An Urban's Rural View

When Robots Reign, What Happens to Humans?

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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From the beginning, robots—droids like R2-D2 and C-3PO—provided the comic relief in the Star Wars movies. In the latest of these films, Rogue One, lead droid K-2SO takes humor to the next level, tossing off ironic lines like, "There were a lot of explosions for two people blending in."

Yet K-2 is no mere joker, even if he sometimes seems to be the only character in the movie with a sense of humor. Unlike his hapless predecessors among Star Wars droids, this black, seven-foot-tall robot flies spaceships, shoots guns and treats humans with chilly disdain. Greeting the film's heroine, he deadpans: "The captain says you are a friend. I will not kill you."

Robots have come a long way in the last 40 years, and not just in movies. When the first Star Wars film hit the big screen in 1977, factory automation was in its infancy. Today robots have supplanted millions of American jobs and threaten millions more. As automation becomes more sophisticated, no work place -- not the farm, not the law office, not even, horrors, the newsroom -- will escape untouched. But among the most touched will be the factory.

That's one of the challenges President-elect Donald Trump faces as he campaigns to bring manufacturing jobs back to America. There are others, to be sure, among them the seeming-certainty of a strengthening dollar and the likelihood of retaliatory trade barriers if Trump follows through on some of his campaign promises. Still, automation may well be the knottiest challenge. For even if companies bring factories back to the U.S., those factories will employ fewer people than the ones that went overseas. In a robotized world, a manufacturing renaissance isn't necessarily a jobs renaissance.

Which raises a question: As the robots rise, what kind of jobs, if any, will be left for humans?

The "if any" part of the question is easier to answer. Past technological advances also destroyed jobs, but in the end they unleashed forces that created even more new ones. Some experts worry that won't happen this time, but similar worries in the past turned out to be needless. The more pressing concern may be that the new jobs won't come soon enough for some of the workers displaced by automation -- or will require skills the displaced don't have.

"What kind of jobs" is where it gets interesting. Some part of almost any job, it seems, can be automated. Based on an analysis of 2,000 work activities for 800 occupations, the consulting firm McKinsey figures "currently demonstrated technologies could automate 45% of the activities people are paid to perform" and that "60% of all occupations could see 30% or more of their constituent activities automated" (…).

Susceptibility to automation varies widely by type of activity. For example, McKinsey reckons 78% of "predictable physical work," such as welding or soldering on an assembly line, could feasibly be automated. Only 25% of "unpredictable physical work," like "raising outdoor animals," is in that category.

Agriculture in general seems less likely to be taken over entirely by robots than other occupations. The agricultural activity most vulnerable to automation in McKinsey's study is "data collection." On modern commercial farms, precision-agriculture computers embedded in big iron are already performing that function.

Across occupational lines, two activities stand out in McKinsey's analysis as being hardest to automate. Only 9% of what's involved in "managing others" can feasibly be done by machines, and only 18% of "applying expertise to decision making, planning or creative work."

For better or worse, not everything that can be automated will be. Example: People will probably continue to want the human touch in health care, which means nurses will continue to be needed. Example: Much restaurant food preparation, even cooking, comes under the heading of "predictable physical labor," but wages for cooks and other food preparers are so low that the labor-cost argument for automation is weak.

McKinsey stresses its calculations assume "currently demonstrated technologies." Technology marches on. If, someday, technology gives us droids as nimble and talented as K2 in Rogue One, it's anyone's guess who will be managing the farmhands, much less "raising outdoor animals," in that brave new world.

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Urban Lehner
1/5/2017 | 7:23 PM CST
Yes, and if robots can ever program themselves, we'll have a whole new set of problems, one that the Terminator movies explored.
1/4/2017 | 1:50 PM CST
One thing that is not likely to change for some time yet is that machines and computers are not likely to be able to provide the software for the robotics. Computers are not going to create the software to program themselves. Those are the types of jobs that people may have to begin looking at as career fields in the future.
Urban Lehner
12/31/2016 | 5:23 PM CST
Good thoughts, Jay and Don. It's interesting to note that even China, which theoretically has a countryside full of surplus labor, is automating its factories.
12/31/2016 | 9:13 AM CST
Jay you are ahead of your time. Switzerland defeated a proposal for a base income last fall. And our recent election may be the beginning of social upheaval.
Jay Mcginnis
12/30/2016 | 8:05 AM CST
Owner of Tesla Elon Musk predicted a base income which is far from Trump supporters ideology but a market needs buyers and an economy in robotics won't include many jobs. A greater division of extreme wealth and hopeless poverty is forming, a formula for social upheaval.