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Robots in, workers out?

May 29, 2014

Amazon currently uses one thousand robots in its fulfillment centers. It plans to deploy ten thousand by year end. Even if that doesn’t affect Amazon’s current rate of hiring, as the article claims, it still signals an end to one kind of manual work that often served as an entry to the labor force for the young and strong.

Beginning September, California will license driverless cars for test purposes. Google has made some early prototypes, and posted a video. I would not be surprised if, in fifteen years, cab drivers and truckers are about as common as typesetters and coopers. Which is good, in many ways. Automated vehicles will revolutionize everything from how parents schedule their children’s activities to urban geography. Regularly driving across the Eagle Ford shale, I will feel safer knowing those fracking trucks are under the cool control of an embedded system, rather than some 20 year-old guy who has worked 80 hours this past week. But…there goes another way for a 20 year-old, whose primary qualification is ambition and human ability, to jump into the workforce and make some money.

Panera is bringing automation kiosks to its restaurants, in order to quicken and ease customer ordering. Cost is only one reason for automation. The are a broad variety of areas where workers, as well as providing some needed function, also interpose some unwanted delay or interaction to the customer. A psychologist might argue that people will suffer from the absence of the personal in commercial transactions, and the incidental surprises it brings. Whether so or not, people generally avoid the bank teller when they can use the web or the ATM. I suspect few will complain when the car that picks them up at the airport lacks a cabbie.

But it’s all good, because retail clerks, dock loaders, and drivers are destined for higher-value work.

We hope. Of these three pieces of automation, the self-driving vehicle is the one that signals a real sea change. Driving was long thought resistant to full automation. Unlike a warehouse, cars are driven in the uncontrolled real world. So driving requires what often has been labeled human judgment. The job loss won’t just be to commercial drivers. There also will be a decline in demand for traffic cops, municipal courts judges and staff, insurance salesmen, ambulance workers, and even some ER physicians. Which is all good. Human judgment driving heavy vehicles exacts a large toll. Taking care of the carnage was never productive in its own right, but the tax we as a society paid for the benefit of driving. Of tasks involving such judgment, driving is the low-hanging fruit, the one with the largest pay-off from automation. An interesting question is: what tasks requiring “human judgment” come next?

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