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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
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].