time, but productivity changes are pretty much noise with a slight bias above zero. You can pull the start back to 1947. There's no relation whatsoever to unemployment.

I have sympathy for individual farmhands that might be laid off due to automation. But it's not a far-ranging societal problem beyond the general issue of wanting to minimize unemployment.

We're asking you to consider the long-term effects over large swathes of the economy.

It makes the economy more awesome and that's the #1 thing you can do to lower unemployment.
posted by GuyZero at 2:47 PM on April 24 [1 favorite]


Sorry, my espirit d'escalier at work...

You keep wanting to defend the automation of individual jobs.

You keep wanting to vaguely say it's negative. Yet you've provided neither evidence nor an alternative.
posted by GuyZero at 2:50 PM on April 24 [1 favorite]


Again, I do not see why there's any sort of line from "Automation is destroying jobs which aren't being replaced" to "Automation should be banned." And yet this is the logical conclusion of what you're saying.

The claim "we've had an unemployment rate at about 5% for more than a decade" - this isn't true.

Yes it is, for some countries that are automating every bit as much as the USA.

Moreover, as is well known, even those Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers are cooked, because they exclude people who have simply given up looking for jobs, and they exclude people who are underemployed.

This is the territory of conspiracy theorists. Labour force participation rates are measured, and are the same as they've ever been.

A large number of service jobs are crappy jobs - jobs without benefits, jobs which pay badly, jobs with no security or unionization, jobs without a future. The job categories that are expanding are for the most part the same jobs that are becoming more and more degraded. That has nothing to do with automation, more with how fucked up your country is. The jobs that are being automated are shit dead end jobs at least as much as service industry jobs.

As should be clear to even a casual reader of the comments here, not one person is proposing that automation "be stopped" - if a mechanism to stop it even existed. And yet, that's exactly what you're saying.

And why should people be working dumb jobs that can be automated away anyway?

Automation could be used to to make us all affluent. Instead, it has become another part of the massive and systematic transfer of wealth from workers to capital, something which has made your average American considerably less affluent in the last two generations.


That's all about your country's dumb politics and taxes, nothing to do with automation. Most countries have had real increases in wealth across all income deciles the past three decades, yet have been automating just as much as the USA.

Please remember that there was a prolonged period where an American could graduate from high school, go to work in a manufacturing facility, support a family and buy a house on a that income, and retire in comfort. We could still be doing this - the American worker is more productive than ever before, and this is only set to get better as automation takes over - except that all the gains due to this increased productivity have been captured by holders of capital and none by the workers themselves.

Again, nothing to do with automation.

As was suggested above and enthusiastically acclaimed by many of us, a guaranteed income would be a splendid way to share the huge amount of wealth that is being created, without trying to stop the inevitable rise of automation. To read our concern and our suggestions, and then to ignore them and repeat, "You're impractical Luddites", is unfair and unreasonable.

Well you're not a luddite, you're merely confusing two entirely separate matters, being automation and regressive taxation schemes.
posted by wilful at 4:24 PM on April 24 [5 favorites]


Agriculture is always going to be a special case, because it was the first industry in which the means of production really mattered. Hunter gatherers also need the territory, but they're far more mobile than farmers. They can take their weapons and tools and move somewhere else fairly easily. With farming, you quickly get to a point where the land starts to be highly regulated, with titles, fences, etc.

Agriculture is also special because of the basic and constant human need for food and the perishable nature of its products.

And now we get to this strange situation, where in most of the world the family farm is still the norm, but where automation and mechanization are reaching a point where it's almost impossible for a family farm to be profitable, because the investment is just too large.

My own family was pretty lucky, as they profited from the postwar boom and the quota system: my younger maternal grandfather sold his farm outside the family and retired comfortably, while my paternal grandfather sold to my uncle and retired less comfortably, but was still able to have a decent quality of life. My uncle did well for himself; he helped bring a cheese factory to the area and formed a cooperative to revive the failing local dairy. But now his son and his peers are having trouble keeping dairy farming viable in the area, because it's almost impossible to start a new dairy farm, since the quota is so expensive. As older farmers retire and close their farms, the number of remaining farmer becomes so small that it becomes hard to support the required infrastructure: a full-time veterinarian, a milk truck, etc. To be really profitable, the farms would need to grow, but it's hard to attract qualified labour in a small remote town outside of the main farming regions.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 4:36 PM on April 24 [3 favorites]


Yet, for all the talk of automation no one has figured out how to replace the cows as a food source.....in the meantime I am convinced that humans can and will adapt.
posted by OhSusannah at 7:25 PM on April 24


What I'm reading above is that the past is this way, with people displaced by automation rapidly being retrained and re-employed; therefore, the future must be this way also.

What's that little incantation they say in stock or mutual fund prospecti? Past performance is not an indicator of ... I forget the rest of it. But I think it's a logical fallacy to believe that because it happened one way in the past, it must happen that way in the future. One thing that is certain is that the future will be different from the past.

I'll try one more example and then abandon this thread. IBM is trying now to get their Watson project to make medical diagnoses and so on, ostensibly as an aid to doctors. This is happening right now. Does anybody believe that if they're successful they won't try to reap profits by actually replacing doctors with this technology, wherever they can?
posted by newdaddy at 11:40 PM on April 24


That's actually a really interesting discussion about technology and medicine, newdaddy. There still are not enough doctors and nurses to meet total health needs (map of doctors per population) in most countries, even developed countries. I'm in Singapore which has a lot of doctors, but we're importing nurses and doctors to meet growing demand as our population ages, and there is not enough manpower to do the kind of total healthcare that's optimal (preventive, community-based, conferencing to co-ordinate on complex cases, rehab etc).

You'd need some kind of humanoid android to do a lot of the social stuff that medical staff do, and at that point, you'd be looking at an AI indistinguishable from human intelligence. You'd also need something that could do the physical primate stuff of medicine - nurses especially are significant in their physical caring for patients.

Very specific narrow things - making a diagnosis from the correctly supplied information, correctly identifying drug interactions - can be and probably should be automated, just like now a machine breathed for my daughter when she was born, instead of two decades ago when nurses would have taken shifts to pump her air in and out manually (and still did when she was wheeled into surgery briefly!) while monitoring her signs. But the administration of medicine is so complex you would need humans to administer it, and also - just as farming deals with living animals - humans still need a human touch in there, even as the face explaining the computerised instructions to a patient.

I think you see this a zero sum game where more for robots and their owners is less for everyone else. But medicine and farming are two industries were more will almost certainly mean more for everyone.

I would love to live in a world where robot doctors meant kids in a remote province in Cambodia can get a diagnosis by an AI run on satellite and have treatment brought over by drone from the city hospital and administered by a local nurse, than have that kid being brought by motorbike six hours to a clinic, then another six hours to the city hospital, already jammed with hundreds of seriously ill children from the provinces.
posted by viggorlijah at 12:04 AM on April 25 [1 favorite]


Labor Force Participation Rate in case people want to look at the raw data. I think this avoids all the "discouraged worker" nonsense that's in the normal U3 metric. The data set goes from Jan 1948 (58.6% participation) to Mar 2014 (63.2% participation). Certainly it seems fairly bounded between 57.5% and 67.5% for as long as the statistics go back. Not that a 10% of the population swing is nothing but it's also hardly apocalyptic either.
posted by Skorgu at 11:22 AM on April 25 [2 favorites]


IBM is trying now to get their Watson project to make medical diagnoses and so on, ostensibly as an aid to doctors. This is happening right now. Does anybody believe that if they're successful they won't try to reap profits by actually replacing doctors with this technology, wherever they can?

I want them to try with all their might. I expect there will still be an open-ended demand for human doctors as there is today, regardless of the number of robot doctors.
posted by GuyZero at 11:29 AM on April 25 [1 favorite]


Agreed, GuyZero.

Over a decade ago a computer program was tested that took as inputs the complaints and pertinent measurements of a patient, and spit out a diagnosis. A study was run in a hospital, where the physician's actual diagnoses were tracked, including corrections, and the computer's diagnoses were tracked without being consulted. At the end of the study the computer vastly, overwhelmingly outperformed the doctors at making correct diagnoses (based on the final diagnosis).

I've seen stupid, poorly-trained doctors; the advice of one nearly killed me. I'd be happier with a program than a crapshot choice of docs (which you get at the 24-hr clinics, except those are biased towards terrible). And I'd be happiest with my choice of doctor, advised by a clinical diagnosis program.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:33 PM on April 28


eemeli: Manure collecting robots exist. And in a modern dairy farm, they're so much a part of the whole deal I didn't even consciously realise this until the next day. Even in the NYT piece, they're only mentioned as an aside (around 1:30). But really, we're talking about an industrial Roomba for cow shit. That's my best proof so far that we're living in the future.

Simpler than that, there is a design for a pig sty next to the kitchen in small houses (think India, not Richmond, IN, where those pigs are already housed next to the house). The manure is slid into a slot at the back, and covered. The escaping methane travels up a PVC pipe to a plastic bag on the ceiling, which is then tapped for fuel for a small cookstove. The pigs are separated from the house by an impervious cement wall, BTW, improving sanitation tremendously.

Again, the horrifying monster that designed this system has failed to explain what jobs are going to be provided for all of the children who previously risked going into the pig pens to shovel the manure away... not to mention all the natural gas company employees put out of business by this "automation" of gas collection.

--

Really, in this thread we're being asked to explain exactly what the former milk-collection-tube-movers are going to do for a living. That's not a joke reading; that's exactly what the problem is to those in this thread who, comically, have accused me of being Republican because I don't think preserving the milk-collection-tube-moving jobs is important.

OK, I'll tell you. They'll work at Walmart. Same pay, cleaner job, lower on-the-job mortality, same benefits.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:48 PM on April 28


Gah! Nobody's accusing anyone of being Republican. Heaven forbid.

What I want to say is that in a generation, A LOT of different categories of existing jobs are going to be within the reach of robots, AI, and automation. Sure there will be lot of efforts to retrain people, to find new kinds of jobs created by new technologies. But at some point down the line, the process of automating jobs is going to start happening faster than it takes humans to train up and be proficient on those jobs. That's a difference in kind rather than a difference in degree.

I can't tell if people in this thread are not understanding this, or just intentionally ignoring what I'm saying. I admit its kind of a digression from talk of udders and manure. But basically robots are going to be just great until the moment they come for YOUR job. Do you really feel like what you do is so unique and complex that they'll never ever make a machine smart enough to do it? Do you just not think about anything that's beyond the horizon of your own retirement (cough cough, global warming cough)?

This is all pretty close to the argument that Alvin Toffler made in his book FUTURE SHOCK, which is starting to look pretty prescient now. What should I encourage my 8- and 5-year-old kids to be when they grow up, knowing that a lot of things that were considered 'good' jobs a generation ago (lawyering, doctoring, engineering, science) are going to be among the biggest fattest targets for automating?
posted by newdaddy at 9:11 AM on April 29


This is all pretty close to the argument that Alvin Toffler made in his book FUTURE SHOCK

I am seriously not ignoring any possibilities nor am I not understanding what you're saying.

Let me compare Toffler to another famous futurist, The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus. He wrote a little thing called An Essay on the Principle of Population where he predicted that overpopulation would cause famine and disease. And he makes really good arguments.

But guess what? He was wrong. People are pretty smart, the future is generally better and not worse and everyone has incentives to solve the actual problems of the future.

That's a difference in kind rather than a difference in degree.

Meh. Historically people saying that have either been wrong or the difference in kind has been a net positive.

But basically robots are going to be just great until the moment they come for YOUR job.

Please send robots to do my job. I'm not even kidding. My job description is literally to automate whatever it is I do until there's nothing left to automate. It's not happening as fast as my company would like.

What should I encourage my 8- and 5-year-old kids to be when they grow up, knowing that a lot of things that were considered 'good' jobs a generation ago (lawyering, doctoring, engineering, science) are going to be among the biggest fattest targets for automating?

Anything they want. It's still a big world. But I suppose if you want to be really future-proof, probably people who design and repair robots.
posted by GuyZero at 11:34 AM on April 29 [1 favorite]


GuyZero: Gah! Nobody's accusing anyone of being Republican.


Ignoring consequences for the people on the lowest rung of the economic ladder is the very definition of Republican... :-)

posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:58 PM

posted by IAmBroom at 2:11 PM on April 29


Robots taking jobs - Slate. Man, I would like to see this whole discussion in a new FPP because this has turned out to be one of my favourite thoughtful threads.
posted by viggorlijah at 10:36 PM on May 4


Well, I got the inside scoop on the recently-robot-ified farm in my family, if anyone's interested in some anecdata.

Apparently their system was to have family members do the morning milking, and hired hands do the afternoon milking. The hired hands in question were a pair of 60-plus bachelor farmer brothers who had been working there for 20 years, and when they decided to retire from milking out this year my cousin couldn't find anyone at the price he had been paying. (Except undocumented immigrants, which he'd never hired before and wasn't willing to start.)

So they spent $1.5 million on the robot.
posted by gerstle at 5:29 AM on May 6 [3 favorites]


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