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Here Come the Robots

Terry Schwadron
July 13, 2016

by Terry H. Schwadron

21metropolis-robotmariaFOR THE PRESIDENTIAL candidates, promises about jobs, job creation, and saving the middle class are staples. In just the last couple of weeks, Donald Trump was in Pittsburgh, decrying international trade agreements and promising to bring steel manufacture and jobs back to the region. Hillary Clinton talks about government-sponsored infrastructure jobs and encouraging small business.

But quite apart from whatever trade agreements might bring, what venture capital investments might support, and the questionable role of government in stimulating (or not) job creation in society, a closer look may show that all this talk actually is running in the opposite direction from the most singular force taking root where labor and workplace are headed -- robots.

Just hear the word “robot,” and our interest lights up with futuristic visions of humanoid beings, full of dexterity and loyalty, serving our every household and industrial need. As we can see almost weekly, that future is not-so-slowly becoming real, as technology companies move on from automation, apps, and “time-saving” devices to tackle the development of robots for a wider, more bewildering set of routine tasks. These companies usually start first with safety concerns, but are moving on to envision Jetsons-like household help and new industrial processes.

We are already used to talk of robotic bomb-detection equipment, driverless cars, and drone delivery. Who could argue with safe taming of explosives, or fewer auto accidents, or instant service from a smart machine that, we are told, can probably actually “learn,” at least the kind of learning that reflects memorized, encoded experiences.

Indeed, some see the dawning of a new possible economic age –- one in which government provides a minimum income, perhaps, and work, now eliminated or drastically reduced, is more choice than requirement. Somehow, the argument goes, we should be able to separate work from income. Work might still serve for some to be how they define themselves, but no longer be tied to income and economic status. A pending book called No More Work by James Livingston, a Rutgers historian (Univ. of North Carolina Press), tries to describe a nation in which full employment is a bad goal, in which work income is no longer needed, and in which we could worry more about how to use our new leisure time.

Hah! Our government -- indeed global governments -- are moving away from pension protections, from guarantees of health coverage, even from support for subsistence living through food stamps. Government, at least as we know it, cannot pass a logical tax code, organize a reliable education system, even decide to address things like Zika viruses before they head out of control. So much for the post-scarcity society.

SO WHAT IS IT about robots that we should focus on? Do the benefits and threats necessarily coexist?

Whatever dangers we may detect seem relatively benign in the face of advancements that may be possible in medicine, transportation, safety, the military, even education, through robots. The promise is that advances to be had in economic productivity and product quality will be unheralded. It is all so a part of “progress” that the widespread acceptance of robots in our society has yet even to be questioned in wider social circles.

Yet industry, technology, economy, and academia experts who are asked seem to agree that, in combination with a consumerist, capitalist economy, robots will become a huge disruptive force in the U.S. and global economies -- replacing millions of workers, probably within the lifetime of the next two-term presidency. Political promises about job development notwithstanding, we actually should be preparing for a massive loss of human employment.

Make no mistake: Robotics differs from automation, which automates certain functions but still leaves operations in human hands. Robots actually displace people, as has long been seen in auto factories and other industrial settings. Their arrival into service industries will raise a new set of issues. In particular, robots will at first displace workers at lower pay grades, but gradually move through the entire economy.

The University of California, San Francisco’s Mission Bay wing, opened last year with robots in place to deliver food and medications to bedsides, and with robots in place to fill pharmacy orders. In both cases, administrators said humans were not displaced, but only because the hospital is growing and adding jobs. The robots are always on time and make no errors.

The head of the McDonalds fast-food chain told a restaurant association meeting last month that rising minimum wages are accelerating plans for 25,000 robot-run restaurants globally; there are more than 50,000 fast-food workers in New York City alone. Citibank expects a 30 percent reduction in branch tellers as a result of machinery. The Associated Press has started using robots to produce stories about minor league baseball games. A robotics association newsletter outlined how driverless vehicles may mean fewer accidents, but that also will change not only the trucking industry, but businesses like auto repair, auto parts, short-term motels, roadside fast-food places, and the like.

Indeed, the World Economic Forum issued warnings this spring about global employment, forecasting that more than five million people will lose jobs across fifteen developed economies by 2020 as a direct result of robotics and automation technology. That estimate is likely low, because it does not take into account the rippling effects that will occur -- effects as profound as those caused by the reduction of agriculture as an occupation or by the start of the information age. This new technology push will raise questions throughout our society.

Even with new jobs emerging from the robot-building industry (until robots take over the task), it is the sheer scale of disruption that should prompt the question: What can or should we be doing, knowing that these forms of progress are coming? There is a lot that we should be considering in public policy, conservative or liberal thinking notwithstanding. What is the role of education in a disrupted economy –- or unemployment programs -- or the government and industry?

We should be challenging our presidential candidates (before they too are replaced by real robots) with the question of what they plan to do as robots displace swaths of workers -- in a process underwritten by tax incentives. The issue is not whether one is FOR robotics; the issue is what do we do with displaced workers.

HERE'S ONE MODEST economic proposal: For companies that claim depreciation for capital investment in new automation and robotics that displace workers, perhaps some investment must be made in additional job training for displaced employees. For that matter, employers should be forced to create new jobs or income streams for displaced employees with the savings that will accrue through tax-underwritten “progress.”

Robots will be used first in jobs that are repetitive, routine, easily definable –- jobs that are open first to the least educated, the poorest, the most at-risk in our population. But white-collar jobs will not be saved from robotization either — including the writing of news articles, some of which today are being generated by computer (not this one).

For the moment, the issue of robots is being handled similarly to how we discuss trade policy: Candidates say they are for or against a treaty, not how best to cope with the issues that would arise from its adoption. So it goes when they discuss jobs: They talk about tax incentives for investment, not the consequences of eliminatiing whole classes of work.

The questions and possibilities for what we should do, of course, are much wider. But let’s see if we can get something modest on the table.

Terry H. Schwadron is the retired editor for information and news technology at the New York Times and former deputy managing editor of the Los Angeles Times. He plays trombone with Equilibrium, a jazz sextet. His books include Our Journey: A Second Chance, a 2015 memoir of surviving the Holocaust.