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Strawberry-Picking Robots

Fnord12 just last night told me they couldn't yet make robots that could do the work of harvesting delicate produce. I say to him "Fie on you, sir!"

Most agricultural robotic systems still require some form of human management, whether it involves watching over a swarm of bots to ensure nothing goes haywire or turning a strawberry-picking robot around once it has reached the end of a row.


But unlike the SciAm article, this Carnegie Endowment op-ed makes the opposite argument - robots will indeed take away the jobs.

Worries over new technologies destroying jobs have become chronic -- and up to this point, unfounded.

Thanks to new technologies, new industries emerged that created more jobs than were destroyed and increased not only productivity, but also workers' incomes, something the economist Joseph Schumpeter predicted in 1942. He called this phenomenon "creative destruction" -- a "process of industrial mutation ... that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one."

His theory has held true. Until now.

There are those who believe this time is different and that the job destruction created by technological advancements is of unprecedented speed and magnitude. As economist Eduardo Porter recently wrote, "new technology does seem more fundamentally disruptive than technologies of the past."

The worry is that new industries and occupations that will potentially be created won't come in time and won't be enough to provide jobs and incomes for the millions of workers displaced by new technologies.

Universal basic income? Anyone?

Recently, Switzerland held a referendum vote to decide whether the government would give citizens about $2,500 a month for doing absolutely nothing. Although the vote didn't pass and was never expected to, it may be a significant precursor to an emerging global trend.

In fact, many countries are already testing the idea of giving their citizens a minimum, no-strings-attached income. In Finland, the government will choose as many as 10,000 adults at random and will give them between 500 and 700 euros a month with the purpose of measuring the effects the money has on their propensity to work and on their life decisions. If the trial is successful, the Finnish government could implement the policy at a national level. Similar experiments are taking place in Canada, the Netherlands, Kenya and other countries.

The problems and defects with this idea are obvious. Having a guaranteed income could discourage work. Giving someone a material compensation without something of value produced in exchange is questionable from economic, social and ethical standpoints. The risks of corruption and political favoritism in the selection of beneficiaries are high. And, of course, this isn't a cheap initiative. These types of subsidies could turn into a huge burdens for the state and create enormous chronic deficits in public budgets.

And yet, despite all its defects, a minimum income guarantee may well become an inevitable policy. There is no doubt that globalization and new technologies have created infinite new opportunities for humanity. From reducing global poverty to medical advances and empowering historically marginalized social groups, progress is obvious.

But the negative effects are also obvious. Increasing inequality, the destruction of jobs and shrinking salaries -- especially in the U.S. and Europe -- all have some link to globalization and new technologies. And all these negative effects feed into the populism and toxic political extremism that we see taking hold of many countries today.

By min | July 20, 2016, 8:56 AM | Liberal Outrage & Science


Automation will indubitably make the most plentiful jobs scarcer (in retail, food service, etc.), while the "professional class" defends itself politically with artful parries -- for a time.

I doubt the interest groups and trade associations representing white-collar workers will let the IT department adopt equipment that makes their managerial and administrative professions redundant! (At least not without a protracted fight.)

It's not like "trade adjustment assistance" (re-training for a new job) can go very far when the overall pool of accessible, entry-level jobs "happens" to shrink via automation.

Earning a college degree (or a few!) doesn't necessarily open the right doors, either, as elites generally avoid state universities like the mark of mediocrity those schools are. At least, that's what hiring managers and job interviewers seem to think of my UW-Milwaukee credentials.

Thanks to Federal Reserve reports (amongst the 12 branches), I know it's not just me who was ripped off by a degree of marginal value in an ever-more-specialist workforce, but around 40 percent of recent grads who identify as unable to get hired to one's level of education.

And I can clearly think critically, so my time in school -must- be what caused me so many problems: It prevented me from accruing -enough- work experience by the particular age of 20 years.

I've found the 20th birthday to be the end of the critical window of youth during which human resources will "take a chance" on someone who's too young to have much of a work history, i.e. no time to muck it up by using school as a way to delay working full-time (at least not for more than a few "gap years").

All in all, I won't miss robotization replacing the following occupations:

1) Human resources, esp. hiring managers: Robots won't have the same extent of prejudice as hiring managers and other payroll gatekeepers, no matter how well IT people try to program them to act that way.

A robot would give me a better chance of "getting a foot in the door" than would 99 percent of people who think in the perpetually nay-say mindset of human resources.

I don't know how HR people relate to the rest of the world, as they seem obsessed with walling themselves away in a cubicle -- and end up denying far more job candidates than granting access to work opportunities in their "elite" organization (that even their own rank-and-file habitually bash).

Land's End human resources doesn't even read the bloody employment application! They wanted me to account for my prior months of joblessness (a few years ago) beyond my honest answer, "I've been treating the job search like a full-time job, so I've not had time to do much else."

The lesson is: Spend less time on the job search, the longer you've been searching for work because you're chances don't improve after a certain point.

2) Vocational rehabilitation counselors: They know jack-squid about what human resources expects, because few counselors have gone on that many job interviews recently. (It would hurt their ego to be turned down so many times, you see.)

Most vocat-rehab staff either don't know the first thing about getting job-training grants, or do know but are too disinterested in you to do anything without you prodding a stick up their sass.

Lay off the DVR folks and replace them with robots! At least then, the "consumer" will really be in charge by knowing which "triggers" to sequence, without others' human will to interfere with their career conquests. (No more naysayers in DVR or HR, is why!)

3) Municipal managers: They do nothing except vetch at the rank-and-file and take credit for others' work. Worst, they see themselves as "pillars of the community" -just because- they happen to be fed by involuntarily-paid public tax revenues (i.e. property taxes) instead of by voluntarily-incurred sales revenues (for which "walking away" from a poor deal is usually a feasible option).

I studied public administration in college and stumped for internships. The city manager of my hometown finally let me "intern" by sitting alone at a computer in a conference room and putting together a spreadsheet.

I never saw him leave his room except to use a bathroom. And I didn't hear him take or make phone calls, so he was probably writing emails, doing IM chat, and/or web surfing all day. (No one's in his closed-door office to keep him accountable.)

So, replace all the above with a robot and see what happens! It couldn't be much worse than the typical performance of each aforementioned profession.

On a related note: An accessible book that explores the history of efforts to enact an American "living wage and right work" is Ending Poverty As We Know It, by William Quigley.

Somehow, I doubt he ever worked in human resources! Every HR person I've met has said (either directly or by implication), "Employment isn't a right!"

But if employment on someone else's payroll somehow -were- to become a right -- such that small business owners and self-employed who wanted to work for someone else could leave their self-employment and be guaranteed a job for someone else -- then Congress might have to curtail certain automation operations, lest we wind up time-sharing a too-small labor pool at hyper-inflated wages!

And of course, HR folks would be resigning in droves, if not committing harikari. The robots are coming to take -your- jobs, meddlesome hiring managers!

Now, go enjoy your "trade adjustment assistance" and shell corn alongside migrant workers, like I did after college, until automation removes even that opportunity. A better ending could not be had for dastardly HR!