Mechanization: Video Epilogue

A couple weeks ago I was pondering the ratcheting effect of minimum wage laws (actually minimum wage plus all the errata like fringe benefits and whatnot). If you’re interested here are the links.

For those of you who have no desire to click links I’ll summarize: I mentioned that, as a consumer, I’m perfectly happy when machines replace people. For example, ATMs and Self Serve Gas Pumps are (in my opinion) superior to the humans they replaced. I also admired the great mechanical land barges that harvest wheat and are part of the reason my corn flakes are dirt cheap. (Note: trying to grow stuff with my antique tractor has taught me what a stone cold pain in the ass farming can be with sub-par machinery.)

This is a rare instance when I’m a “glass is half full” kinda guy. I’ve already seen the self order kiosk at a couple fast food places and I don’t mind them. (Am I the only one that finds it frustrating trying to explain what I want to someone two feet away who’s just punching ideograms on a terminal?) I’m eagerly awaiting my first robotically created hamburger. For me, it’s just a game.

Also, for me, I see every minute a human spends doing anything as an opportunity cost. Whatever they were doing, could they be doing something cooler? What is the cooler thing that they’re not doing? Would the world be more awesome if they were right now doing the cooler thing? Humans have a certain unknowable amount of time, the less time they spend darning socks the more time they have available for something more. (Unless one aspires to be the best damn sock darner ever… excellence in any venue is a reasonable goal.)

Now I’m not a fool. I know that 99% of free time will be spend on bullshit. Great big harvesting machines replaced herds of people with hand scythes and most of those former hand scythe operators didn’t go on to write symphonies. That’s ok. They had a chance. If one has options and then decides to sit on the couch growing moss… at least the chance was there. That’s a good thing.

There’s a different and opposite opinion to mine. I think of a person as having a certain amount of time and ponder what they’ll do with that gift. The other side thinks of a person as needing a job and ponders their misery if they’re not employed. I’m not so sure about this. The purpose of a job is not to entertain the masses. Jobs are not playpens for adults. The removal of one duty just broadens the horizon for another.

However, in the interest of fairness I’m posting this video. It’s a “glass is half empty” discussion of what the hell are we all going to do when our robot overlords replace us at the job? It’s well written, well reasoned, and well presented. Let it never be said that I don’t air contrary opinions.

I’m still perfectly happy in an employment arms race with machines and I’m well aware that I might indeed someday lose. I can live with that. So long as those robots keep my corn flakes cheap and don’t screw up the bacon supply… good luck to ’em.

About Adaptive Curmudgeon

I will neither confirm nor deny that I actually exist.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Mechanization: Video Epilogue

  1. Anonymous says:

    Its not really so much that the machines replace “jobs” – its that, at some point, they replace people. – or at least the part that provides value to other people. The machines write better symphonies than any person. They become better lovers . They become the best sock darner there ever was. When considered in light of what is said here: ( — these machines will be better people than most people are, and since our entire economy is based on trading our value to each other, you are really talking about a massive influx of very skilled immigrants willing to work forever for a one-time payment that is less than 6 months of a typical human’s pay.. . and if that happens all at once, the economy tanks…. but say it doesn’t – goods and services just become so cheap that everyone has the ability to do whatever they want. 99.999 % of the human race will sit there in floating chairs like they did in Pixar’s Wall-E. You can already see the little iScreens stealing our kids brains– and what happens when even the content on those is produced electronically? Why write a symphony when you can just ask the computer to create one you would like — and it can? Why interact with other people at all when your relationships with simulated people are so much more satisfying? Technology is like everything else – it needs to be used in moderation, and the human race just can’t handle that much leisure time.

    Idle hands are the devil’s playground.

    Developing Human character, wisdom, and a sense of gratefulness for your life and the things in it (don’t under-estimate that last one) requires hard knocks and some swift kicks to the pants. It involves a certain amount of “have to”
    You and I know the satisfaction of achievement, and we would tell the machine to back off at some point and just do it ourselves for the joy of doing it ourselves. We would do this because we didn’t grow up in an age where the machines deprived us of the chance of ever learning that in the first place. Its too hard? Its become work and not play? Just let the machine do it. Most of these kids will become NOTHING BUT consumers.. eating what the machines have made. The monkey brain we evolved just isn’t suited to dealing with the lack of hardship, and it will automatically set about creating more hardship for itself ( and others) – and therein lies the problem. The .0.0001 who could deal with the technology and still be happy, diligent, ambitious , grateful people will be prevented from doing so by the 99.999% who quite frankly can’t deal with being that idle and happy, and who will insist on creating some trouble for themselves.

    Just look at what modern Appliances did- they gave birth to the phrase “Men have responsibilities, and women have “choices” — they allowed some fairly unintelligent, bored, unhappy housewives create the scourge that is modern feminism. ( Now what happens when you free up large groups of intelligent , driven, hardworking people and prevent them from actually contributing because they know the machines can do the job better? This song will be prophetic–

  2. Anonymous says:

    If only there were some difference between humans and horses, his analogy might not hold water.

  3. Tim says:

    Thanks for humoring me 🙂

    Predictions are difficult, especially about the future. It’s not entirely clear to me that we have enough momentum to reach any sort of technological singularity in my lifetime. Another possibility is that it turns out deficits do matter, math wins and there is a proper global financial armageddon. In which case, worrying about being replaced by robots is going to seem really silly.

    Or, the transition to a post scarcity economy is brilliantly managed by our wise and noble political class and we all live happily ever after.

  4. MaxDamage says:

    Robots are an opportunity cost as well, for the manufacturer. Take it from an industrial engineer, if I could design a robot for a total cost of ownership of less than $30K/year that would do the job a minimum wage worker is doing that worker would be out of that job. It’s not his job. Never was. It’s the employer’s job and he’s hiring the lowest-cost/best-capable combination to do it. When they raise the minimum wage, they only make my robots more competitive with unskilled labor.

    – Max

  5. Anonymous III says:

    Your burger robot is already reality. Only need 24 sq ft of space and no benefit plan!

    I saw the future of work in a San Francisco garage two years ago. Or rather, I was in proximity to the future of work, but happened to be looking the other direction.

    At the time, I was visiting a space startup building satellites behind a carport. But just behind them—a robot was cooking up burgers. The inventors of the burger device? Momentum Machines, and they’re serious about fast food productivity.

    “Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient,” cofounder Alexandros Vardakostas has said. “It’s meant to completely obviate them.”

    The Momentum burger-bot isn’t remotely humanoid. You can forget visions of Futurama’s Bender. It’s more of a burger assembly line. Ingredients are stored in automated containers along the line. Instead of pre-prepared veggies, cheese, and ground beef—the bot chars, slices, dices, and assembles it all fresh.

    Why would talented engineers schooled at Berkeley, Stanford, UCSB, and USC with experience at Tesla and NASA bother with burger-bots? Robots are increasingly capable of jobs once thought the sole domain of humans—and that’s a huge opportunity.

    Burger robots may improve consistency and sanitation, and they can knock out a rush like nobody’s business. Momentum’s robot can make a burger in 10 seconds (360/hr). Fast yes, but also superior quality. Because the restaurant is free to spend its savings on better ingredients, it can make gourmet burgers at fast food prices.

    Or at least, that’s the idea.

    Momentum Machines says your average fast food joint spends $135,000 a year on burger line cooks. Employees work in a chaotic kitchen environment that necessitates no-slip shoes in addition to the standard hairnets and aprons.

    Momentum Machines’ burger robot looks nothing like this retro robot chef—but it’s still awesome.

    By replacing human cooks, the machine reduces liability, management duties, and, at just 24 square feet, the overall food preparation footprint. Resources once dedicated to preparation can instead fund better service.

    Of course, businesses are free to spend their savings however they like.

    For some, that may mean more quality ingredients or services. For others, it might be competing with other restaurants by maintaining the same level of service and ingredients but offering even lower food prices.

    But Momentum Machines’ burger-bot isn’t provocative for its anticipated effects on fast food quality. The bot, and other robots like it, may soon replace low-skilled workers in droves. If one machine developed in a garage in San Francisco can do away with an entire kitchen of fast food staff—what other jobs are about to disappear?

    Earlier this year, McDonalds employees protested outside the fast food chain’s corporate headquarters in Chicago, demanding higher wages. A robotic kitchen might bring improved pay for the front of the house, and a pay cut to zero for the back. Some fraction of the 3.6 million US fast food jobs might be automated by such technology.

    While the burger-bot hasn’t taken anyone’s job yet, Momentum Machines is clearly sensitive to the worry. The firm says they want to help support those who may lose work as a direct effect of restaurants adopting the robot.

    “We want to help the people who may transition to a new job as a result of our technology the best way we know how: education.”

    As new technology destroys one kind of job, it creates opportunities for others. We’ll need fewer line cooks, they say, but more engineers and technicians. The problem isn’t that jobs are lost on net, it’s the resulting skills gap. Transitioning into new work can be difficult to navigate, especially for low-wage workers.

    Momentum Machines wants to help ease the move by partnering with vocational schools to offer discounted technical training for anyone displaced by their robot. Their goal is indicative of the overall tenor of an increasingly heated debate about how AI and robot employment may reduce human employment in the near future.

    In a recent Pew Survey, some 1,900 technology experts agreed that robots will be a pervasive part of daily life by 2025. Automation will infiltrate industries like health care, transport and logistics, customer service, and home maintenance.

    However, those polled were split on whether the impending wave of automation would be good or bad for workers: 52% believe AI and robotics will be a net positive for employment, and 48% believe the opposite.

    The typical line of reasoning from the positive camp is that we’ve consistently been shedding “traditional” jobs and replacing them with brand new modes of work for the last few hundred years. In the early decades of the 20th century, most people were farmers or factory workers. Now, thanks to huge technological productivity gains, agricultural and factory workers are about 2% of the workforce respectively.

    Has this resulted in massive unemployment? Quite the opposite. A profusion of new jobs that didn’t exist back then and were unimaginable to even the far-sighted have taken their place. Further, the quality of life for most people has improved drastically. This is what history indicates should happen again with advanced AI and robots.

    The negative camp is less sure our technological creations will prove to be a good thing overall. They say something’s different this time.

    Are we destined for a painful period of adjustment to powerful new forms of automation?

    Two MIT economists associated with the topic of technological unemployment, Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, have written two books on the subject. They think robots more advanced than Momentum Machines’ burger cook will soon arrive, and while they will be a force for good in the long run, they’ll displace human workers and cause strife well before we get there.

    The problem isn’t that new jobs won’t be created, but that the looming transition period will be more difficult to navigate because the speed, depth, and breadth of the change will be unrivaled.

    Might companies like Momentum Machines offering to foot some of the bill to retrain workers be the solution? Maybe. Others think we’ll need more drastic policies, like a guaranteed minimum income. But perhaps we’re already better equipped to adapt to leaps in automation and productivity today and in the near future than we realize.

    Today’s work force is as flexible as it’s ever been. We can more easily search job opportunities online; we’re less geographically limited; we have quick access to masses of information; we can earn technical degrees and certificates online; and many people already cycle through multiple roles in multiple industries during their careers.

    That’s not to say automation won’t present challenges for some people. It always has. And the topic will almost undoubtedly get more politically divisive from here. But the burger-bots are coming, and we think the net result over time will be as positive in the coming decades as it has been time and again over the last two centuries.

    Image Credit: Momentum Machines; Sam Howzit/Flickr; Max Kiesler/Flickr; woodleywonderworks/Flickr

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s