Automation, Robotics, and Remote Work

A discussion guide on automation, robotics, and remote work.


John Markoff’s “Skilled Work, Without the Worker”

Antonio Regalado’s “When Machines Do Your Job” 

The “gist”: Each day brings a raft of new stories about the potential of robotics and automation to revolutionize our economy. Usually, the story turns on the potential of machines to reduce menial labor and free up humankind for more creative and important jobs. Markoff’s article shows us a world where automation is eliminating factory work and manufacturing jobs – even in China. Some of that automation may make America more competitive again: robots don’t get paid whether they work overseas or right here at home. On the other hand, more and more humans are going to find they aren’t going to get paid for their work anymore either. Robots are able to take over work previously thought to require the flexibility and initiative of the human being.

In Regalado’s interview of Andrew McAfee it becomes clear that automation, robotics, and remote work are going to dramatically transform the way we do business in the near future. Those who own the machines and automated factories and resources are going to have an unequal advantage over everyone else. These machines will surely exacerbate unemployment numbers. White collar jobs for knowledge workers, as well as blue collar jobs in factories, will go away forever because of computer technology. Some brain workers and more creative human beings may find their livelihoods and futures threatened. Some people who survive the transition will find their skills in high demand, and will work longer and longer hours. And ironically, some menial jobs will remain because it is easier to make machines smart than graceful.

Key terms and definitions:

Remote work – Work done at a distance; in this instance, robots that are remotely controlled by workers or managers from another location, also called “telepresence” or “avatarization.”

“Hollowing out” the job market – High-wage, high-skill employment is still created as “top” or most desirable jobs, but so are many poorly compensated service industry jobs for food preparers, home care aides, and others. Employment in the middle ranges of salary and skill is disappearing: clerical, sales, and administrative jobs and those on factory floors.

Automation – The use of largely automatic equipment in a system of manufacturing or other production process. It is generally credited with raising efficiency and productivity and eliminating routine or repetitive work.

Moving “bits, not atoms” – It is much cheaper and easier to manipulate bits of information rather than atoms of material substance. This philosophy, applied to the economy, has made lots of traditional products and services obsolete. Netflix replacing physical video rental stores with online viewing of movies is one example.

Luddite fallacy – The notion that machines will only take away human jobs and our ability to support our families through work. Luddites are contrasted with technophiles, those who think computers and automation will usher in a new golden age for humankind and fix all of our current problems.

Digital Athens – The idea that computers will free us from the drudgery of daily life and give us time to practice complex entrepreneurial skills and become more creative.

Discussion questions:

  • If routine and unskilled work goes away, what will undereducated and less intelligent people do to support themselves?
  • Humans are creatures of habit. What are the advantages and disadvantages of taking away work that is repetitive, or even ordinary?
  • If we agree that job demand exceeds foreseeable demand, what should we do about it? Ban robots? Reeducate the workforce for something else? What else? Are public works and public service jobs the only fix to this inflection point in capitalism?
  • What kinds of mental work is it reasonable to assume will be automated? What kinds of mental work will be hard or impossible to automate? Watson the Jeopardy computer anyone?
  • Could personal robots be the answer to the problem of inequality? If everyone owned a 3D printer (factory) or robot, wouldn’t this make everyone rich and happy?
  • Will this movement for automation impact certain parts of the world more than other parts? Is this really a “first world problem” or a developing world problem.

Additional comments:

Martin Luther, the protestant reformer, argued strenuously that work is good for the human body. It seems likely that we’ll continue to need exercise. One of the consequences of the loss of hard physical labor is vast and expanding waistlines as well as vast and expanding rec centers. I wonder if we aren’t replacing one kind of human struggle for another, at the cost of lots of nonrenewable energy sources. There’s a lot one human being can do with a shovel. Perhaps we are underestimating manual labor and a set of values based on hard work and diligence?