Are you competing with a robot for your job?

December 6, 2016

 So who makes the best smartphone, tablet, or laptop? The most common answer these days is Foxconn, a Chinese company that manufactures almost all products for Apple, Samsung Galaxy, Microsoft, Dell, Acer, Hewlett Packard, Nintendo, Google, Amazon Kindle, Sony, and more.


Foxconn has “factory cities” throughout China that include employee dormitories, cafés, and grocery stores for workers who put in six-hour days, 72 hours a week. Workers have complained about poor conditions and the repetitive nature of the work at Foxconn, some even jumping to their deaths from factory rooftops. This has led Foxconn to invest in robots, automating 60,000 jobs as of May 2016.  


Computerization is fast becoming a reality as corporations find the costs of purchasing and programming robots more attractive than training and paying humans. A September 2013 Oxford University study predicted 50 percent of the US labor force is at risk of being replaced by computers within 10 years.


Watson, a pattern-recognition supercomputer developed by IBM, bested the top human competitors in the syntactically tricky quiz show Jeopardy! Versions of Watson are now being marketed across a range of industries.


Machines are not just smarter; they also have access to far more data. Text analyzing programs will displace professional jobs in legal services. Biopsies can be analyzed more efficiently by image software than by lab technicians. Accountants may follow travel agents into the unemployment line as tax software improves.


Computers have already replaced a number of white-collar occupations, including technical writing, cashiers, and telephone operators, and computer-controlled equipment may explain the recent “jobless growth.”


The Oxford Study points out that automation has been happening for centuries. William Lee invented the stocking frame knitting machine in 1589, hoping it would relieve workers of hand knitting. Seeking patent protection, he traveled to London for his invention to be viewed by Queen Elizabeth I.

 

To Lee’s disappointment, the Queen was more concerned with the employment impact and refused to grant him a patent, saying, “Thou aimest high, Master Lee. Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment.”
The backlash was so harsh that Lee was forced to flee the country.


As technology develops and automation costs decline, robots can be expected to gradually substitute for labor in a wider and wider range of low-wage service occupations, where most US job growth has occurred over the past decades.


Robots will likely continue to take on manual tasks in manufacturing, packing, construction, maintenance, and agriculture. They already perform simple tasks, such as vacuuming, mopping, lawn mowing, and gutter cleaning, with the market for personal and household service robots growing by about 20 percent annually.


Meanwhile, commercial robots are now able to perform complex tasks in food preparation, healthcare, commercial cleaning, and elder care.


For Foxconn, which has been embroiled in controversy over its factory conditions and employee suicides, robots also present a way to remedy poor public relations without being forced to improve the quality of life for its employees. The world has come a long way since Queen Elizabeth, but we obviously have much further still to go.

Originally from Minneapolis, JC Passolt has owned an independent computer and cell phone sales and repair business in Duluth since 1985.

Have a tech question for JC to answer in a future column? Email it to TechStars54@gmail.com.

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