We're in for a wild ride. Exponentially accelerating technological, cultural, and socioeconomic evolution means that every year will see more developments than the previous one. More change will happen between now and 2050 than during all of humanity's past. Let's explore the 21st century and ride this historic wave of planetary transition with a confident open mind.

Monday, August 16, 2010

What Jobs Will be Replaced by Robots?

Japan style plunge into robotics (and subsequent decimation of service sector employment) is essential for reconstruction of Western socioeconomics into a more humane form.

It may sound like madness to support further automation of labor during a historically significant economic depression. However, just like the proverbial bandaid, it is better for Western businesses and organizations to streamline themselves through robotics rapidly for the following two reasons:

1) Visible presence of robots outside their traditional places (factory assembly lines) will spur real national debate on the inevitable and irreversible historic process of ever rising unemployment due to mechanization. It is unlikely that generation Y will embrace neo-Luddite movement but rather will begin to clamor for an advanced high tech welfare state that Japan is seemingly moving towards. The bandaid being ripped off quickly will result in the rapid onset of shock that is spread across class and geographic lines as it will primarily decimate the demeaning service sector (that even children of the upper middle class often rely on). This in turn will help birth a diverse coalition of people across the political spectrum that applies heavy political pressure to create livable stipends and measures dealing with human displacement. We already see aspects of this in Germany and Japan as these societies do not rely (to nearly the same degree) on pseudo-serf labor of immigrants but choose to have ever more clean and automated farms and factories.

2) Contrary to popular belief, baby boomers retiring across the industrialized world will not free up enough job openings to arrest the process of mechanization and human replacement. That is due to technological progress in artificial intelligence software and robotics being an exponentially accelerating one. It is better to harness and direct the process proactively rather than to prolong the pain that comes from service sector illusions and their ridiculous broken promises. It is no secret at this point that white collar workers are being equally squeezed by technology as Internet has wiped out entire swaths of their employment in the last 20 years. Technology and robotics has removed more jobs worldwide than any sort of outsourcing or reliance on underpaid migrants. Public embrace of automation stands to permanently reduce daily and weekly working hours after there is fundamental understanding of what's occurring.

Japan has pledged to make robotics the backbone of its economy in the next 30 years. This means mass assembly and taking advantage of economies of scale to soon make robots an affordable investment for small business owners. So what areas can the robots move into?

1) Bartenders

There is absolutely no reason to have human bartenders in vast majority of the bars. Sure, upper classes will continue desiring human servile labor to be present to provide psychological feeling of dominance but majority of bars are dingy barely maintained ways to make a quick return on the owner's investment (just visit Manhattan). If the owner thinks the bar is being patronized just because of sexually attractive workers and their idle chatter, that is fine. Mechanization allows focus and sex appeal to be transfered towards musical acts and other attractions that customers are often there for in the first place. The robotic bartender itself will provide a spectacle as this video of an early model shows. It is a great investment that creates efficiencies in reliability, speed, and fun factor of drink pouring. Technically a large bar just requires one human guard.

"What if it breaks!!?? The night is over!!" What if the refrigeration system breaks or the lights or.. Not an argument.

2) City Bus and Subway Drivers

Now that DARPA is actively testing automated cars that successfully drive in human traffic (with the help of congressional act to make 1/3 of military convoy vehicles automated by 2015), there is no reason to have safe linear routes manned by humans. Many cities in the world already have a dedicated bus route all to itself, making robot driver's job all the more easier.

"What if it breaks!!?? The night is over!!" Really? Again? Reliance on certain car software is increasing and many drivers currently take the auto features that they use for granted. It is much easier to provide safe autopilot for a linear subway and bus route. Multiple failsafes to brake the vehicle can be implemented along with redundancies. We aren't sending a probe to Mars here.

3) Certain Types of Cooks

Here is a video of a robot that makes noodles. Today fresh noodles, tomorrow pizzas, bagels, hamburgers, etc. A robot like this contains within it the entire assembly line so things like noodles can be transformed from raw ingredients to final steaming form on a plate. Future models will be a qualitative step above the glorified vending machines like this pizza bot in Italy. Fast food corporations will be the first to jump on these machines and thus lower their price through mass bargaining (as well as the price of final product of course). Smaller chains will follow as quality of the finished fresh product will not differ from mom and pop business cookery. Creative touches can be manually added to the programming or downloaded. Obviously the need for cooks will remain and those who are left will have more time and freedom to get creative.

4) Traffic Police

Cars in 50 mile an hour zone can easily be made to not be able to go above 50 miles an hour. This is not technically a robot example but demonstrates the thought process we should embrace. If governments are actually serious about preventing road deaths (instead of just using speed limits to cynically bolster local finances with fees), then it follows that new cars should automatically adjust their speed ceiling based on the zone they are entering. Modern WiFi tech more than allows for it. Obviously there would be an emergency override switch in case of crime or health emergencies that automatically notifies relevant authorities.

5) Other Types of Catering

The reason why I separated bartenders and cooks from the umbrella of catering is to illustrate that pretty much most demeaning jobs are replaceable (if not altogether then in parts). There will definitely be a transition period where robots are gradually introduced into one part of the catering chain and work with humans. Although modern automated locomotion (either based on offshoots of segway transport or actual mechanical legs) is remarkably stable, robotic waitresses will be the final development. When people go to restaurants, many still have this pathological feudal desire to be served (the way they serve others during long week) so a robotic waiter may take away from the "experience" regardless of how graceful and quiet the robo limbs are. Once again however, mid sized chains can implement catering bots as a sort of a gimmick to ease the transition ("Welcome to Applebees! I am Wendy and will be your caterbot this evening. Tips are not included or needed! I love you!").

6) Agricultural Harvesting

Many types of backbreaking farm jobs currently performed by illegal immigrants can be wiped out with harvestbots. These bots easily spot and pick oranges, apples, etc. This is relatively basic visual recognition programming that is developing at tremendous pace. Harvester tech progress (as pictured here) is well underway even in societies that like to exploit under the table labor.

7) Garbage Men, Recycling Workers, Certain Janitors

This is self explanatory. Roombas are but the tip of the iceberg of what's about to explode on the world scene.

8) Remaining Assembly Line Workers

Previously, factory bots were very specialized. The new thinking prevalent in Japan is that factory bots should be reprogrammable to extend their lifespan. This means more humanoid bots that can be made to build multitudes of new objects, be able to mingle with human workers, and work with each other if needed.

The more one looks around, the more silly jobs one sees that can (and thus will) be replaced. The sooner this happens the sooner the displaced humans will become an overwhelming force for societal change and futuristic welfare. A union of the displaced alone can be a political block unmatched in history. Look back 100 years or even 50 years and see how wonderful it was that things like elevator operator went the way of the Dodo. In 20 years we will look back and marvel at the absurdity of many tasks that our politicians have the nerve to call backbone of sound economy.

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