We Are Not Programmed for Abundance
So the topic of the robotification of society seems to be a popular one these days. Eminent economist Paul Krugman, has just written a short post highlighting the connection between the increase in robots use for product assembly and a recent trend of ‘reshoring’ manufacturing domestically. ‘The robot revolution will bring jobs back to America’ exclaim the optimists. But how many jobs are really needed in a robot world?
Essentially the argument goes like this: If you can manufacture goods using very little human labour through automating your assembly with robots, there is little incentive to offshore labour. Rather, you can locate your robot factory closer to your target market, and with access to highly trained workers necessary to support such a factory.
The argument is persuasive, although it should be noted that America is not the only place investing in robots. A robot-race between manufacturing nations seems likely on the horizon. Regardless of where the goods actually end up being produced, the eventual replacement of a great number of jobs by robots seems almost a foregone conclusion at this point.
This conversion of the economy from one of human powered labour to a highly mechanized one is a recurring story in the economy. As one commenter on Krugman’s post pointed out; agriculture went through a similar change, and now a very small proportion of the population actually works in the industry which grows more food than we can eat. This has all happened before, and it will all happen again.
Modern economic dogma states that incorporating technology into business should simply lead to better (and more) jobs. Google the Luddite Fallacy if you want to know what I mean. While I am sure this has held true in the past, I am equally sure that it cannot hold out forever.
This video of the new robots employed at the Zappos.com warehouse really drove the point home for me this week. In this case, every shelf in the warehouse can be moved around by a small army of motorized robots, which will deliver the appropriate goods in the appropriate order to be packed for shipment to customers. All of a sudden, workers simply grab the item from the shelf, scan it and put it in a box. By the time you do this, the next item for the order is already waiting to be grabbed, no walking needed. And the robots will reorganize the warehouse in real time to keep high demand goods close to the packers, and lower demand ones further away!
The virtues of such a system are many, including radically higher output per worker, near 100% accuracy in filling orders, much lower energy consumption, much lower ‘shrinkage’ (business speak for goods stolen by employees) etc… It seems the logical next step would be to remove even more employees from the warehouse, perhaps replacing them with adaptable robots like Baxters.
But all this leads me to conclude that in the near future, the number of people working in warehouses such as this one is going to be much smaller. If we take google’s driverless car technology and add it on to this, we are suddenly talking about delivering goods from manufacture to doorstep with a vanishingly small amount of actual human labour necessary.
Now, again the argument is that these menial labour jobs will be replaced eventually, but this will lead only to a rise in service jobs. While the robots that would replace workers in a service industry (such as a call centre) might not look quite as cool, these jobs are far from impervious to the steamroller that is automation.
We already rub up against robot secretaries when we call anywhere (ie Please press 1 if you are an existing customer). These systems may seem rudimentary and often frustrating, but they are a sign of things to come. Imagine, a computer much like IBM’s Watson, hooked up to the policy archive of whatever company you are calling, say your bank. This system would be able to accurately answer any questions, and take any requested actions on your account.
Such a system may not be able to handle 100% of calls, but I am sure they can do 95% of average customer requests and figure out when to bump them out to an actual person. As anyone who has dealt with the geniuses that are employed at average call centres knows: humans have a pretty dismal record at helping customers anyway As text to speech continues to improve, soon enough we will really have no idea if we are talking to a human or a computer when we call a company.
So it seems that both menial labour and menial service jobs are scheduled for the axe. But what does this mean for the overall economy?
While the byzantine network of markets and capital boggle even the finest minds, on some level our current model has evolved as a means to distribute scarce resources as efficiently as possible. It is not clear how the capitalist system as it exists today will function in a world where most people don’t have to work. Just in the same way that our biological programming does not deal well with an abundance of food, perhaps our societal programming won’t be able to deal with an abundance of material goods.
Put simply, the problem is this: Maybe we’re just not programmed for abundance.
Perhaps the ever widening gap between rich an poor we see today is a pathology of a system which produces more goods with less labour every year. It seems many of the current economic woes might (at least partially) trace to this type of effect. If this is true, then the symptoms of increasing unemployed or underemployed will only continue in the future. Will this continue? As Andrew McAfee put it at TEDx: “We ain’t seen nothing yet”.
How can our economy really adapt to serve society at large when it is going to take so few people to keep it running? Is it fair to maintain such intense cultural and economic pressure to work, in a world that has too many goods and not enough work?
Figuring out how to live in a world where we have more then we need and we don’t have enough work to go around is going to require revolutionary change on every level: culturally, economically, environmentally, sociologically. It is time to start figuring out how we can reprogram ourselves and our society to deal fairly and sustainably with a world of abundance. The answers of how this can be done may not yet exist, but it is definitely time is start asking the questions.