Two proposals for dealing with the robot revolution (the next wave of automation)

Summary: Slowly people see the robot revolution coming, when automation does to jobs in services what it did to farming and manufacturing. We’re in the first phase, delusional confidence about the effects — so we see not need to prepare. So we idly dream away the time available to prepare. Here we review two new reports with proposals — what we can do manage these inevitable changes.

Welcome to the Future


(1) Some rare good sense about automation

The Rise of the Machines“, Gavin Mueller, Jacobin, #10 — “Automation isn’t freeing us from work; it’s keeping us under capitalist control.”  Excerpt:

I applied to America’s employer of last resort: McDonald’s. I was hired within the week. I’d worked kitchens before, so I figured this would be pretty easy stuff. It was and it wasn’t, and it wasn’t because it was.

… McDonald’s was different from other restaurants, where I had had to learn at least a few cooking basics. At McDonald’s, each station was highly mechanized to minimize the need for employees to know anything. That included counting: the cash register automatically spat out the correct change for me with every transaction. The food prep areas had huge specialized machines to standardize the cooking process. I didn’t even have to pay attention when filling up soft drinks — just hit the button for the appropriate size. Practically every machine was connected to some kind of timer. During busy times, the kitchen became a buzzing, beeping confusion, adding a layer of sonic chaos to an already hectic job.

This is the automated kitchen. At McDonald’s, food preparation is designed to require absolutely no thought or technique at all, deskilled as completely as possible by half a century of industrial management. This standardizes the food, so your McNuggets are the same no matter which McDonald’s fries them. More importantly, it entails minimal training for employees, a good idea since turnover is high (I did a bit over two months before quitting). A deskilled workforce is a precarious workforce.

As it was a generation ago, automation has become a political issue; one Peter Frase, my colleague at Jacobin, has been discussing for some time. Frase has developed a “post-work” argument for understanding the politics of automation. In the short term, the new machines benefit capitalists, who can lay off their expensive, unnecessary workers to fend for themselves in the labor market. But, in the longer view, automation also raises the specter of a world without work, or one with a lot less of it, where there isn’t much for human workers to do. If we didn’t have capitalists sucking up surplus value as profit, we could use that surplus on social welfare to meet people’s needs. Meanwhile, whatever work remains could be split up, so we’d have shorter working days and more time for the things that really matter to us.

Robby the Robot
Probably not this.


One of Frase’s clearest statements on the politics of the post-work future comes from his summary of the deal the International Longshoremen’s Association worked out with employers, in which dockworkers accepted automation as long as productivity gains could be shared among workers who were no longer needed. This, he argues, is a model for the future, though he admits that longshoremen have extra leverage because they occupy a vulnerable point in capitalism’s supply chains. Frase argues that we should model our own political work along these lines, accepting automation while agitating — at the political level, rather than in the workplace — for a universal basic income. Then we have a future where the machines do our dirty work for us, and we can live a life of unalienated labor — or leisure, as we choose.

I love this vision of a future — a “postwork imaginary,” in the words of Kathi Weeks. Weeks argues that the Left needs these kinds of utopian visions of a future sans capitalism — one where I can put in a few hours at the office before spending the rest of my day hunting, fishing, rearing cattle, and, of course, writing criticism.

But I’m just not sure how we get there, beyond a nebulous gesture to “after the revolution, comrades.” Maybe I’m just impatient, but from where I’m standing, in full-bore capitalism preparing some supersized austerity cuts for everyone, it looks like automation is actually a huge problem, a very real threat to workers, who, with the help of machines, are being casualized, laid off, and made obsolete.

(2)  Contrast that with the illusion of better education

The 22 million Millennials (age 18 – 31) living at home (a fifty-year record high) might be skeptical about the wonderfullness of education in a modern job market. But there are still believers.

Dancing with Robots“, Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane, The Third Way, 2013 — “Human Skills for Computerize.”  Nice analysis, good recommendations. But the authors ignore the primary fact about automation: that it’s likely to reduce the number of service jobs, and there is no reasonable likelihood of new jobs created in equivalent numbers to replace them.

We cannot predict with accuracy the occupations that will grow fastest in the future or the precise tasks that humans will perform. Nonetheless, it is a safe bet that the human labor market will center on three kinds of work: solving unstructured problems, working with new information, and carrying out non-routine manual tasks. The rest will be done by computers and low wage workers abroad. It is also a safe bet that most Americans will need to acquire new knowledge and skills over their work lives in order to earn a good living in a changing work world. In this context, the nation’s challenge is to sharply increase the fraction of American children with the foundational skills needed to develop job-relevant knowledge and to learn efficiently over a lifetime.

Meeting the challenge would address multiple problems. Through much of the 20th century, successive generations of Americans had substantially higher educational attainments, and rapidly rising education levels were an important contributor to national economic growth. Since the mid-1970s, and despite the high rate of return to schooling, the educational attainments of successive generations have grown much more slowly. A serious commitment to dramatically increasing the percentage of American youth who master today’s foundational skills would begin to address this problem. It would also increase the potential for upward economic mobility among children growing up in low-income families.

Finally, we noted earlier that occupational projections show rapid growth in high end jobs, but they also show rapid growth in low paying jobs carrying out non-routine manual tasks — for example, healthcare support occupations that require little formal education.

(3)  For More Information about the robot revolution

(a)  Dynamics of the robot revolution

  1. The coming big increase in structural unemployment, August 2010
  2. The coming Robotic Nation, 28 August 2010
  3. The coming of the robots, reshaping our society in ways difficult to foresee,
    22 September 2010
  4. Economists grapple with the first stage of the robot revolution, September 2012
  5. The coming big inequality. Was Marx just early?, 27 November 2012

(b)  First signs of the robot revolution appear

  1. The Robot Revolution arrives & the world changes, Apr 2012
  2. In Friday’s job report you’ll see early signs of the robot revolution!, 5 December 2012
  3. Krugman discovers the Robot Revolution!, 9 December 2012
  4. How do we respond to the Robot Revolution?, 11 December 2012
  5. 2012: the year people began to realize the robots are coming, 3 January 2013
  6. Journalists reporting the end of journalism as a profession, 19 March 2013
  7. The next step of computer evolution: becoming bloggers, 20 March 2013

(4) A moment in our distant future?




24 thoughts on “Two proposals for dealing with the robot revolution (the next wave of automation)”

  1. The post work argument is essentially the same argument Bertrand Russell made in his 1932 book “In Praise of Idleness”.
    The great problem Bertrand saw, was the view that work, in it self, was a virtue, the working class would fall into error without work to keep them on the straight and narrow.
    There are no real technical barriers to a post work world. The Barriers are moral and philosophical, though I would imagine it is the wealthy who would have the greatest philosophical issues with a post work world.

    1. In the terms of modern discourse, I believe the issues are largely distributional — hence economic and political on an operational level.

      Merocaine makes the important point that these have a philosophical and moral foundation. Hence the timely appearance of libertarianism and Objectivism (Ayn Rand) to justify the 1% taking the larger share of the benefits of increased productivity.

      What is the other side of the philosophical debate? This is pretty much as Marx predicted. He got the result of the first industrial revolution wrong, but the second might vindicate his thinking.

  2. This comming issue just can not be started with “government so small to drown it in bathtub”, just can not be. Or we will end up in the vision as in Hunger Games, In Time or Elysium.
    It was the government that did get us to this point much quicker then without its financing R&D programs and it will be the government role that will bring a positive solution to this important question. A government role as our agency.

    1. The government is not, fortunately, an independent actor in the US. So the government cannot and will not save us.

      The government reflects political forces in American society. And it will do what it is told to do. If we remain passive, our elites will work the Republic’s machinery to govern America.

  3. From the “Dancing with Robots” article:

    “A serious commitment to dramatically increasing the percentage of American youth who master today’s foundational skills would begin to address this problem.”

    Two questions:

    Is there a shortage of younger Americans who lack today’s foundational skills?

    Would the development of these skills occur in the workplace via on-the-job training, in the school system, or somewhere else?

    1. AK,

      Good question.

      Another is what skills shortage? Training more people in technical skills for which there is no unmet demand will not help.

      The primary driver today is wages. Employers want them lower, to keep profits at today’s record high levels and push them up even more. That means training more people for them, further crushing Nixon’s, importing more workers, and exporting jobs to emerging nations.

      The authors are IMO quite confused about this, and provide no analytical support for their recommendation.

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  5. Economists have a trite retort to these kinds of concerns about ever-increasing automation: the “lump of labor” fallacy. Economists assert that every time in the past some job has been automated, new jobs opened up.

    Economists do not appear to recognize that a drastic change in our society is in process. Large numbers of people are now being made entirely superfluous, so the “lump of labor fallacy” is itself turning into a fallacy.

    The big schism will come when data-mining + algorithms + neural nets get introduced into work formerly classified as skilled white-collar jobs: this is already happening, but it’s going to accelerate rapidly. As these kinds of skilled white-collar jobs get automated, engineers who formerly designed antennas are getting replaced by genetic algorithms that produce better designs, graphic designers are getting replaced by adaptive algorithms that produce equal or better-looking visual designs, and even college level essay-graders are now being replaced by databases + algorithms. The process has also recently been turned around so that adaptive algorithms + databases are now being used to write passable news stories for local newspapers from the raw AP feeds.

    Once most blue collar stockroom jobs and delivery driver jobs get replaced by robots and self-driving cars and trucks, and once most white-collar skilled jobs like advertising copyrwriter or graphic designer get replaced by adapative genetic algorithms + datamining, what jobs will be left for humans?

    Only the low-paying scutwork, like nursing home care, slaughterhouse worker, and waitress. Economists and political leaders look into the future and see this trend hurtling toward us, but have no prescription other than the old failed nostrums “retraining” and “better education.” With 27% of the U.S. adult population now boasting at least an A.S. degree, we’ve hit the limit for education — see the classic article “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” for a description of why more education isn’t a solution. As for “retraining,” the human jobs are now disappearing faster than we can retrain people for ’em.

    You have to wonder when the economists and politicians will wake to this reality and stop mouthing their empty slogans about “retraining” and “more education.” When everyone in the workforce has a PhD and your waitress has a postdoc, how does that help the economy? What do we do then?

  6. Ok, good. For some reason the “robot revolution” posts always bothered me, but this one does not.

    I like that the discussion is now bringing out the divide between the good of automation — less “work” (human labor) required to fulfill some standard need, which is after all a good thing, vs the bad — some workers stuck with extra long hours just to maintain the same standard of living, and others have no job and don’t get paid at all. Obviously this does not add up.

    So how is a good thing being turned into something bad? Technology / productivity shouldn’t be a “threat”. Isn’t unemployment a sign of material progress? Isn’t the solution just to reduce the number of hours each person works? In the olden days I suppose this was actually done, with the overtime system.

    I don’t know the numbers but it seems that fewer jobs now operate in or near the overtime zone, so maybe the mechanism for encouraging employers to spread the work around is gone. Congress could change that, by changing the way we calculate when overtime pay is required, and it could eliminate unemployment overnight.

    I’m not holding my breath that they will do this, but it seems like the solution is staring us in the face, so that it could at least be talked about. I don’t know why every professional who talks/writes about unemployment has this idea that we are completely helpless against this horribly complicated problem.

    1. asdfg,

      I don’t understand your comment.

      These posts were, I believe, ALL quite clear that the next wave of automation likely will be a highly disruptive social event — just like the previous two waves (ie, farming, manufacturing).

      Many powerful technological innovations are socially disruptive, even if their long-term effects are highly beneficial. Look at the effect of modern health care on emerging nations, as the resulting population booms sometimes turn peaceful if poor nations into hellholes for much of the population. Often resulting in long bloody wars, or (often and) famines, or plagues.

      These posts were also, I believe, quite clear that managing this technology is a political problem. Again, this is a common dynamic for new technology. Atomic weapons are the extreme example of this commonplace political tas” created by new tech.

      So there is nothing unique or even unusual about the next wave of automation. It could benefit the next few generations; it might have bad effects (eg, increased inequality, social disruption, or even civil wars). The outcome depends on us. That is the message of this series.

    2. I’ve been away from your blog for some months and recently started reading it regularly again, but I remember a pretty distinct focus on technology, specifically labor-saving technology in the form of semi-intelligent software, as this paradigm-shifting wave that will take us into a new age of instability. Could be I misinterpreted all along, but I very much agree with the way you’re presenting the idea now.

      1. Asdfg,

        (1). “Paradigm shifting”

        Yes, as another in a series of similar shifts during the past few centuries as we build more powerful machines. This shift is the creation of what James Blish in the 1950’s called “semi-intelligent” machines.

        The big one,dwarfing the others, will be — if possible — the creation of a true AI. That would mark the start of a new age in history.

        (2). “Disruptive”

        All progress — technical, intellectual, moral, philosophical — is to vary degrees disruptive.

        (3). “Will take us”

        More accurately, perhaps, “has begun to take us.”

  7. There seems to be a facile assumption that unemployment caused by automation can be addressed by reducing working hours. Unfortunately in a world where menial work can be done by machines, the real work of inventing and managing the machines will require very specific skillsets that cannot be easily duplicated by the bulk of the workforce. The machine managers are likely to be in as much demand as ever and there is no reason to believe they will be any less workaholics than their predecessors. Those in demand will still have eighty hour work weeks, while there will be no useful employment for those without the relevant skills. Science fiction generally does not paint a positive picture or such a society.

    1. Jon slater,

      I do not understand why distributing the productivity gains via reducing hours will not work.

      As most managers can tell you, excess numbers of workaholics is not a widespread problem today.

      1. We don’t live in the same world. The higher end of both the business and professional world in the U. S. is dominated by workaholics. This group gets enough work done to support America’s global dominance. There is a large group of Americans who do not have a role in this hyper-competitive, technology driven world due to lack of education and coping skills and there is a second group doing work better suited for robots. Are these people shirkers or are they just reacting logically to the meaninglessness of what they are asked to do?

      2. This is a bit old, but jibes with my personal observations.

        While there’s always the perfunctory comment about work/life balance, my observation remains that those individuals who are really productive elect the longer work hours for one of several reasons, (1) because they like to work, (2) because they feel they are making an important contribution, (3) because they like the better financial rewards/lifestyle that sometimes come with additional work, or (4) because they feel obligations to their fellow workers, customers/clients, etc.

      3. John,

        Self-reporting surveys like this are dross.

        Nor does this at all address your assertion about the relative workweek of different classes of people. What is for blue collar men? Second quintile single moms? What about including unpaid home labor?

        My guess is that you have an opinion reflecting personal opinion, without any analytical support.

      4. I have an opinion based on much personal observation. Most of the world works on such opinions. I am not hung up on terms like blue collar, white collar or middle class, all of which are manipulated to support the message of the person using them. Work has changed and these distinctions don’t tell us much. Nor does “makers and takers” as many people in America want to contribute, but aren’t presented with options that enable them to be compensated for doing so.

        We’re in agreement that that the replacement of human effort with that of thinking machines is going to dramatically affect everything in our society. I am of the opinion that productive/creative effort is key to human happiness. I do not see a society with large subsidized groups of non-working citizens as a healthy society. Frankly I include in that analysis many current and future retirees who would be much more fulfilled in life if they were productively employed as long as they are physically and mentally capable of adding value to society.

        The difficulty in this is that we don’t seem to be able to find/fund activities in which many of the unemployed can be productively engaged, notwithstanding that society as a whole has many unmet needs/desires. Instead we seem to be defaulting to base level welfare support of large numbers of citizens, but with a rather random approach that leaves many citizens out and others rewarded comfortably.

        Again my belief is that as a society we can produce enough for all Americans to live at a solid base level which, while far from opulent, avoids mass starvation and revolt. Doing this does not require that all Americans be productively employed. The stubbornly high level of U-6 unemployment during a period when output has been rising steadily is a priori evidence that significantly less than 100% of the labor force is sufficient to support one of the highest levels of personal consumption in human history. The options are (1) not supporting non-producers, (2) supporting current non-producers by finding them productive work not currently being done, (3) forcing/enticing a portion of the labor force to work fewer hours so that the current unemployed can be employed or (4) providing public support for non-producers at a base level regardless or willingness or ability to work. I don’t like (4) and I don’t think (3) is how the world works. Replacing producers’ hours with effort from untrained, unskilled or unmotivated individuals is not a zero sum game, it’s clearly negative to aggregate production.

        It would be great if someone out there has the time and resources to really research this question, but as Mr. Dylan said “ain’t me Babe”. I’m too busy scratching out my existence with the working guys and gals and enjoying it with every ten hour plus day that goes by.

      5. “I have an opinion based on much personal observation. Most of the world works on such opinions.”

        Yes, and as any social scientist can tell you — an astonishingly large fraction of these opinions are wrong. They’re called anec-data, and are useless as otherthan conversational stereotypes.

        How many second quintile single moms do you know well enough to estimate their paid and domestic hours worked? How many must you know for your sample to be statistically reliable?

        And that is before accounting for the various forms of perceptual bias, which we all have (eg, confirmation bias).

      6. You make a very good point about non-compensated work that goes into maintaining a family and a household. The American economy has become increasingly dependent on workforce specialization at a micro level. Thus we see the tremendous increase in “jobs” that used to be part of the family routine: e. g. food preparation, child care, home-care for the aging, pet sitting, personal training, etc. Probably at least a part of the current employment picture is a re-domestication of some of these functions in response to economic stress and a desire to minimize the tax burden.

        Certainly my wife and I feel that tasks such as cleaning, ironing, vacuuming, etc. are productive effort, if not the sort of work that gets us out of bed with a smile on our faces. Other home tasks (e.g. gardening) take on a different slant in that they play a dual role of avocation/hobby and productive effort that hopefully adds value to some part of society. Which raises the question of whether other avocations (e. g. professional video game player) flow over into the definition of productive effort that I posit is important to human fulfillment. Clearly professional poker play has now reached a level that it takes on elements of productive effort, at least for a few guys who appear to be making six or seven figure incomes in that “profession”. I would think (without the benefit of a peer reviewed study) that most observers would agree that professional beer drinker or pot smoker would not qualify as productive effort for purpose of this discussion.

        Bottom line for me is that we really don’t have a common definition of “work” that applies in the current era and as a result the proxies we use for employment may be woefully out of date.

        By the way do you discount the value of the writings of Adam Smith, Edmund Burke and David Ricardo because their writings were based on observation rather than data? In the modern era data is used as much to mislead and obfuscate as to enlighten. Let me word the question and most likely I can predetermine the answer. Certainly the fallacies of recency and confirmation bias are very real, but in no way does the use of data eliminate those possibilities.

      7. “By the way do you discount the value of the writings of Adam Smith, Edmund Burke and David Ricardo because their writings were based on observation rather than data”

        First, Adam Smith and David Ricardo cited evidence, such as the pin factory. In fact, their form of reasoning relied heavily on specific examples. Two centuries ago that was the best they could do, as more exact and comprehensive data sources did not exist. That doesn’t mean we should limit ourselves to their practices, any more than we should write with quill pens.

        Second, Smith and Ricardo were explicitly writing works of theory. As such their work has value only to the extent that their theories have been tested and proven.

        I do not see any comparison between your crude steriotypes and Burke’s writing. Please be more specific.

        Also, I am astonishing that you are defending what is in effect you’re making stuff up as evidence. It would have been ok if properly qualified, but stated as fact was absurd.

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