Robots ‘R Us, installment 2

The Steam Man of the Prairies, 1868.  Public Domain.

The Steam Man of the Prairies, 1868. Public Domain.

An obscure author, Edward S. Ellis, who published a dime novel called The Steam Man of the Prairies 145 years ago, may prove to have been a visionary according to two recent news articles.

The first, in the New York Times, reports that Google quietly acquired seven robotics companies over the last six months (Google Puts Money on Robots).  The scale of the investment is huge and appears to be aimed at automating manufacturing processes.  “The opportunity is massive,” chirped Andrew McAfee, an M.I.T. research scientist.  “There are still people who walk around in factories and pick things up in distribution centers and work in the back rooms of grocery stores.”

The second article I noticed bears an uncanny relation to the cover of  The Steam Man.  The California DMV has set rules for companies aiming to test automated cars (Driverless Cars Could be Cruising California Roads by Spring).  To put it in the terms of the M.I.T scientist, we may soon be able to robotize trucks and remove even more inefficient humans from the workforce.

The problem with this manufacturer’s wet dream should be obvious.  Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton puts it simply: “the economy remains lousy for most people. It will likely remain that way: As technology and globalization take over the economy, the U.S. has no national strategy for creating more good jobs in America.” (The True Price of Great Holiday Deals).

Economic discussion, with few exceptions, focuses on how to get back to the good old days of (relatively) full employment and opportunity for those who work hard.  Politicians bicker over which levers to pull, but no one dares to ask the fundamental question: has the structure of the world economy changed too much to recapture that particular sort of past “good times?”

A few years ago, news got out of worker mistreatment at Foxconn, the huge Chinese assembly plant where much of our high-tech gear is assembled.  Foxconn agreed to reforms, and the CEO announced plans to deploy a million robots.  By December 2011, robotic arms had reduced the number of workers on certain assembly lines from “20 or 30 down to 5.”  As we argue over fair wages for fast food workers, it’s a good bet their employers are working on ways to automate the task of making a burger, which can’t be harder than plugging components into a motherboard.

The problem, of course, is that downsized workers will not be buying either Happy Meals or iPhones.

Last March, in a post called Robots ‘R Us (?), a first look at such issues, I quoted a blogger named Orkinpod who was already considering them in depth.  On Feb. 27 he said:  “When the future arrives (and I believe that it is very, very close), and machines can supply all the things that humans could possibly ever want, what is everybody going to do?”

One thing many may wind up doing is working on food production.  Last summer I wrote of a compelling PBS NewsHour series, “Food for 9 Billion” (1).  That’s the total number of hungry humans who will occupy the planet in 2050 as the amount of arable land continues to shrink.  One of several examples given of coming change was Singapore, where five million people live on an island with only 240 acres of undeveloped land.  A 50 year old Singapore engineer developed a revolutionary type of vertical greenhouse that prompted the Directer of the National Institute of Education to say, “I think, eventually, urban factories for vegetable production will take the place of electronic factories in Singapore.”

It’s a grand irony to reflect that industrialism, which began by channeling people out of agriculture, may have succeeded too well; its end game my involve shifting some of them back into food production again.  But what about everyone else?  What happens as robotics and marvels like 3D printers leave ever more people idle?  Insiders aren’t even asking the question, though science fiction writers have since the mid 20th century.


Unfortunately, in stories where humans go up against robots, the outcomes are usually not the ones we would like to see.

Robots ‘R Us (?)


In the field of robotics, as in so many other areas of life, science fiction writers saw the future decades before the rest of us; they warned that androids were coming and the relationship would not always be easy.

Recently, I’ve seen adds on the cable channels by legal firms inviting the “thousands of victims” of botched robot surgery to join class actions suits (go to  Ironically, the same Google search that brought up the lawsuit page also showed adds for robotic prostate surgery, which is not the time you want your robots going rogue!

Practicing medicine without proper training isn’t all the dastardly droids have been up to.  In an article called, When the future comes, what are we going to do with it?, blogger Orkinpod looks at how robots eliminate manufacturing jobs.

As an Apple geek, I was dismayed last year to hear stories of mistreated workers at Foxconn, the mammoth Taiwanese contractor that assembles iPads and iPhones.  Apple hired independent auditors to investigate, and Foxconn agreed to clean up its act, but that was not their only decision.  According to links in Orkinpod’s post, Foxconn is stepping up plans, announced in 2011, to deploy a million robots across their assembly lines.  They are much less inconvenient than humans.

If the sheer size of this transition is hard to grasp, the trend itself isn’t news.  Industry experts have already warned us not to get too excited about Apple’s move to bring mac production back to the states.  The process is now so automated that the number of new jobs will be far less than hoped for.

All this prompts Orkinpod to pose a question I haven’t heard anyone ask before:  “When the future arrives (and I believe that it is very, very close), and machines can supply all the things that humans could possibly ever want, what is everybody going to do?”  

That’s a question I’ve been thinking about since I read his post, and it generates many other questions centering on the value of work.  Even excluding the jobs that are dangerous or abusive, no work situation is perfect.  Everyone wants more respect or money or benefits than they currently get, but if we’ve learned anything over the last few years, it’s that being out of work is usually worse than being badly employed or under employed.  Aside from the money, work lies close to the core of self-esteem and meaning in our lives.  Even if we are working on the great American novel at night, as an artist I admire once said, “You’ve got to do something during the day.”

Even where there are safety nets, ever larger numbers of people displaced by technology is an issue I don’t think any nation has started to address.  In December, I discussed a report by the National Intelligence Council called Global Trends 2030:  Alternative Worlds. The report’s most definite conclusion was that the next 18 years will usher in more rapid change than anyone living has ever seen.  Summing up the findings, NIC Chairman, Christopher Kojm said:

“We are at a critical juncture in human history, which could lead to widely contrasting futures. It is our contention that the future is not set in stone, but is malleable, the result of an interplay among megatrends, game-changers and, above all, human agency. Our effort is to encourage decision makers—whether in government or outside—to think and plan for the long term so that negative futures do not occur and positive ones have a better chance of unfolding.”

I recommend Orkinpod’s post, which asks important questions “for the long term, so that negative futures do not occur and positive ones have a better chance of unfolding.”