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Terminator V: The machines want your job.

In a fun change of pace, we’re going to have a post that’s light on arti­cle excerpts and heavy on ranty link­i­ness. That might not actu­al­ly be fun but it’s not like there’s a robot stand­ing over your shoul­der forc­ing you to read this. Yet [1]:

Zero­Hedge has a great recent post filled with reminders that state sov­er­eign­ty move­ments and political/currency unions won’t nec­es­sar­i­ly help close the gap between the haves and have-nots if it’s the wealth­i­est regions that are mov­ing for inde­pen­dence [2]. Shared cur­ren­cies and shared sov­er­eign­ty don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly lead to a shar­ing of the bur­dens of run­ning a civ­i­liza­tion.

The mas­sive strikes that shut down Fox­con­n’s iPhone pro­duc­tion in Chi­na [3], on the oth­er hand, could actu­al­ly do quite a bit to help close that glob­al gap. One of the fun real­i­ties of the mas­sive shift of glob­al man­u­fac­tur­ing capac­i­ty into Chi­na is that a sin­gle group of work­ers could have a pro­found effect on glob­al wages and work­ing stan­dards. The world had some­thing sim­i­lar to that a cou­ple of decades ago in the form of the Amer­i­can mid­dle class, but that group of work­ers acquired a taste for a par­tic­u­lar fla­vor of kool-aid [4] that unfor­tu­nate­ly has­n’t proved to be con­ducive towards [5] self-preser­va­tion [6]).

The Fox­conn strike [7] also comes at a time when ris­ing labor costs [8] of Chi­na’s mas­sive labor force [9] has been mak­ing a glob­al [10] impact [11] on man­u­fac­tur­ing costs [12]. But with the Chi­nese man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor show­ing signs of slow­down [13] and the IMF warn­ing a glob­al slow­down and “domi­no effects” on the hori­zon [14] it’s impor­tant to keep in mind that the trend in Chi­nese wages can eas­i­ly be reversed and that could also have a glob­al effect [15] (it’s also worth not­ing that the IMF is kind of schizo [16] when it [17] comes [18] to [19] aus­ter­i­ty [20] and domi­no effects [21]). Not that we need­ed a glob­al slow­down for some form of reces­sion-induced “aus­ter­i­ty” to start impact­ing Chi­na’s work­force. The robots are com­ing [22], and they don’t real­ly care about things like over­time [23]:

NY Times
Skilled Work, With­out the Work­er
By JOHN MARKOFF
Pub­lished: August 18, 2012
DRACHTEN, the Nether­lands — At the Philips Elec­tron­ics fac­to­ry on the coast of Chi­na, hun­dreds of work­ers use their hands and spe­cial­ized tools to assem­ble elec­tric shavers. That is the old way.

At a sis­ter fac­to­ry here in the Dutch coun­try­side, 128 robot arms do the same work with yoga-like flex­i­bil­i­ty. Video cam­eras guide them through feats well beyond the capa­bil­i­ty of the most dex­ter­ous human.

One robot arm end­less­ly forms three per­fect bends in two con­nec­tor wires and slips them into holes almost too small for the eye to see. The arms work so fast that they must be enclosed in glass cages to pre­vent the peo­ple super­vis­ing them from being injured. And they do it all with­out a cof­fee break — three shifts a day, 365 days a year.

All told, the fac­to­ry here has sev­er­al dozen work­ers per shift, about a tenth as many as the plant in the Chi­nese city of Zhuhai.

This is the future. A new wave of robots, far more adept than those now com­mon­ly used by automak­ers and oth­er heavy man­u­fac­tur­ers, are replac­ing work­ers around the world in both man­u­fac­tur­ing and dis­tri­b­u­tion. Fac­to­ries like the one here in the Nether­lands are a strik­ing coun­ter­point to those used by Apple and oth­er con­sumer elec­tron­ics giants, which employ hun­dreds of thou­sands of low-skilled work­ers.

“With these machines, we can make any con­sumer device in the world,” said Binne Viss­er, an elec­tri­cal engi­neer who man­ages the Philips assem­bly line in Dracht­en.

Many indus­try exec­u­tives and tech­nol­o­gy experts say Philips’s approach is gain­ing ground on Apple’s. Even as Fox­conn, Apple’s iPhone man­u­fac­tur­er, con­tin­ues to build new plants and hire thou­sands of addi­tion­al work­ers to make smart­phones, it plans to install more than a mil­lion robots with­in a few years to sup­ple­ment its work force in Chi­na.

Fox­conn has not dis­closed how many work­ers will be dis­placed or when. But its chair­man, Ter­ry Gou, has pub­licly endorsed a grow­ing use of robots. Speak­ing of his more than one mil­lion employ­ees world­wide, he said in Jan­u­ary, accord­ing to the offi­cial Xin­hua news agency: “As human beings are also ani­mals, to man­age one mil­lion ani­mals gives me a headache.”

The falling costs and grow­ing sophis­ti­ca­tion of robots have touched off a renewed debate among econ­o­mists and tech­nol­o­gists over how quick­ly jobs will be lost. This year, Erik Bryn­jolf­s­son and Andrew McAfee, econ­o­mists at the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, made the case for a rapid trans­for­ma­tion. “The pace and scale of this encroach­ment into human skills is rel­a­tive­ly recent and has pro­found eco­nom­ic impli­ca­tions,” they wrote in their book, “Race Against the Machine.”

In their minds, the advent of low-cost automa­tion fore­tells changes on the scale of the rev­o­lu­tion in agri­cul­tur­al tech­nol­o­gy over the last cen­tu­ry, when farm­ing employ­ment in the Unit­ed States fell from 40 per­cent of the work force to about 2 per­cent today. The anal­o­gy is not only to the indus­tri­al­iza­tion of agri­cul­ture but also to the elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of man­u­fac­tur­ing in the past cen­tu­ry, Mr. McAfee argues.

“At what point does the chain saw replace Paul Bun­yan?” asked Mike Den­ni­son, an exec­u­tive at Flex­tron­ics, a man­u­fac­tur­er of con­sumer elec­tron­ics prod­ucts that is based in Sil­i­con Val­ley and is increas­ing­ly automat­ing assem­bly work. “There’s always a price point, and we’re very close to that point.”

...

Yet in the state-of-the-art plant, where the assem­bly line runs 24 hours a day, sev­en days a week, there are robots every­where and few human work­ers. All of the heavy lift­ing and almost all of the pre­cise work is done by robots that string togeth­er solar cells and seal them under glass. The human work­ers do things like trim­ming excess mate­r­i­al, thread­ing wires and screw­ing a hand­ful of fas­ten­ers into a sim­ple frame for each pan­el.

Such advances in man­u­fac­tur­ing are also begin­ning to trans­form oth­er sec­tors that employ mil­lions of work­ers around the world. One is dis­tri­b­u­tion, where robots that zoom at the speed of the world’s fastest sprint­ers can store, retrieve and pack goods for ship­ment far more effi­cient­ly than peo­ple. Robots could soon replace work­ers at com­pa­nies like C & S Whole­sale Gro­cers, the nation’s largest gro­cery dis­trib­u­tor, which has already deployed robot tech­nol­o­gy.

Rapid improve­ment in vision and touch tech­nolo­gies is putting a wide array of man­u­al jobs with­in the abil­i­ties of robots. For exam­ple, Boeing’s wide-body com­mer­cial jets are now riv­et­ed auto­mat­i­cal­ly by giant machines that move rapid­ly and pre­cise­ly over the skin of the planes. Even with these machines, the com­pa­ny said it strug­gles to find enough work­ers to make its new 787 air­craft. Rather, the machines offer sig­nif­i­cant increas­es in pre­ci­sion and are safer for work­ers.

...

Some jobs are still beyond the reach of automa­tion: con­struc­tion jobs that require work­ers to move in unpre­dictable set­tings and per­form dif­fer­ent tasks that are not repet­i­tive; assem­bly work that requires tac­tile feed­back like plac­ing fiber­glass pan­els inside air­planes, boats or cars; and assem­bly jobs where only a lim­it­ed quan­ti­ty of prod­ucts are made or where there are many ver­sions of each prod­uct, requir­ing expen­sive repro­gram­ming of robots.

But that list is grow­ing short­er.

Upgrad­ing Dis­tri­b­u­tion

Inside a spar­tan garage in an indus­tri­al neigh­bor­hood in Palo Alto, Calif., a robot armed with elec­tron­ic “eyes” and a small scoop and suc­tion cups repeat­ed­ly picks up box­es and drops them onto a con­vey­or belt.

It is doing what low-wage work­ers do every day around the world.

Old­er robots can­not do such work because com­put­er vision sys­tems were cost­ly and lim­it­ed to care­ful­ly con­trolled envi­ron­ments where the light­ing was just right. But thanks to an inex­pen­sive stereo cam­era and soft­ware that lets the sys­tem see shapes with the same ease as humans, this robot can quick­ly dis­cern the irreg­u­lar dimen­sions of ran­dom­ly placed objects.

...

“We’re on the cusp of com­plete­ly chang­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing and dis­tri­b­u­tion,” said Gary Brad­s­ki, a machine-vision sci­en­tist who is a founder of Indus­tri­al Per­cep­tion. “I think it’s not as sin­gu­lar an event, but it will ulti­mate­ly have as big an impact as the Inter­net.”

While it would take an amaz­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary force to rival the inter­net in terms of its impact on soci­ety it’s pos­si­ble that cheap, super agile labor-robots that can see and nav­i­gate through com­pli­cat­ed envi­ron­ments and nim­bly move stuff around using suc­tion cup fin­ger­tips just might be “internet”-league. As pre­dict­ed at the end of the arti­cle, we’ll have to wait and see how this tech­nol­o­gy gets imple­ment­ed over time and it’s cer­tain­ly a lot hard­er to intro­duce a new robot into an envi­ron­ment suc­cess­ful­ly than it is to give some­one inter­net access. But there’s no rea­son to believe that a wave of robots that can effec­tive­ly replace A LOT of peo­ple won’t be part of the new econ­o­my soon­er or later...and that means that, soon or lat­er, we get watch while our sad species cre­ates and builds the kind of tech­no­log­i­cal infra­struc­ture that could free human­i­ty from body-destroy­ing phys­i­cal labor but instead uses that tech­nol­o­gy (and our preda­to­ry economic/moral par­a­digms) to cre­ate a giant per­ma­nent under­class that is rel­e­gat­ed to the sta­tus of “the obso­lete poor [24]” (amoral moral par­a­digms can be prob­lem­at­ic [25]).

And you just know that we’ll end up cre­at­ing a giant new eco-cri­sis that threat­ens human­i­ty’s own exis­tence in the process too. Because that’s just what human­i­ty does [26]. And then we’ll try to do, ummm, ‘mis­cel­la­neous activ­i­ties’ with the robots [27]. Because that’s also just what human­i­ty does [28]. And, of course, we’ll cre­ate a civ­i­liza­tion-wide rewards sys­tem that ensures the bulk of the fruit from all that fun future tech­nol­o­gy will go to the oli­garchs and the high­ly edu­cat­ed engi­neers (there will sim­ply be no way to com­pete with the wealthy and edu­cat­ed in a hi-tech econ­o­my so almost none of the spoils will go to the poor). And since the engi­neers will almost cer­tain­ly be a bunch of non-union­ized suck­ers, we can be pret­ty sure about how that fruit is going to be divid­ed up (the machines that manip­u­lat­ed a bunch of suck­ers at their fin­ger tips in the above arti­cle might have a wee bit of metaphor­i­cal val­ue). And the future fruit­less 99% will be asked to find some­thing else to do with their time [29]. Yes, a fun world of planned pover­ty where politi­cians employ divide-and-con­quer class-war­fare dis­trac­tions while the oli­garchs extend the fruit binge. Because that is most def­i­nite­ly just what human­i­ty does [30]. A fun insane race the bot­tom as lead­ers sell their pop­u­laces on the hope­less pur­suit of being the “most pro­duc­tive” labor force only to find out that “most pro­duc­tive” usu­al­ly equals “low­est paid skilled work­ers” and/or least regulated/taxed econ­o­my [31]. The “exter­nal­i­ties” [32] asso­ci­at­ed with that race to the bot­tom just need to be expe­ri­enced over and over. Like a good chil­dren’s sto­ry, some life lessons nev­er get old [33].

Or maybe our robot­ic future won’t be a Ran­di­an dystopia. There are plen­ty of oth­er pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios for how super labor-bots might upend glob­al labor dynam­ics in on a plan­et with a chron­ic youth unem­ploy­ment prob­lem that does­n’t result in chron­ic mass unem­ploy­ment for the “obso­lete youth”. Some of those sce­nar­ios are even pos­i­tive [34]. Grant­ed, the pos­i­tive sce­nar­ios are almost cer­tain­ly not the type of solu­tions human­i­ty will actu­al­ly pur­sue [35], but it’s a nice thought. And maybe all of this “the robots rev­o­lu­tion is here!” stuff is just hype and the Cylons aren’t actu­al­ly about to assault your 401k.

Whether or not indus­tri­al droid armies or in our medi­um, it’s going to be very inter­est­ing to see how gov­ern­ments around the world come to grips with the inevitable obso­les­cence of the one thing the bulk of the glob­al pop­u­lace has to offer — man­u­al labor — because there does­n’t appear to be rul­ing class on the plan­et that won’t recoil in hor­ror at the thought of poor peo­ple shar­ing the fruits of the robot­ic labor with­out hav­ing a 40–80+ hour work week to ensure that no one gets any­thing “unfair­ly”. And the mid­dle class atti­tudes aren’t much bet­ter [36]. Human­i­ty’s intense col­lec­tive desire to ensure that not a sin­gle moocher exists any­where that receive a sin­gle bit of state sup­port is going to be very prob­lem­at­ic in a poten­tial robot econ­o­my. Insane­ly cru­el poli­cies towards the poor aren’t going to go over well with the afore­men­tioned glob­al poor when a robot­ic work­force exists that could eas­i­ly pro­vide basic goods to every­one and the pro­ceeds from these fac­to­ries go almost exclu­sive­ly to under­paid engi­neers and the oli­garchs. Yes, the robot rev­o­lu­tion should be interesting...horrible wages and work­ing con­di­tions are part of the unof­fi­cial social con­tract between the Chi­nese peo­ple and the gov­ern­ment, for instance. Mass per­ma­nent unem­ploy­ment is not. And Chi­na isn’t the only coun­try with that social con­tract. Some­how, human­i­ty will find a way to take amaz­ing tech­nol­o­gy and make a bad sit­u­a­tion worse. It’s just what we do [37].

Now, it is true that human­i­ty already faced some­thing just as huge with our ear­li­er machine rev­o­lu­tion: The Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion of sim­ple machines. And yes, human soci­eties adapt­ed to the changes forced by that rev­o­lu­tion and now we have the Infor­ma­tion Age and glob­al­iza­tion cre­at­ing mas­sive, per­ma­nent changes and things haven’t fall­en apart yet(fin­gers [38] crossed [39]!). So per­haps con­cerns about the future “obso­lete poor” are also hype?

Per­haps. But let’s also keep in mind that human­i­ty’s method of adapt­ing to the changes brought on by all these rev­o­lu­tions has been to cre­ate an over­pop­u­lat­ed world with a dying ecosys­tem, a vam­pire squid econ­o­my [40], and no real hope for bil­lions of humans that trapped in glob­al net­work of bro­ken economies all cob­bled togeth­er in a “you’re on your own you lazy ingrate”-globalization. The cur­rent “austerity”-regime run­ning the euro­zone has already demon­strat­ed a com­plete will­ing­ness on the part of the EU elites and large swathes of the pub­lic [41] to induce arti­fi­cial unem­ploy­ment for as long as it takes to over­come a far­ci­cal eco­nom­ic cri­sis brought on by sys­temic finan­cial, gov­ern­men­tal, and intel­lec­tu­al fraud and cor­rup­tion. And the euro­zone cri­sis is a pure­ly economic/financial/corruption cri­sis that was only tan­gen­tial­ly relat­ed to the ‘real’ econ­o­my of build­ing and mov­ing stuff. Just imag­ine how awful this same group of lead­ers would be if super-labor bots were already a major part of the long-term unem­ploy­ment pic­ture.

These are all exam­ples of the kinds of prob­lems that arise when unprece­dent­ed chal­lenges are addressed by a col­lec­tion of eco­nom­ic and social par­a­digms that just aren’t real­ly up to the task. A world fac­ing over­pop­u­la­tion, mass pover­ty, inad­e­quate or no edu­ca­tion, and grow­ing wealth chasms requires extreme­ly high-qual­i­ty deci­sion-mak­ing by those entrust­ed with author­i­ty. Extreme­ly high-qual­i­ty benign deci­sion-mak­ing. You know, the oppo­site of what nor­mal­ly takes place [42] in the halls of great wealth and pow­er [43]. Fat, drunk, and stu­pid [44] may be a state of being to avoid an indi­vid­ual lev­el but it’s trag­ic when a glob­al com­mu­ni­ty of nations func­tions at that lev­el. Although it’s real­ly “lean, mean, and dumb” that you real­ly have to wor­ry about these days. Pol­i­cy-mak­ing philoso­phies usu­al­ly alter­nate between “fat, drunk, and stu­pid [45]” and — after that one crazy ben­der [46] — “mean, lean, and dumb [47]is def­i­nite­ly [48] on the agen­da [49].

So with all that said, rock on Fox­conn work­ers! They’re like that group of ran­dom peo­ple in a sci-fi movie that end up fac­ing the brunt of an alien inva­sion. The inva­sion is going to hit the rest of human­i­ty even­tu­al­ly, but with Chi­na the undis­put­ed glob­al skilled man­u­al labor man­u­fac­tur­ing hub, Chi­na’s indus­tri­al work­force — already amongst the most screwed glob­al­ly — is prob­a­bly going to be heav­i­ly roboti­cized in the com­ing decades, espe­cial­ly as Chi­na moves towards high­er-end man­u­fac­tur­ing. Super labor-bots should be a mir­a­cle tech­nol­o­gy for every­one but watch — just watch — the world some­how man­age to use these things to also screw over a whole bunch of already screwed over, dis­em­pow­ered work­ers and leave them with few future prospects. It’ll be Wal­mart: The Next Gen­er­a­tion, where the exploita­tion of tech­nol­o­gy and power/labor dynam­ics [50] can bold­ly go [51] where no Giant Vam­pire Squid & Friends [52] have [53] gone [51] before [54]. Again [55]. May the Force be with you present and future strik­ing Fox­conn work­ers and remem­ber: it’s just like hit­ting womp rats [56].

Sure, we all could cre­ate a world where we share the amaz­ing ben­e­fits that come with auto­mat­ed fac­to­ries and attempt to cre­ate an econ­o­my that works for every­one. And, hor­ror of hor­rors, that future econ­o­my could actu­al­ly involve short­er work­weeks and shared pros­per­i­ty. NOOOOOO! [57] Maybe we could even have peo­ple spend a bunch of their new “spare time” cre­at­ing an econ­o­my that allows us to actu­al­ly live in a sus­tain­able man­ner and allows the glob­al poor to par­tic­i­pate in the Robot Rev­o­lu­tion with­out turn­ing auto­mat­ed robot­ic fac­to­ries into the lat­est envi­ron­men­tal cat­a­stro­phe. Robots can be fun like that, except when they’re hunter-killer-bots [58].

LOL, just kid­ding. There’s no real chance of shared super labor-bot-based pros­per­i­ty, although the hunter-killer bots are most assured­ly on their way [59]. Shar­ing pros­per­i­ty is def­i­nite­ly some­thing human­i­ty does not do. Any­more [60]. There are way too many con­tem­po­rary [61] eth­i­cal hur­dles [62].