Let the Robots Take the Easy Stuff


Robert Atkinson offered a worth-reading defense of “why we should not reject technology in order to ‘protect’ workers” in the latest National Review.  The following paragraph hits on a key point, but without closing the circle.  Regarding studies of the calamitous effect of automation, Atkinson writes:

The only problem is that their methodology produces nonsense. How exactly are robots going to send fashion models, manicurists and pedicurists, carpet installers, and barbers the way of the buggy-whip maker, as they suggest? Versace is not going dress up a sexy robot in a $3,000 dress and parade “her” down the runway, nor will we inhabit a Jetsons world where you sit down in the robot chair and get your hair cut automatically. When the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, of which I am president, analyzed these 702 occupations manually, using a very generous assumption about how technology could eliminate jobs, we estimated that at most about 10 percent of jobs were at risk of automation. Instead of fretting about technology killing jobs, we should be worrying about how we are going to raise productivity-growth rates, which have been at all-time lows over the last decade….

One reason why so many pundits overestimate the impact that technology will have on work is probably that few are really familiar with what goes on in many occupations. They think: How hard can it be for a robot to install carpets? As someone who has actually installed carpets, I can tell you that the movements and subtle adjustments that are involved amount to a prohibitively hard math problem, not a task that even the most expensive advanced robot could be designed to do with any reliability.

I heard on the radio, yesterday, that self-driving cars have a hard time with left turns, particularly when faced with traffic and predicting what other drivers will do.  As with the example of carpet installation, self-driving cars pull toward a requirement of limiting options.  If computers can’t predict the erratic behavior of people, then force everybody to automate their cars.

If you want automated carpet installation, the other factors that affect the job must be more standardized.  As a tradesman, myself, I can tell you that those issues pile up quickly through your blueprints.  Particularly in renovation, but also in new construction, a requirement for a particular room to meeting the specifications of a machine carpet installer could dictate not only the details of that room, but where it can be placed in the structure and what options exist for the basement below and the floors above, or even the roof.  Maybe the only way to get an air duct up to the second floor is to bump out a wall in a unique way.  These are the challenges that make construction fun, rather than always tedious.

And to the extent that automation can eliminate the tedious work, very often the homeowner will take that as an opportunity to do something fancier with another part of the project, or use the money for some other purpose that relies on work and jobs, or investment.  This is the flow of the economy, and protecting those who benefit from inefficiencies implicitly restricts opportunities for all of us.  As long as we don’t let government pick and choose what can be automated or, on the other side, take away our freedoms (as to drive) in order to enable people who want to automate to do so, the economy will work itself out.

  • BasicCaruso

    Issues affecting carpet installation pile up, eh? _insert rimshot_

  • BasicCaruso

    btw, recommend reading Jeremy Rifkin on the subject. Fascinating book btw (“The End of Work”). Sure, maybe carpet installers will still have employment, but where do all the people go who are displaced? That’s a lot of additional carpet that would have to be installed somewhere.

    A lot of politicians in Europe and America say, gee, the jobs are going to China — if only we could get the manufacturing jobs back, we would have jobs. What they don’t know is that China has eliminated 15 percent of all its factory workers in seven years. Forever. They don’t exist. This is the story no one wants to talk about: the cheapest Chinese workers, and they’re pretty cheap, are not as cheap as the intelligent technology replacing them. Fourteen percent of all the factory workers in the whole world have disappeared in the last seven years . At this current projected rate, even if you don’t increase the intelligent technology (in other words, let’s say there’s no Moore’s Law here) and things just keep going as they are, then you end mass factory labor within 30 years…

    Even if you retrained the entire workforce of Europe so that they would be qualified for these high-tech jobs, there would never be enough work in this sector to absorb mass labor. That’s true all over the world. If you listen to the center left, then all you have to do is protect people against unfair competition. But that’s no answer given that these jobs are disappearing forever.

    • Mike678

      Forever is a strong word…and should be used sparingly. Additionally, taking a trend and projecting it out is foolish–too many unknown / unexpected variables intervene as time goes on. It’s a mistake the so-called climate scientists make–and they wonder why their models and predictions aren’t worth the paper they are printed on.
      As for Moore’s law: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/601441/moores-law-is-dead-now-what/.

      That said, your main point–and Justin’s–are valid. Unskilled labor jobs are being automated–what do we do with the ‘excess’ supply? Do we go back to maids, butlers and man servants? Institute the dole? Have a “one child policy” like China had –and then face the demographic challenges they now face?
      Interesting times….

  • Rhett Hardwick

    “Carpet installers”, who knows? I await the development of better sensors.
    But, If I was a cashier, or worked in data entry, I would be worried. Today’s news includes a robot that can pick apples. When agriculture is “roboticized” (as is happening in Japan) what will we do with all of those low skill “undocumented workers” doing the jobs that “Americans won’t do”? Time will tell. Without “mechanization” we wouldn’t presently have the crops requiring all of those “undocumented workers”. Australia has a machine that will build brick houses. Germany has one that lays brick sidewalks. “High tech” has finally reached “low tech”.
    as ti Justin’s commments, I suspect that we will fin ourselves living in more “uniform” houses. Sort of the way that hundreds of thousands of Levittown “Capes” spring up after WWII.