Robot Jobs, a Series

From Inc., a new company Harvest Automation is building a robot that does one job very well: moving planting pots. Aside from the improved economics of planting in pots and having robots manage the “fields”, there’s this comment from the unskilled laborers that used to move thousands of pots by hand:

Currently, growers have a shortage of workers, so they plan to keep [all current employees] on and give them higher-value tasks. And the workers [Harvest Automation is] training tell us they would much rather supervise robots than move pots around by hand.

The robots are coming. There really can be no dispute about this. Even in China, where labor costs are lower than the United States, the roll-out of robots continues (even if not on the original schedule). Millions of jobs are going to disappear.

Whether this is a good thing or not is besides the point. I, personally, don’t mourn the loss of dull, repetitive work like moving plant pots. I think these unskilled laborers will be much happier and healthier in their new role. But that’s just me; maybe you disagree. Doesn’t matter. The robots are coming. The only question is how we are going to respond. And since the beginning of the industrial revolution in England, there have been generally three response: sabotage (King Ludd), stepping up the human effort of competition (John Henry), and working with the new technology (John C.).

Of course the Luddites failed to stop progress and John Henry died trying to keep up with that steam-shovel, but who’s John C? He’s my grandfather. He was no Henry Ford or John D. Rockefeller, taking the technology of automation out to the limit, but he was an engineer and he owned a farm. Comparing the average worker to some industrial titan wouldn’t be fair, but everyone can do what my grandfather did. He approached the technology of his era with an open mind, and used it to make his own job better, and make himself more effective at doing it.

The robots are coming. Maybe they aren’t coming for your job this year or next, but keep an eye out for them. If you see them coming, I have only this advice – embrace them quickly and learn to use them before your customers do. Then figure out how to add value on top. As an early adopter you’ll be creating more value than any of your competitors, and when your customers finally do wise up to how the robots work you’ll already have a plan for still making a living.

Do What Humans Do Best, Automate the Rest

AB’s post is inspiring because it touches on an intuition I’ve had that I haven’t seen discussed too much in the technological unemployment debate.

The thing that we think humans are good at is actually what they are terrible at. Namely: reason, logic, strict formal rule-following.

As Kahneman or Baumeister or any psychologist will tell you, something thinking through a lot of math equations is extremely hard for us. Multiplying 3,464,900 by 4,562 in your head without recourse to pen and paper puts a strain on you, and it doesn’t take many such math problems before your capabilities are compromised and you start giving inaccurate answers.

Once we have the concepts of numbers and multiplication, automating that process just makes sense. A cheap computer can give you the right answer to the above question in a fraction of a second. Human laborers will never outperform automation once the algorithm-makers have isolated the nature of what needs to be done over and over.

But that brings us back to AB’s post. Computers aren’t so great at discovery. As AB put it:

But where do these algorithms come from? Who tells the robot how to make a better hamburger? I’ll tell you one thing, it sure isn’t going to be a computer programmer who can’t make anything fancier than ramen noodles himself.

Substitute for “hamburger” the next great X. In AB’s post, it’s the next great line of Toyotas. But X can be just about anything. And it’s hard to believe that finding it will always or even mostly take PhD level skills. The lion’s share of the advancements from the Industrial Revolution came from tinkerers discovering through rote trial and error. Perhaps Tyler Cowen is correct that we have used up all the low hanging fruit in this regard (I’m skeptical), but it seems unlikely that we have exploited many of the possibilities of combining this discovery process with after the fact automation.