Robots are taking our jobs
By Ken Root
It is likely that the next immigrant wave will be robots. Not the scary science fiction kind, but task-oriented machines that can take the place of a semi-skilled worker. In agriculture, there is a shortage of laborers and a growing economic advantage by integrating traditional activities with machines. With unexpected suddenness, this era is upon us and the prospect for changing an enterprise, by utilizing robotics, is mind boggling.
The concept of mechanizing to increase efficiency and decrease the need for labor has been with us since the dawn of the industrial revolution. The goal of the farmer, or other business owner, to replace workers with machines, in order to lower costs and increase dependability, has not changed. The new twist is competition between high-tech and low-tech countries.
A story on CBS News "60 Minutes" on Jan. 13 showed a warehouse where robots run the floor of the giant building, collecting carts and bringing them to a central point to allow orders to be filled and shipped. The little machines rolled under the tall carts until they found the one they needed and then attached to it and began the trek back to the order table. The owner put the cost of the machines in the mid-$20,000 range and the useful life at just over two years. When he computed the cost of work, it came out to about $3.40 per hour. He estimated that each robot replaced one and a half employees. It was pointed out that a robot would work all day, every day, took no vacation and did not require benefits other than electricity and oil. Putting this into a spreadsheet projects that a robotic factory in the United States can compete with workers in Asia. Business owners who want to bring factory work back to this country believe it will become their competitive advantage to own more robots and hire fewer people.
I have the mindset that "work is worth" and people who have no jobs are worth less than those who do. It seems that taking the unskilled and semi-skilled jobs away from people and giving them to machines will decrease the size of the employment base and begin to topple the whole structure of our society. My nightmare example is making all long haul trucks robotic and reintegrating two million truck drivers back into society.
It is reality that no person wants to devote their working life to menial or repetitive jobs. We do them as the means to an end: to put a roof over our heads, to educate our children and to retire (someday) with dignity. The reason for illegal immigration is that native-born Americans won't clean hotel rooms or kill hogs or pick lettuce. We have enough of a cushion under us that no work is better than that work. Employers who see that they can automate tasks, at a reduced long term cost with greater dependability and no visits from Immigration officials, may choose to do so. The question is what becomes of people who survived on the income from performing these basic tasks?
If robots are the future, what about educating our youth. Will it be done for the purpose of preparing them for jobs? If so, what careers are 'bot proof? Robot repair could probably be done by robots, eh?
So, do we educate purely for the value of learning? Do we develop pods of psychologists or coveys of theoretical physicists?
Introducing robots into our workforce could replay the era of slavery where machines take that role. They are viewed as utilitarian and given very little regard as society is built on their backs without regard to the weight it imposes. Science fiction says they will become self-aware but I can't see it.
The reality is that a capitalist society will do whatever it has to do to exploit the least expensive form of labor. At our current level of scientific advancement, we have the prospect to end human drudgery and elevate our citizens to a higher plane. The question, for me, is what we will do up there without jobs and without means to support our lives? The next step has to be socialism where all people share in the profits made by the companies who employ the robots. Some people will find work in academic and esoteric professions but the option of sitting on a couch and playing video games for a lifetime grows ever more likely.
Editor's note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.