The New Yeoman

Thoughts on Making a Living

Category: Automation

Wait a Cotton Picking Minute

From the most excellent Virginia Postrel, “A Slow Motion Robot Takeover.” The robotization of cotton picking and the surprising automation facts of a job nobody wants to do.

I could not agree more with, “Radiologists and store employees have better, more intrinsically human ways to use their work time. … When such mind-numbing tasks disappear, few people will mourn their passing, any more than the children of sharecroppers long to spend their summers hoeing weeds and their autumns pulling cotton bolls.”

Three takeaways,

  1. Full automation was impossible without years of tinkering.
  2. The robot takeover created opportunities.
  3. Even when automation is unquestionably a net benefit, there are losers.

To that 3rd point,

How to help displaced workers is a hard problem. Government checks may save people from destitution but they can also encourage them to stay too long in declining towns—a lesson to those who see the universal basic income as an easy solution to technological unemployment. Adaptation requires more than money.

This concept is not popular among the people who constantly lament the loss of “good jobs” that involve repetitive manual or mental labor, but we humans are made for more.We carry around this heavy lump of gray matter on our pencil-necks for a reason. When we accept mindless jobs as the only legitimate goal for a huge swath of the population, we lessen our humanity. And a universal basic income to do nothing is not the answer either.  We need to quit writing off people as helpless to this technological progress and start delivering much more hard hitting messages about the future of work and education.

Truck Drivers and Autonomous Driving

Photo Credit: By Steve Jurvetson [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Dan Hanson’s comment over at Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution discussion on sel-driving trucks is spot on. In The New Yeoman’s humble opinion, predictions of wide-scale job losses due to automation show a remarkable lack of understanding of the complexities of most human filled jobs, especially those involving “routine operations” which may be one of the greatest misnomers of all time.

Scope & Tech Hucksters

For those of you who are rolling their eyes right now, let me clarify that I am not saying automation and autonomous vehicles will not “eat” (seemingly the preferred IT term) parts of many jobs, maybe even the biggest parts. However, I generally find that automation and software engineers, by necessity, have to carve out the parts they cannot deal with initially. Then, like all projects, the communications and the terminology overtake the actual scope of the project. What was seen as a limited-scope project with a long-term objective of replacement becomes the “replacement” project. Of course, that is even before the Tech Hucksters get involved.

Why is Customer Service not totally automated yet?

In one of my fields of customer service, the human component has grown considerably while the industry has been simultaneously introducing self-help features at an exponential rate over the last 15 years. Much like Mr Hanson mentions, customer service departments have many of the advantages of factory environments when considering controlled variables, so it is somewhat of an ideal environment for automation. So, why aren’t we done with customer service automation?

Truck Drivers and Autonomous Driving

What I am about to mention is a touchy subject. I also see in some autonomous tech advocates a dismissal of the intelligence of routine operators such as truck drivers or taxi drivers. (See the Uber boss videos with randomly met Uber drivers) We have a problem of both sides not understanding the other. The routine operators often see the automators as egg-heads with no common sense and the the automators see the operators as simpletons who were not smart enough to be one of them. The difference is that many operators do not write press releases or tech articles that the press seem so fascinated by. A warehouse that ships goods? Boring. An Amazon warehouse? Where do I sign up for the tour!

Note to automators; the fact that you scoped out a particular feature does not make it go away. In some ways, it is a very real acknowledgement that the people doing the current job are critical to the functioning of the modern world.

Note to operators; embrace the history of automation. The automation will probably make your remaining job more interesting as long as you don’t mind lifelong learning to stay relevant.

Skynet Smiles, Because Skynet is Still a Simpleton

Until a tech solution can take on the whole operational issue in one gulp, the real issue is not whether there are going to be any human jobs, but will the humans have the skills to fill the (voluminous) jobs that remain. We’ve got a long way to go before Skynet takes over, folks.

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