Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Robots or Jobs

Perhaps you saw the "60 Minutes" segment last week entitled"Are Robots hurting job growth." It was an eye opener for me and it showed the sudden inroads of robots into the American economy. Most of us are aware  auto manufacturing uses robots  but I was unaware of the capabilities of the new robots with eyes(video cameras) and brains(Artificial Intelligence) and phenomenal hand eye coordination, so to speak. Philips Electronics recently moved its shaver assembly business from China back home to the Netherlands. A lot of Chinese jobs were lost but few Dutch ones were created. Watching the speed and dexterity of the shaver assembly robots  made me realize that these new robots were not your father's Oldsmobile.Some of the robots in the new Tesla factory in California can even multitask. They are particularly adept at managing,  transporting  and shipping inventory in distribution centers but their capabilities extend beyond manufacturing and assembly line jobs to information gathering technology and health care. A hospital in California has a fleet of them that deliver patient supplies, meals, lab tests and even fill prescriptions! They are increasingly used in in industrial agriculture in packaging and shipping and it takes no imagination at all to conjure up jobs and even professions that can be outsourced to robots.70 % of Stock  transactions are computerized HFT robotic trades, if you will. Who needs airline pilots? The planes can takeoff and land unassisted already, which are tasks much less complicated than the Google self driving car in traffic. The new Boeing 787 is entirely electric, no hydraulic pilot controls, a perfect fit for Cap'n Robot. Other examples that come to mind  are Amazon, UPS?FedEx, fast food preparation, big box store stocking and receiving and in my field, performing certain types of  surgery and surgery assist. I recently had  prostate surgery performed by the Da Vinci Robot. It turned out fine. I'm alive to blog again.  60 Minutes asked two MIT professors whether robots killed jobs and their answer :"That's the $64000 question." They proceeded to answer it in the affirmative.
      In the recent past,  economists have stated that technology kills old jobs and creates new ones by increasing so called aggregate demand as a result of increasing productivity and falling prices. But this seems to have ceased with robots who are fast replacing wage slaves with robotic slaves who can work 24/7, don't complain or unionize, don't need pensions or healthcare or get injured and require disability settlements. If you're a corporate CEO who cares only about the bottom line and getting rich off slavery, what's not to like? OF course the real $64,000 question wasn't asked: What happens when all work is done by robots?  There are  obviously profound societal and economic implications but that's TV journalism for you. It isn't called the boob tube for nothing. The show did not go unnoticed by the Robotics industry who have filled the internet with rebuttals asserting that technology and robots create jobs.Right.Some recent political figures remind me of robots. Like that guy who ran against that other Hawaiian/Kenyan fella? If he wasn't a robot I'll eat my Vise Grips. I'm digressing..... One of the main themes I hammer repeatedly in this blog is that the reader or viewer must always remember the role of bias in any argument so absent irrefutable supporting evidence, I will regard such industry rebuttals as suspect. I also find it curious that no political figures have stepped up either supporting or decrying robots. With 9% approval, perhaps the Congress fears wholesale replacement by robots. Robotic replacement of  some of the workforce has profound implications for the world and the paucity of articles and news on the subject is disturbing. I can think of dozens of questions? Do robots pay taxes? Specifically payroll (Social Security!)taxes? Income taxes, sales taxes, VAT?  Like all slaves, I assume that to be a negative. Slaves also don't consume or purchase the fruits of their labor. If our workers are robots, who will buy those shavers and Teslas.? If the US is returning to manufacturing using robots, wont China and other countries be doing the same? Jobs returning to the US? Don't bet on it. Robotics  is globalized and the Tesla robots for example are made in Germany.. Terry Gou, the CEO of Foxconn who is notorious for his electronics sweat shops making Apple products has announced that he has already purchased robots and plans to replace a million workers with a million robots within 3 years! He currently employs 1.2 million low wage Chinese workers. AS of 2011 I read that China already has 75000 robots and we know that Chinese engineers should have little trouble designing or pirating and manufacturing a robotic workforce under their totalitarian capitalistic system. Just tell those million peasants to return to their villages. No problem. The whole  dismal dictionary of the dismal science may need rewriting and rethinking. Let's start with capital and labor. What are robots?  Capital or labor? The industrial revolution was about machine tools replacing hand tools, with machines doing the work formerly done by people but until now machines had not had the potential to replace most or all of the labor force. Of course like any good slave labor force you will need overseers and guards and perhaps even mechanics to repair and maintain the robots but it would seem that even those jobs could be outsourced to robots. It would seem obvious that the displaced workers just might not take all this lying down. Income disparity is already vast and  keep in mind that a slave labor force collects no wages and pays no taxes. All the money will be returned to just a few company elites and their investors and the banks. What will we non robots do if robots have all the jobs except for a few engineers who design and oversee robots? Watch NASCAR? College football? Who needs thousands of colleges preparing students for jobs when there aren't many jobs? I don't read much sci-fi but it seems  the only way to imagine such a future. My guess is that we have here a recipe for revolution what with all those semi automatic weapons and 30 round clips being snapped up at Wallmart. It would seem a good time to look at the Luddite Revolution  2 centuries  back in an upcoming blog.

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