And then someone did invent the robot, and in the last threeish decades of the 20th century it was the biggest story (if underreported) again. People variously blame outsourcing and trade imbalances and minimum wage and unions and other things for the evaporation of middle-class-paying factory jobs, but the fact of the matter is that most of them have given way to automation.
Automation was a major driver in rising income inequality, in the shrinking of the middle class, in the erosion of inflation-adjusted wages, in the increase in part-time jobs and decrease in full-time employment, in the… you get the idea. The ramifications are much wider than we see. Or want to see. Political discourse is still hung up on trade imbalances (I have a HUGE trade imbalance with the grocery store but you don’t see ME crying about it) and tariffs and outsourcing. All those things matter, but not a tenth as much as jobs being replaced by robots that are more cost-effective, don’t call in sick, don’t make worker’s comp claims, don’t unionize, don’t complain about not making enough to pay the rent, eat, and pay for healthcare at the same time, don’t have bothersome events like weddings and funerals to attend, don’t have heart attacks at work which just shoots productivity for the day right down the damn toilet, and more.
Wow, human workers suck compared to workers.
But actually, there are a lot of jobs robots don’t do well. Robots aren’t very adaptable. Robots suck at human interaction. Robots aren’t creative. They just do a simple job or a few simple jobs quickly and well, over and over and over and over and over.
That’s changing. Much like computers that once took up a whole room to serve only as well as the calculator app on the phone in your pocket does today, robots are getting better at their jobs fast. They’re replacing ever more production jobs. They’re making inroads into white collar jobs. They’re heading toward being way more ubiquitous than anyone but a few technologists, futurists, and science fiction writers thought possible even twenty or thirty years ago.
They’re going to end up in places, ultimately, that they really shouldn’t be. And they’ll get there because they will have become way cheaper than now (think of how relatively cheap your smartphone is compared to the supercomputer of the 1990s, which it can outperform) and way more flexible. Adaptable.
People will be up in arms, of course, when robot nurses become common and drive out nearly all the human nurses. Or maybe not nearly, but actually all. Robots can’t show compassion, people will say. They can’t comfort the sick and dying like empathetic humans can. They can’t give the encouragement of conversation and a pat on the shoulder and the presence of another human being.
Consider, for a moment, the ATM (or, for redundancy enthusiasts, which are apparently nearly everyone, the “ATM machine”). Reaching back to 1993, I found an article in Wired that mentions what people did not like about them when they were becoming common. People didn’t like that they were machinelike. The programmed, stilted greetings and prompts. The lack of human interaction. Sometimes, the lack of security — a human presence other than one potential victim may dissuade some criminals from striking, or at least offer up the comfort of perceived safety, where a machine does not.
But they liked the convenience. Bankers liked that they could reduce teller jobs (though my understanding is they shifted employees to other positions like sales instead of reducing headcount — but that reflects human flexibility. Remember what I said up there about automation becoming more flexible? It will.).
And now the ATM is just an accepted part of life, and hardly anyone complains about them seriously as a thing. People complain about the slowness of individual ATMs just as they complained about the slowness of individual human tellers (and still do). People complain about the fees. But people do not complain about the fact that ATMs are the way we make nearly all of our cash withdrawals and a large number of deposits as well.
Automated nurses will be like that. A couple of decades after they’re introduced, people will stop complaining about them and accept them. It will become social convention that human interaction with patients is the job of family, friends, and whatever volunteers care to look in on those without many of those.
I think that will basically suck, but if the money says robot nurses, we will have robot nurses.
The same story, over the coming decades and perhaps into the 21st (robotic flexibility has a long way to go), will play out among firefighters and police officers and short order cooks and fast food staff and store clerks and warehouse workers and postal carriers and parcel deliverypeople and florists and paralegals and lawyers and EMTs and professional drivers of all stripes and and and…
In a hundred years, I think we’ll be talking about whether or not employment numbers are over five percent, not whether unemployment is over five percent.
It will be a strange world to people like me born in the 1970s. Assuming medical science advances fast enough to keep me alive into the 22nd, which I think is unlikely (DAMMIT).
(This first appeared on my Patreon page ten days ago. Become a patron and regardless of the size of your pledge you will see all of my best and beefiest blog posts at least a week before they appear here!)
(First appearance on my Patreon page, 22 December 2016)
AllBot News and Entertainment
Week 35, 2074
L. Flora Wong
Jayla Johnson is the face of a rising new cottage industry that, some think, poses a threat to the old corporate order.
Economists estimate there are a million just like her in the United States now. Across the world, from our neighbors in Canada and Mexico to even the heavily state-managed economies of the Greater Russia Federation and China, there may be as many as ten million more. Using bots to rapidly create and sell handcrafted products worldwide is small potatoes by corporate standards. Last year, they sold perhaps $N5,000,000 ($100,000,000 pre-revaluation) in goods. But five years ago it was half that. Twenty years ago, a tenth.
Some corporations seem to think that trend could continue, and undermine their profitability. Currenty, lobbyists and sympathetic members of the rump Trump Party (now rapidly weakening through defections to the new, revived right-progressive Bull Moose Party) are attempting to push a bill through the House levying draconian fees and taxes on home entrepreneurs.
Thankfully for people like Jayla, the measure has little chance of becoming law.
As the chaos of the Great Contraction of 2027-55 came to an end, the proliferation of basic income programs combined with plunging costs and soaring capabilities of bots for the home market brought opportunities earlier generations couldn’t have imagined.
But Jayla could imagine. “I was one of the first to see what we could really do with these bots. I was selling furniture I made from salvage. Real art pieces; I started out as a sculptor. Back in the day I finished a couple of pieces a month and sold them around the neighborhood, long before I had any bots. It was a way to keep food on the table, because, you know, with all the automation there was hardly any work for anyone. But I was feeding my soul, too. Doing what I loved even though the world was going to hell all around us.”
By 2055 her business grew beyond mere subsistence. She took advantage of the first wave of Rebirth Loans then. The low-cost, flexible and long-term repayment funds allowed her to buy two bots. She went from finishing two pieces for sale per month to, in 2056 and to the present, finishing two per day. While the bots were and are marketed as automation for the home, mechanical servants for taking care of mundane tasks like cooking, cleaning, and budgeting, she saw that their learning algorithms allowed them to become able helpers.
“I still have the original bots, and now they actually do the dishwashing and whatnot they were made to do. (Laughs.) The new bots are so much better at learning tasks than the old ones. I have one to assemble pieces, one that scrounges for good salvage out of the landfill, the beach, and around the hood, one that cleans and sterilizes my materials (that took so many hours before bots!), and one that takes orders and ships them out.”
With the help of her bots, Jayla is among the upper 1% of earners in the bot-assisted home crafts industry. She estimates she sells about $N30,000 worth of furniture and art objects yearly, about $600,000 pre-revaluation.
“My basic income stipend, well, I give that to local food banks. $100 per month goes a long way for them. I’ll never forget that I was hungry, once upon a time. But thanks to these bots, I’ll never be hungry again. I hear Trump Party types go on about how people need old-style jobs. Spending all your hours doing junk that bots can do better, junk you don’t really care about. No wonder things went to hell! Who wouldn’t rather find something they love and make themselves some money doing it, whether it’s a little bit of extra spending money or, if they want to work their butts off like I do, a lot?”
(Originally appeared on Patreon, December 16)
US AP (Federal Approved)
Monday 17 November 2098
Riots at eight Indianapolis, Indiana-area penetentaries were put down yesterday by automated Lockup Consolidated guards aided by automated SWAT teams from the cities of Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, and Cincinnati, Ohio.
All eight riots began between 8 and 8:30 Sunday morning. An Indianapolis PD SpoxBot, in a text release marked “reviewed and approved” by Deputy Police Chief W.A. Stoltzy, stated the riots are believed to have been deliberately plotted and coordinated. “So many riots simultaneously occurring in a single district and in such a constrained timeframe are highly unlikely in normal circumstances,” the statement read in part.
An investigation is ongoing.
The riots interrupted production on orders of clothing and furniture kits for markets in the European Union and India, where strong basic income programs have preserved and expanded a mass market for frivolous consumer goods.
Although the riots were ended within 6 hours and with minimal casualties relative to the inmate population (14 dead and 171 injured of 38,500 total inmates), equipment damage pushed back anticipated delivery dates.
“This is going to invoke contractual penalties. Significant monetary penalties that will severely impact revenues,” said Stanley Wallers, the Executive Vice-President of Lockup Consolidated’s Textile Division. “In order to compensate, we anticipate 30 to 60 layoffs of human production and shipping bot supervisors. If there are no more setbacks we may consider opening hiring again in a year or so.”
Lockup Consolidated is among the top 10 employers in the Indianapolis greater metro area, employing over 400 human workers.
The robot worker, it’s a-comin.
Automation, though we seldom think of it now, has already taken quite a few jobs that once were taken for granted.
The elevator operator used to control the rise and fall of the lift before the advent of the button-studded control panel anyone could just operate with one finger. Children (and the occasional adult) shined shoes before the coin-operated automated shoe shiner (itself almost extinct with the advent of easy to apply liquid shine goop). Robot welders and assemblers now dominate vast swathes of automobile production line once filled shoulder-to-shoulder with workers doing boring, repetitive, sometimes dangerous work that (here’s the upside) once paid wages good enough to admit the earner into the lower reaches of the middle class.
Soon, it seems, the working robot will likely dominate more jobs than we’d like to contemplate. Long-haul truckers may stop being a thing before 40-somethings like me shuffle off their mortal coils. Same with the people who prepare food in low-end restaurants… and maybe high-end ones, too. A lot of food service jobs are prep-work. Look behind the scenes at your favorite 3-Michelin-star restaurant, if you have the dough to have a favorite one of those. You’ll find a bunch of prep staff doing repetitive menial tasks like slicing shallots, dicing onions, shredding lettuces, julienne-ing carrots, and so forth. I’m not the first one to think a robot could do an equal or better job dicing onions — that bot is already in the works.
There are even bots that can write blog posts. I shudder!
There may be downsides, even after we figure out what to do with all the surplus humans who will no longer be needed to dig ditches, cut carrots, flip burgers, and so forth. Personally, I favor Basic Income (but that’s a different post) rather than pushing them all out to die on patches of floating arctic ice. By the time it’s an issue, anyway, we may be fresh out of patches of floating arctic ice. But that, too, is a different post.
And that’s a lot of writing to get to my 99-cent short story. But I think the trip was worth it.
Automation, like every other things humans have done ever, will have a downside. Some of them are obvious — if you see a machine screwing up a job, you can’t just yell at it to knock it off. You have to get to wherever the things are controlled from, shut it down, and then probably call tech support — which is an adventure in itself if you’ve ever been forced to do it. Especially if the tech support is automated, which it often is at the level of basic functions.
To Labor No More gets into one of those potential downsides, both for machines and humans. For example, what if your servant robots, at work and at home, are just a… little too servile?
Anyhow, you should give To Labor No More a try. Go ahead — it’ll be fine. The reading’s not automated, after all.
Here’s a little preview to whet your appetite:
“Hate loading the dishwasher? You don’t even have to clear the table. Let a Right Hand Model 2100 do both for you. You don’t have to cook, either—your Right Hand can do that for you too! And if you run a small business, or even a multinational megaconglomerate, a few good Right Hands can take the wage-wasting drudge work off of your employees’ hands and let them devote all their energy to making your business as big and better as it deserves to be!”
–Transcript excerpt from Vintage 21st Century Collector, Right Hand Robotics Inc. television and web advertisement, late 2099.
… (sometime later in the story) …
“Yes! Come take my socks off before they smell up the whole living room,” he says, voice halfway to a shout. He forces the volume back down, tries to hold onto his cool. “It seems like I had to okay the placement of every damn box that went in or out of the warehouse today, and Zebediah was out sick so they pestered me all the way through lunch, too. I need a drink.” The 2174 pauses; it has removed one of Buddy’s socks and stops with the other one tugged halfway off. It lets go; the half-off sock flops over limp. The robot walks into the kitchen, its compact little spider legs mincing along directly under it.
“What the hell?” Buddy says, wiggling his toes hard in an effort to get the sock the rest of the way off.
“I think it went to make you a drink,” Eunice says, sitting down on the sofa next to buddy…