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June 09, 2014 by

Article Series: Will we pay more to keep people in work?(And do humans actually do better work?) (Part 4)

This is the fourth article in our series on the positives and negatives of automation. As a manufacturer of automation machinery, we feel that it is our responsibility to be forthright about the controversies and questions that are a part of the industry. We provide these articles in an attempt to have a more informed customer and partner base, and in so doing, we hope to encourage a healthy dialogue on many of these topics. Rachel Greenberg writes marketing and technical content for Automation GT.

Some economists have suggested that, though we are right to worry that we may be losing massive amounts of jobs to automation (as many as 80% of all jobs in the coming years), we will continue to employ people because we as a human community will understand that it is right and necessary to employ each other. The question, then, is whether or not people will support in practice what they support in theory (paying higher rates to keep people at work), and what will be required of us in order to make that economically feasible?

The Cost of Maintaining Human Work

To be sure, there is a marketplace for things that are made by hand and with old-fashioned technologies. In fact, for about as long as there has been factory manufacturing, there have been people advertising their handmade goods as an alternative to mass-produced, generic goods. In recent years, “artisanal” has become the buzzword for this group interested in appealing to the idea of higher quality and more socially sustainable goods through small businesses made up of artisans and craftspeople.

However, products that are made by hand with old-fashioned technologies and on a small-scale generally come with higher price tags. This is unsurprising as these small operations still face many of the same requirements and have the same expenses as much larger operations, while their return on investment is usually much lower. Many of these businesses focus on a local area, though some do reach national significance (though with the advent of Internet marketing and more affordable small-scale technological options, more small businesses are able to reach a wider market). Some suggest that if we could encourage more businesses to embrace this type of human-labor-intensive, quality-focused manufacturing, that we could recreate the American marketplace as an entity with more jobs, less waste, and higher overall product quality.

However, as we have currently structured the American marketplace, there are a few things we can typically say about artisanal products:

  1. They are more available to those with more expendable income. Because these small businesses face high overhead costs, their products are generally more expensive than their generic factory counterparts. When people pay for handmade goods, they are paying for quality, uniqueness, artistry, and to support their local business people. But for many Americans, these kinds of expenses are just not feasible. About 11% of American households subsist at poverty levels of income, and almost half of all Americans live paycheck to paycheck.
  2. Availability is limited to certain areas, mostly urban. Though today it is somewhat easier for small businesses to reach a wider market through the Internet, most are still limited to small store fronts and individual farmers’ markets, and because regular exposure and availability is a major factor in sales success, most small manufacturers will likely stay in urban areas and their nearby suburbs to maximize their potential to reach an audience. Because such a large percentage of the working poor in America live in the suburbs and rural America, this large percentage of the population will continue to rely on cheap, readily available goods, and the manufacturers who provide these goods will likely continue to do so without competition.
  3. This style of craftsmanship is not suited to all types of products, and in some cases will actually decrease quality. Certain products lend themselves especially well to handcrafting: food, clothing, stationary, toys, furniture, etc. Other products, usually ones that would not be purchased directly by the end consumer, do not make such good candidates for artisanal manufacturing. For example, many medical devices like syringes, heart monitors, and catheters, devices that will actually be inserted into the human body and as such require high levels of accuracy and consistency, will actually be more reliable when produced through automation. This type of manufacturing represents a large part of the American manufacturing landscape, but does not receive as much attention because there are far fewer direct consumers for these products.

As Dr. James Hughes suggests, it is likely pure optimism to think that more than just a few people would willingly pay more for goods and services to receive things that have a perceived higher value or quality. With fast food as the example, Hughes demonstrates that most people will continue to put their money into these kinds of cheap, mass-scale operations for the sake of convenience and economic efficiency.

What if small manufacturers and businesses automated?

There are already automation options available for a variety of the tasks performed at a small business. For example, many businesses have automated their telephone systems, many administrative functions, and the processes of collecting and analyzing data.

But beyond this type of software-based automation, we are starting to see small businesses and manufacturers starting to integrate the same type of industrial automation that we might see in a larger factory. These machines are useful for small-scale production jobs like loading and unloading boxes and moving items to or from assembly line belts.

The most noteworthy of this wave of small-manufacturing-application robots is Baxter, a robot that looks very much like a typical industrial robot, but that includes a computer monitor with cartoon eyes that is meant to make Baxter easier for coworkers to use and understand. The eyes also allow employees to know when Baxter can or can’t see them, making Baxter much safer to work around than previous generations of industrial robots.

Baxter has had mixed success in the market. It is a relatively cheap robot at $22,000, making it a better investment than a person doing the same job after just one year. However, many companies that could use Baxter are not expressing interest. This is mostly likely because no one is quite sure who their clientele are. Baxter is not capable of extremely precise tasks like small parts assembly and so is not suitable for many of the traditional customers of automation. Conversely, Baxter offers more capabilities than many of its target customers really need. And because Baxter’s creators are trying to break into a market that has not traditionally utilized much automation, it proves a difficult sell for lots of small business owners.

And for many small business owners, this is the first time they have faced the issue of replacing workers with machines, and as a result, many have a predictably Luddite response.

Do humans actually do better work than machines?

Recently, Toyota made news with their decision to scale down on their automation and bring back some human labor jobs into their factories. This is especially notable as the automotive industry famously uses automation, and further, Japan is second only to South Korean in proportion of robots to humans in the workplace.

Toyota listed a couple of reasons for their decision. First, they were unsatisfied at the speed with which employees were able to respond to system malfunctions. Because machines did so much of the work, employees no longer had the knowledge needed to step in and fix a problem when something went wrong. They believed that having more employees who were highly skilled as craftspeople would provide them with more knowledgeable individuals, capable of fixing these problems more quickly or avoiding them altogether.

Secondly, manufacturers felt that the quality of their product could be improved by a greater reliance on the intensive study and knowledge of craftsmen. This is especially interesting as the automotive industry has so long relied on automation that at this point, most would assume that it is an industry in which automation would produce higher quality. However, these factory owners feel that robots are not as flexible as humans and will not be able to learn and adapt in accordance with the innovation that the company would like to implement with some speed in their factories.

Of course, it is difficult to know to what degree this perceived lower quality is just a matter of insufficiency in our current automation. Because the technology of automation is improving at such a rapid rate, it is likely that at least some of Toyota’s concerns with lower quality in automation systems may change in the coming years.

Admittedly, Toyota will sacrifice some growth by their decision, and the company will not be building any new factories for the next three years. But the company is banking on the idea that the rush to place increasing dependence on automation is actually making the automotive industry less efficient overall, and that their efforts to slow this trend will result in longer term health.

So is there an alternative to a future with 80% automation of jobs?

If we continue to automate creativity and high-skill jobs, we will eventually have a marketplace in which humans performing many of these jobs will be redundant. Dr. Hughes suggests that we may have to rely more heavily on specially-created public sector jobs to make up this job loss, but if it is true that we will not be willing, as a culture, to pay more for goods made by humans, then it seems ridiculous that we would vote to set aside money for humans to perform redundant work.

Dr. Hughes suggests two other notable possibilities: either we refocus our applications of technology on making humans better at their work, or we put humans on a “permanent vacation.”

In some ways, we have already started on the process of making people better through technology. Prosthetic limbs and other devices to improve movement and range of motion for the disabled are among the most popular projects for high-tech developers. Some of the resulting devices are incredible. Purpose-specific prosthetics have allowed people to go back to walking, running, riding bikes, playing drums, and painting, among many other tasks that allow those with mobility limitations to achieve greater success in reclaiming a quality of life that would have been impossible in previous years.

Until now, most technologies that might go into or on the human body are meant to help people return to a certain point or quality of life that they may have lost. What Dr. Hughes is suggesting is to actually make people better through technology, better than they were before they received the technological upgrades. This is no foreign concept in science fiction, but has not been terribly viable in biotechnology for a whole host of reasons, both practical and ethical. Until we reconcile these problems, we are not likely to see humans altered to the point that they are significantly better employees than robots.

Dr. Hughes’s second suggestion, that we send people on a “permanent vacation,” is an idea that has received attention before from many groups, but is not often talked about in the public sphere. What he is effectively suggesting is the idea that all people should be guaranteed a basic income and level of security. This means that, because there is no work available to do, that people would not face any serious personal loss simply because they can’t secure a work-based income. The idea would be that, because we have automated so heavily, we will have sufficient wealth and means to support all of these people.

Proponents of this theory suggest that this restructured economy would lower income inequality, decrease poverty and destitution, and actually produce less waste. Again, for the time being, this is truer to science fiction than reality. Some Star Trek fans believe that this post-scarcity economy is the basic setup of the economic system of the future as depicted in the sci-fi series, the idea being that because everyone has guaranteed financial security and comfort, that people are free to pursue careers and projects that are fulfilling personally, but do not determine their ability to afford their basic needs.

In Part Five…

Automation, at least in many roles in manufacturing, is a necessity of our age, and this is not new. In fact, due to automation in agriculture, we have now automated all but 1% of the jobs that might have been done by people on a farm about 200 years ago. This doesn’t mean that over 200 years, we have lost our use for these people. Though this job loss certainly would have been scary as it occurred, it would have been impossible for people living in the last 200 years to predict what sorts of new jobs and lifestyles would be available to people in the 21st century. Learning where humans fit requires creative thinking, but it should be remembered that automation is meant to make our lives better. If it is making our lives worse by dramatically changing our abilities to earn a living wage, we aren’t using it correctly.

Part 1: Why automate in the first place?

Part 2: Who’s afraid of a little automation?

Part 3: How far up the ladder can automation go?

Part 4: How do we keep people employed? Or shouldn’t we?

Part 5: Addressing the concerns of the displaced

Part 6: How can we automate responsibly?