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Human Labor Becoming Obsolete?
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Half Sigma has an excellent post up which talks about a topic that is an under-appreciated concern: the obsolesce of human labor, thanks to automation. Virtually all of the increase in worker productivity over the past few decades is due to increased automation. I’ve quoted this post and some of the comments here:

There’s an excellent article in the NY Times:

At the Philips Electronics factory on the coast of China, hundreds of workers use their hands and specialized tools to assemble electric shavers. That is the old way.

At a sister factory here in the Dutch countryside, 128 robot arms do the same work with yoga-like flexibility. Video cameras guide them through feats well beyond the capability of the most dexterous human.

One robot arm endlessly forms three perfect bends in two connector wires and slips them into holes almost too small for the eye to see. The arms work so fast that they must be enclosed in glass cages to prevent the people supervising them from being injured. And they do it all without a coffee break — three shifts a day, 365 days a year.

All told, the factory here has several dozen workers per shift, about a tenth as many as the plant in the Chinese city of Zhuhai.

While it has taken longer for robots technology to be developed than many had thought twenty or thirty years ago, the technology is progressing, and if it robot factories are viable in 2012, they will only be that much better in 2022 and that much better gain in 2032.

This bring up the existential question of what low-IQ people are good for if robots can do manual labor just as well. If robots can manufacture electronic gadgets, and move stuff around a warehouse (the two main uses of robots discussed in the article), soon they will also be able to cook food at restaurants, do janitorial work, work in construction. Maybe we won’t need truck drivers in another ten or twenty years, because trucks will drive themselves?

The robot tipping point is probably being delayed because our best and brightest are going into finance and other value transference fields instead of working on developing better robot technology.

And here are some of the comments:

If you have a robot workforce, you really don’t need that many managers either. Employment in manufacturing is down across the board. Some of those city value transference types would have been happily employed somewhere in the upper ranks of a big manufacturing corporation if they had entered the workforce thirty years earlier.

Posted by: Ed | August 19, 2012 at 11:02 AM

“This bring up the existential question of what low-IQ people are good for if robots can do manual labor just as well.”

Exactly. The liberals at least have a plan – give low IQ people undemanding government jobs to keep them pacified. Maybe that ain’t the best plan, but the right wing seems to have no plan. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a politician who probably understood HBD better than anyone before or since, thought this was the only way to reduce poverty – he even proposed increasing the Postal Service to create more jobs to black males who probably aren’t qualified for any “real” work.

This is why HBD has been pushing me to the left economically. There is no way to reconcile technology based productivity improvements with opportunities for the low IQ population along traditional conservative or libertarian lines. Poor stupid people are not going to pull themselves up their boot-straps, even if they are diligent and hard working and all have iPads, because we just don’t need them. Technology is consistently increasing the returns on investment to capital relative to labor, so people who control capital are going to continue to get richer, while people with limited access to capital or no skills useful to people who control capital, are going to have a very hard time breaking in to the middle class from now on. Seems to me capitalists could stand to share some of that wealth to keep the peace. In exchange for that largesse, we should be taking radical steps to reduce the birth rate among lower IQ populations, which neither left nor right seems willing to do (and libertarians are of course opposed to any “government coercion”).

Posted by: Peter A | August 19, 2012 at 11:33 AM

Robots will mean even less employment in agriculture, with better image recognition technology we’ll get to the point where even strawberries and grapes will be harvested by machines.

Yet another reason not to bring low-skilled immigrants.

It is not a coincidence that the factory is in Netherlands – expensive labor is an incentive to innovate. Here in the United States I’ve seen a Dutch-built completely automated greenhouse where seeding and watering is done by machines.

Posted by: WRB | August 19, 2012 at 12:44 PM

It should become cheaper to buy things as factories automate. Companies would respond to greater unemployment or lower wages by lowering their prices to move their output.

The clear problem is off-shore outsourcing and immigration. These accelerate unemployment by outstripping automation while immigration raises the cost of buying homes and starting families.

Posted by: map | August 19, 2012 at 02:03 PM

Of course, we are a very LONG way off from having machines doing all our work for us, making all human labor obsolete. Cognitive services will continue to be in demand for a very long time (even if the specific services in demand change). We will still need doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, and of course, the engineers and technicians that design, build, and maintain these robots for the foreseeable future. It will even be a while before low-skilled work such as custodial or fast-food service work becomes obsolete. But one oft-quoted maxim about automation and technology is that while they may make some jobs obsolete (e.g. the switchboard operator), they open up new jobs in other fields. This line of reasoning ignores the reality of IQ. The fruit picker displaced by a robot isn’t going to get a job fixing those robots. Indeed, in general, and as was Half Sigma’s main point, the low-IQ are the ones that have the fewest options in any Brave New Economy, for the range of jobs they can do is the most limited. This means that the IQ threshold for economic viability rises as labor becomes more automated.

The thing that has been delaying the “robot tipping point”, as Half Sigma puts it, has been immigration. High levels of immigration keeps the supply of labor high and hence the price of labor low, reducing the incentive firms have to automate. Indeed, China’s billion+ populace is why factories like Foxconn operate with workers assembling iPhones by hand; labor there is cheaper than robots.

Here in the States, labor costs are kept low by the ready stream of immigrants. Sans access to cheap labor, producers would have no choice but to find ways of making their processes operate with fewer workers, even if that meant investment in expensive robots, analogous the situation with child chimney sweeps in Dickensian Britain.

However, reducing the costs of production through automation and other technologies can actually increase wages, because business can afford to pay their workers more. Higher wages equates to higher demand for goods and services, which stimulates economic vitality and growth.

Indeed, increased automation can be beneficial, as “The Undiscovered Jew” pointed out on Half Sigma’s post:

The upside to mechanization is that it could reduce the cost of living to the point where a minimum wage job would be enough to afford a high quality lifestyle.

Posted by: The Undiscovered Jew | August 19, 2012 at 12:17 PM

Costs could be so low and wages so high that even the fairly low man prospers. Ironically, this was the case in America’s much missed glory days, the boom years of the 1950s (along with the colonization of suburbia).

Of course, this only works if the population in question is of high enough average IQ to do the jobs that the businesses require. Not enough workers to do the cognitively demanding jobs that feed the system, and everyone suffers. The low-IQ workers have less and less revenue to support them, straining government budgets. This will become more true as the economically desired skills become more complex.

In an “ideal” country, with a higher average IQ populace, increasing automation at worst might leave workers with more time for leisure activities, as is the case already in Western European countries where with their generous amounts of mandated vacation time. However, a low average IQ populace upsets the balance of earners to dependents, in addition to reducing innovation (and increasing crime, reducing overall health, and all those other “negative externalities” of low-IQ people). Reducing immigration (from all parts of the world) might seem to be prudent, not to mention some sort of eugenic measure.

(Republished from JayMan's Blog by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Automation, Economy, Half Sigma, Immigration, IQ, Robots 
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  1. I don’t think capitalism, as we know it, will be sustainable in the medium. Society will have to accept that a large portion of the population will be unable to engage in any economically productive labor, and will have to be supported by the government.

    I think removing all illegals from the country, and a moratorium on further legal immigration (with some very restrictive exceptions) may help as a stopgap measure for the short run. And perhaps eugenics (or genetic engineering) can alleviate the problem in the long run. But I think that from the 2020s to the end of the century, the major issue facing this country will be the permanent unemployment of “unskilled” (ie, low IQ) workers. What I’m afraid of is the possibility that the government will deal with the problem like it is now, by telling low IQ people to go to college, which only wastes their time, educational resources, and often leads to graduates with no marketable skills and crippling debt.

    • Replies: @JayMan
  2. Luke Lea says: • Website

    Automation, though it increases output per manhour, decreases the demand for labor and therefore its price — unless I’ve wasted my life trying to understand economics and failed. Thus the only way to make wages go up in the presence of automation is to artificially restrict the supply of labor to compensate for the fall in demand. In the 19th century that was called the movement for an eight hour day. In the 21st century it will, or should, become the movement for a six hour day and possibly even a four day week on top of that. As for what common blokes and their mates would do with all their free time, that depends. Maybe a new religion of life that looks something like this: Of course you may ask where is the religion? It’s hiding in there somewhere.

    • Replies: @JayMan
  3. Thought provoking stuff. I’m going to side with Carlyle (Chartism, 1840) on this one, as usual, and say that what the working class (and the present and future not-working class) needs more than anything is a ruling class (an elite, an aristocracy) worthy of the name (unlike the one they have now), to teach and train and most of all to lead them.

  4. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    “we should be taking radical steps to reduce the birth rate among lower IQ populations, which neither left nor right seems willing to do (and libertarians are of course opposed to any “government coercion”).”

    Or instead of that eugenics nightmare.. We could take steps to improve their education.. Or maybe via technology, work to enhance Everyone’s intelligence/IQ.

    • Replies: @JayMan
  5. JayMan says: • Website


    You should read this around this blog (and a few others, like Education Realist’s) before uttering that nonsense about education…

    As for technology to improve intelligence, sure I’d be down for it. But that’s a much taller order than plain old selection, at least for a while.

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