Robots are coming for our low-skilled jobs. They’re coming even quicker for our skilled jobs.
A robot and its human helper. Credit: RAINER JENSEN/dpa

The robots are coming for our jobs. We all know that. But there’s some comfort in the thought that it won’t all happen at the same time. Certain jobs will be automated long before the rest – and it’s obvious which ones we’re talking about: the low-skilled, routine occupations. The more basic the task, the easier it is to automate – so that’s where the robots will replace humans first.

Or is it?

In a long-read for the New Yorker, Sheelah Kolhatkar reports from a factory that’s is in the process of automating its operations:

“Until last year, the plant workers had to consult a long list of steps, taking pains to remove the correct parts out of a cart filled with variously sized bolts and screws and pins and to insert each one in the correct hole and in the correct order. Now computerized workstations, called ‘vision tables,’ dictate, step by step, how workers are to assemble a piece of furniture. The process is virtually mistake-proof: the system won’t let the workers proceed if a step isn’t completed correctly.”

In other words, automated systems are doing the skilled part of the job, while human workers are relegated to the most junior roles:

“A decade ago, industrial robots assisted workers in their tasks. Now workers—those who remain—assist the robots in theirs.”

Kolhatkar reveals that there’s a rather nasty name for such workers:

“…some call them ‘meat robots’”

Meat robots. Let that sink in for a while.

Alexander Pope said that a little learning is a dangerous thing. The same could be said about skills in the workplace. While a job requiring no skills is generally the easiest to automate, it is also the cheapest to use human labour on. If you can automate a more highly-skilled – and, therefore, more highly-paid – job, then the savings are correspondingly high.

Thus, for any given range of robotic ability, one should expect the best jobs to go first – leaving humans to fight for what’s left.

In industries where automation is already well-established, the impact on blue collar workers is as one might expect:

“In a paper from earlier this year, the economists Daron Acemoglu, of M.I.T., and Pascual Restrepo, of Boston University, studied local job markets in the United States between 1990 and 2007, and they found that the concentration of industrial robots in an area was directly related to a decline in jobs and in pay. Technology can compound the effects of globalization. By one measure, the average manufacturing worker in the United States earned nine per cent less in 2015 than the average worker in 1973, while the economy over all grew by two hundred percent.”

Populists of both left and right offer simplistic solutions – i.e. stronger unions, controls on migrant labour and import barriers. But none of these remedies will work, not in the long-term. Even if such policies did succeed in driving up wages (a big if), they would, by the same token, drive up the incentive to automate the associated jobs.

The same Catch-22 applies to the sensible centrist solution, which is to provide more training. Unless ‘up-skilling’ can lift people clear of what robots are likely to be capable of in the next couple of decades, then it will make their jobs more not less susceptible to automation.

So should we just prepare people for life as a ‘meat robot’? No, because not even that offers job security. Researchers are constantly pushing at the limits of what robots can usefully do:

“The word ‘manipulate’ comes up often among roboticists. Even in highly automated factories, jobs that involve packing boxes or putting tiny parts together are done by people. The most agile robot, confronted with an object that it’s never seen before, can pick it up only ninety per cent of the time, which isn’t good enough for industrial purposes.

“Solving this problem—teaching a machine to handle a random assortment of irregularly shaped objects—would have an immense impact…”

They haven’t cracked it yet, but they’re getting there. Once they do, the all-robot production line will become the norm. One of Sheelah Kolhatkar’s interviewees calls this stage of development the ‘dark factory’ because robots, with the right sensors, can operate without illumination.

Could the last human to leave please switch off the lights?

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