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Are Robots Really the Problem?

2012 October 10

In the United States, with the political season in full swing, we hear a lot about outsourcing.  Good jobs, the kind where people wear hardhats and safety glasses, are moving south and east, supposedly leaving a nation of hamburger flippers in their wake.

Politicians of all stripes say they will bring the jobs back. Some promise to batter China, while others pledge to create new industries that will provide honest work for millions of Rosie the Riveters and Bob the Builders.

But what if those jobs are replaced by robots?  As The Economist reports, we are in the midst of a third industrial revolution.  Whereas, before a factory could hire thousands of people, today most employ a small fraction of that number.  When billions of dollars of output can be generated by just a few employees, the nature of work changes drastically.

The Rise of The Robots

In a recent column, Tom Friedman of The New York Times chronicled his visit to a robot factory.  This new generation of robots is so simple to operate that Friedman was able to program it himself.  They not only low cost, but also open source, so they can take third party apps, just like an iPhone.

Robots have been around for decades, but for most of that time they were only suitable for large scale manufacturing.  They cost millions of dollars, could only perform a single task and were so big and cumbersome that they had to stay in one place.  They made factories more efficient, but they were mostly out of sight and out of mind.

That’s changing.  Now we have robots running warehouses.  The Mars Curiosity robot goes around lasering rocks, collecting samples and sending analysis back to earth.  Military robots perform dangerous tasks like fighting fires and searching for bombs and, as I noted in an earlier post, there are now robots that can play pool and grab you a beer.

Bashing China for lost jobs is one thing.  Trash talking American made robots is quite another.  The Obama administration has even invested in a National Robotics Initiative to take the technology even further.  So, in the future, we can expect the role of robots to increase significantly.

3D Printing Taking Off

Robots in factories is one thing, but what if you can simply download product designs off the Internet and produce them at home?  That’s the promise of 3D printing.

Like robotics, the technology has been around for decades, but was limited to using resins and mostly deployed for prototyping.  Now it has become so advanced that it is being used to make advanced airplane parts out of metallic powder.  Because there are no rivets or welding seams, these components are lighter and stronger than conventional ones.

Next comes the consumer revolution.  New 3D printers retail for less than $2000 and, like everything else in the digital age, prices are sure to come down rapidly.  There are also thousands of designs available online already.  In the not so distant future,  3D printers will become as common as the two dimensional kind.

While it might be fashionable to protest against child labor in Dickensian sweatshops, marching against suburban kids fabricating while playing video games doesn’t have the same appeal.  The new lemonade stand will be a mini-factory.

The Coming Age of Programmable Matter

While 3D printing is exciting, programmable matter is positively mind-blowing!  It really needs to be seen to be believed.  Take a look at the quick video below.

The basic idea is that objects can be made up of nanoscale computers which can be programmed to take a certain shape.  When you get bored of the decor in your home, you can simply download another.  Or you can keep several and change them when the mood hits you.

Theoretically, the technology can work for electronics as well, so instead of buying a new iPhone, you will be able to download new hardware just as easily as you receive new software today.

Abundant Energy

Whatever method you use to make something, one ingredient you can’t do without is energy and that will most likely become abundant in decades to come.  While we get most of our energy now from fossil fuels and new fracking technology has made natural gas plentiful and cheap, the future undoubtedly belongs to renewable energy.

We currently get about 13% of our electricity from renewables, but California gets about 30%,  and Germany recently broke the 50% barrier on solar alone.  Wind power is currently about the same price as that of fossil fuels and solar is coming down fast, so we can expect the role of renewables to increase dramatically.  Last year, $257 billion was invested in the sector.

We’ll also be using renewables to run our cars.  As I noted in an earlier post, next generation biofuels made from genetically engineered algae, could enable us to grow our own fuel more efficiently than drilling.  A new category of electrofuels will allow us to produce fuels from renewable sources (sort of like putting a windmill on a car).

Another source is energy efficiency, which McKinsey believes can reduce consumption by 23% by 2020.  Once you start running the numbers, the potential is astounding.  Take LED lighting, which is 85% more efficient than conventional bulbs.  Lighting accounts for 18% of our electricity use so we can save about 15% just by moving over to LED’s.

This new energy revolution is also driven by algorithms.  Appalachian coal miners jobs, in a very real sense, are being replaced by Silicon Valley engineers.  As Ray Kurzweil said, “all technologies will essentially become information technologies, including energy.”

When Barber’s Become Stylists

Clearly, the fusion of computers and manufacturing solves more problems than it creates. The often overlooked advantage of all these technologies is that they have the potential to improve at an exponential rate, just like the digital industry.

However, greater efficiency means less work for people.  Exponential increases in efficiency means exponential decreases in the effort people have to put out.  So, what do people do?  As I pointed out before, when physical constraints disappear, design becomes primary and highly educated people prosper, but what about the less ambitious?

They do not, as some would have us believe, become hamburger flippers.  When a billion dollars of factory output can be produced by a handful of people rather than thousands, an enormous amount of wealth is created to fuel new markets.  We never run out of needs. When we find that some are met easily and cheaply, we simply create new ones.

Restaurants don’t merely serve food anymore, but experiences.  We spend more on activities for ourselves and our children.  We go to yoga classes and pilates, play video games, travel internationally, buy artisanal cheeses, eat fair trade chocolate and do lots of other things that were rare to nonexistent a generation ago.

And that’s the silver lining.  When machines take care of our basic needs, the work of humans becomes that of enhancing the lives of other humans.

– Greg

One Response leave one →
  1. October 24, 2012

    3D printing is both the most exciting and the scariest thing I have heard of in years. Very close to Star Trek technology.

    For a mostly positive view of what happens when computers take over all of our manufacturing output, the novels of Ian M Banks are very interesting. Banks’ futuristic Culture presents a society where manufacturing is trivial. The books talk about the economics of plenty as opposed to the economics of scarcity (our current situation). It is very much in line with your conclusion that human time is spent in experiences and relationships.

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