The most recent scary news about robots replacing humans reports imminent, perhaps massive loss of “jobs of last resort” for the sinking, underemployed and unemployed middle class: jobs in the low-paid service industry.
Given increasing robot capabilities, (other) unskilled repetitive work is also likely to become harder to find. A March 26, 2013 CNBC-posted Fiscal Times article, “The Robot Reality: Service Jobs Are Next to Go”, by Blaire Brody, describes the capacities and deployment of the Rethink Robotics $22,000 “Baxter”, a service robot with, among other things, assembly-line skills.
Brody reports, “This April, Rethink will launch a software platform that will allow Baxter to do a more complex sequencing of tasks—for example, picking up a part, holding it in front of an inspection station and receiving a signal to place it in a ‘good’ or ‘not good’ pile. The company is also releasing a software development kit soon that will allow third parties—like university robotics researchers—to create applications for Baxter.”
Baxter has company—and it’s not human: Brody goes on to report, “The University of California at Berkeley has a robot that can do laundry and fold T-shirts. Robot servers have started waiting tables at restaurants in Japan, South Korea, China and Thailand—and just last week, a robot served Passover matzah to President Obama during his trip to Israel.”
Not Necessarily Bad…Maybe
The article rightly points out that this news isn’t necessarily bad, and suggests that spin-off industries may spring up in tandem with sprouting robots.
For example (mine), computers and iPhones have terminated some entertainment-industry jobs, e.g., those at many video shops, now that Netflix and other online movie marketers offer unlimited viewing at home for the price of one evening’s worth of rentals (minus the time and transportation costs of going to pick up and return the videos).
But they have also created entirely new, previously unimagined ones, e.g., designing computer software, retailing computers and providing online tech support.
The same pattern is in the offing where not already fully emerged for the robotics industries: robot maintenance, robot apps, robotic design, robot marketing, robot-liability insurance products—to barely tap the tip of an ever-expanding steelberg.
But what is unclear is how many “good” jobs, i.e., high-skilled, well-paid and secure jobs, will be created and in what proportion vis-à-vis low-paid, low-skill, dull ones.
Brody reports that the tech job “boom” at the likes of Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google has created only 190,000 jobs, as compared with the millions of low-level service jobs created in the wake of the de-manufacturing of the U.S., a sector that has reportedly lost nearly 6 million jobs since 2000. What remains to be seen is what the mixed results will be.
Hence, the great uncertainty is whether, in the jobs ledger, the number and quality of jobs displaced will be offset by new, comparable, maybe even better jobs, or whether there will be net elimination of jobs, possibly in the form and on the scale of total elimination of jobs for countless humans unable to move up or down the robotized job ladder in an increasingly robotized and otherwise automated economy.
Replaced, or Re-Placed?
Given this unfolding robot revolution, it becomes critical to ask whether and how humans replaced or re-placed (relocated to a new job) by robots and forced to “reboot” after being “robooted—to coin a term, i.e., booted out of a job by a robot, which forces humans to reboot or suffer the consequences, will survive economically or indeed survive at all.
This latter question of sheer physical survival is not mere hyperbole or cribbing of a “Terminator” script. Human-hunting or otherwise berserk robots aside, it is not foolish to consider what happens when, in an ever-expanding population of mouths to feed, many of those mouths are attached to permanently unproductive hands—hands and eventually brains that cannot match the performance of their gleaming robot replacements.
The Utopian “Idle Idyll” and Dystopian “Apocalypse Equation” Scenarios
The utopian, hopeful answer is the mantra of “increased productivity”: If the robots are productive enough or spawn and spin off highly productive jobs; if other advances in technology, recycling, energy renewal, etc., are marked enough, life as we know it will be transcended by an age of broad leisure for more and more of us—perhaps most of us.
Everybody eats, even if in the extreme nobody works—except the robots. This is the “idle idyll”.
Against that is the horrifying dystopian vision of an overpopulated planet, declining and exhausted ecosystems, dwindling resources, etc., bursting with Petri-dish concentrations of jostling humans, scrambling like so many bacteria for more and more of less and less.
When robots that don’t pollute, eat, breed, strike or get sick become ubiquitous and irresistibly attractive (for economic, environmental and even aesthetic reasons), over-abundant humans will become something worse: superfluous and burdensome.
That’s the point at which what has been called the “apocalypse equation” (which allegedly correlates peak oil with peak population and inevitable, necessary forced, massive and abrupt declines in both) may kick in—and the “human herd” gets “culled”.
Especially targeted might be those that the Fabian Socialist, eugenicist and playwright George Bernard Shaw (in a shocking film clip) saw fit to eliminate as “unfit” if they consume more than they produce, and therefore unable “to justify their existence”(as if producing or writing plays counts more than or even as much as producing potatoes).
Rebooting a Robooted Career
However, assuming that human ingenuity, grit, resilience and luck at least, but at most only partially offset human folly, it may be reasonable to expect that reality will evolve into something intermediate—somewhere between the utopian idle idyll and the dystopian apocalyptic nightmare.
In that case, the main survival challenge will become merely economic—but nonetheless daunting, in the face(s) of legions of high-performance humanoid and other robots.
So, what should one do to “reboot” a career that’s been robooted?
Think ahead and logically: If your job can be automated or robotized, think of the logically predictable jobs that your robot replacement will generate—especially jobs already within your skill set. If the signs indicated that a robot were about to take my job as a writer, I’d look into the prospects for robot-generated-text editing jobs.
If recruiting were to become fully automated or robotized, what would be the likely spin-off support jobs? Perhaps robot-applicant interface or dispute resolution expert. Hence, a course and credential in (robot) conflict management and negotiation would make sense.
If it’s burger flipping that’s being automated, the smart cook will look for work in a small mom-and-pop that cannot afford the initial outlay for or ongoing expense of a robot.
Putting this point more generally, if your job in a big cash-flush company were about to be robotized, you’d be smart to think ahead and logically—and seek out small-cap start-ups or otherwise cash-poor enterprises that can afford to pay you, but not buy or even lease the available robots.
(However, the ingenuity of financial services designers, attractive robot leasing schemes, zero interest payments for a year, robot cost-cutting and competition as demand expands, etc., may blunt whatever edge a human may temporarily have in bidding for the job.)
Think small: As the foregoing suggests, if robotic replacement/re-placement is on your horizon, target same-sector enterprises that are small or otherwise unable to afford the upfront investment required to go robotic. Generally speaking, a business that is in no position to enjoy “economies of scale”—diminishing fixed or variable costs with expansion of supply or demand—may be a good candidate.
That’s because expanded capacity or demand created by the use of robots can make them pay for themselves and drive down marginal production costs. To the extent that investment in a robot represents a fixed cost (irrespective of how much business revenue it eventually generates), enterprises with little chance of expansion to cover that cost would be worth looking at closely, e.g., start-ups and (hi-tech) mom-and-pops.
Think human: If your core job were to be robotized, it would be wise to dig deep into your skill set to find something that your company or a similar one can utilize but that a robot can’t do (yet).
If the robot that is replacing a sales rep is unable to cope with German or Farsi input, it would be smart for the rep with such language skills to repackage himself or herself as a sales translator and intermediary between the customer and the robot. (Of course, technological evolution having evolved into constant revolution, that kind of human edge may be short-lived, requiring humans to constantly re-invent themselves professionally and to find or create yet another human edge.)
Think techno-upgrade: If you won’t be able to beat the robots, you may have to consider trying to join them—e.g., by getting cyborg implants—for example, memory chips or super-capacity numerical analytical modules that will make your performance competitive.
Look for companies entering this market, buy their stock, go long. Even if you don’t get the implants, you may make enough on the stock to not need a replacement job.
Think quaint or organic: When, not if, robots massively displace human workers on a scale as yet unseen, not only will countless jobs be lost, but also, for at least the short term, many customers and clients will vanish—appalled at the “dehumanization”, “mechanization” and generally alien-ness of robot-human interactions.
Therefore, there may be a window of opportunity for boutique nostalgia enterprises featuring human-human interaction—the traditional, organic and increasingly quaint way.
The psychology underlying this hankering for “the old ways” is very similar to the motivations that drive craft tourism—visiting low-tech, old-tech shops along well-traveled tour routes and in tourist-trap holiday destinations, e.g., those featuring looms, pottery wheels, yoked water buffaloes or kitschy handicrafts.
Among both the anti-robot and craft clientele there will be those who are resistant to change—especially resistant to shifts to complex, suspect and complicated technologies that make them feel stupid, ignorant, inept or threatened.
Over time, their numbers will dwindle as they either die off or accommodate the changes. But, until that happens, it may be possible to work for or create “no-bot”, “bot-free” businesses and thrive, just like an organic food restaurant. They’ll thank you for it and for the “you’re welcome” that comes from the heart rather than the hardware.
But, what if none of this works—if there is no work to be found or created as a replacement for the job from which a human has been robooted, what is that human to do?
Especially crucial is the answer to the question of what to do if the awful dystopian scenario comes to pass, with each robot worth more than an expendable or ecologically unjustifiable human life (that it may or may not snuff out, Terminator-style).
In that case, there will be only one thing for us to do.
Disguise ourselves as robots.