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November 2, 2010 AT 8:09 am

Robots Are Replacing Middle Class Jobs?

Post Full 1286994086Middle-Class-Robot

Robots Are Replacing Middle Class Jobs? @ GOOD

The culprit, in other words, is technology. The hard truth—and you don’t see it addressed in news reports—is that the middle class is disappearing in large part because technology is rendering middle-class skills obsolete.

People say America doesn’t make anything anymore, but that’s not true. With the exception of a few short lapses, manufacturing output has been on the rise since the 1980s. What is true is that industrial robots have been carrying ever more of the manufacturing burden on their steely shoulders since they appeared in the 1950s. Today, a Japanese company called Fanuc, Ltd., has industrial robots making other industrial robots in a “lights out” factory. (That’s the somewhat unsettling term for a fully automated production facility where you don’t need lights because you don’t need humans.) That’s where we’re headed.

It’s not just manufacturing, either. Automated call centers are replacing customer-service agents. Automated checkout stations are replacing grocery-store clerks. When the science of computer vision advances sufficiently, we’ll have algorithms, not humans, evaluating X-rays at airport security checkpoints…


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2 Comments

  1. Time to re-read Marshall Brain’s Robotic Nation essays.

  2. I hate articles like this.

    First of all, middle-class jobs have been getting ‘automated’ out of existence for centuries.

    Want to know a major middle-class job that got ‘automated’ away? Clerks.. the humans who handled all calculation in business prior to the 1970s. Before the 20th century they did all their work by hand.. think Bob Cratchitt of Dickens fame. The invention of mechanical adding machines (Charles Babbage, anyone?) increased the speed slightly and the reliability greatly, but a business of any size still had entire rooms full of people sitting at desks and crunching numbers all day long.

    Today a single cheap computer running a spreadsheet can out-perform a thousand such middle-class workers. That means the salaries of a thousand such middle class workers aren’t rolled into the price of every product you buy.

    Second, for every job automation ‘replaces’ a hundred more come into existence.

    Look at the automated testing equipment for flash memory. ATE is expensive.. prorated over its usable lifespan, a rig will probably cost one to two cents per *second*. Ten seconds of automated testing will add maybe 25c to the cost of a chip. But you can test an entire gigabyte of flash in 10 seconds, for a quarter.

    Imagine what flash memory would cost if it had to be tested by skilled human labor. I can bet you that it would take longer than 10 seconds, and that it would cost more than a quarter.

    Now look at all the cell phones, iPods, and digital cameras out there that use flash memory.. think about all the human jobs exist because of those products. Now guess how many of those jobs would exist if flash memory had to be tested by humans.

    Imagine what shipping packages via UPS would be like if all the data had to be managed by humans with adding machines, file cabinets, and typewriters.

    Imagine what e-commerce would be like if every transaction had to be handled by humans at both ends of a telephone line.

    Imagine Adafruit in a world of human-tested electronics, human financial processing, and human-managed transport logistics.

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