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  • Attack of the Job-Killing Robots

    Posted by David Foster on November 12th, 2016 (All posts by )

    Here’s a new factory for making automobile frames, specifically designed to minimize the need for human labor.  The CEO of the company that built it actually said, “We set out to build automobile frames without people.”

    At the start of the process, rough steel plates are inspected by electronic sensors, automatically pushing aside any that deviate from tolerances.  Conveyors take the plates through punching, pressing, assembling, and nailing machines, as well as a machine that can insert 60 rivets simultaneously in each frame.  A set of finishing machines then rinse, dry, spray-paint, and cool the frames.  Aside from a few men moving frames between conveyor belts, the floor routine of the plant requires almost no hand labor.

    And today’s robotics and artificial-intelligence advances go far beyond automating routine manufacturing labor and take over the kind of cognitive functions once thought to be exclusive to human beings. Here, for example, is a new AI-based system that displaces much of the thought-work which has been required of the people operating railway switch and signal installations:

    The NX control machine is in effect the “brain” of the system. It automatically selects the best optional route if the preferred route is occupied.  It will allow no conflicting routes to be set up. It eliminates individual lever control of each switch and signal.

    Pretty scary from the standpoint of maintaining anything like full employment, don’t you think?


    Actually, the first passage is a description of the A.O. Smith frame factory which was built in…1922.  The second passage is taken from a brochure by General Railway Signal, dated 1954.  (Although this technology was originally introduced by GRS in 1936.)

    I’m pretty confident that if the above passages were to be turned into press releases and sent to the business and general media, then there would be dozens of stories using them as an example of the way in which robotization is destroying jobs.

    Articles on the job elimination expected as a result of robots and artificial intelligences–and there seem to be dozens of such articles coming out every week—very rarely include any attempts to put current innovations in historical perspective.  They also rarely include much in the way of meaningful numbers–I searched through quite a few articles on a new automated shoe-making factor in Germany, for example, without getting any light on what is clearly a very key metric: the ratio of shoes produced to number of people working in the factory.  The answer to the question of whether what we are seeing now is really a sharp upward break in the labor-productivity line…or, alternatively, only a continuation of long-standing trends….seems usually to be simply implicitly asserted, rather than researched and defended.

    Certainly, the recent labor-productivity statistics (also this) don’t seem to provide much support for the idea of a sharp upward productivity break–although this may be to some degree a factor of the lackluster economy.

    In the next post of this series, I’ll attempt to provide some historical perspective on today’s automation technologies by sketching out some of the past innovations in the mechanization of work,  focusing on “robots,” broadly-defined…ie, on technologies which to some degree involve the replacement or augmentation of human mind, eye, and hand, rather than those that are primarily concerned with the replacement of human and animal muscular energy.

    Note: the description of the A O Smith auto frame factory is taken from the book Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs, by Professor Amy Sue Bix, which will also be extensively cited in the next post of this series.


    12 Responses to “Attack of the Job-Killing Robots”

    1. Subotai Bahadur Says:

      The people of the sovereign state of Colorado, in their infinite lack of wisdom, just passed a referendum raising the minimum wage here to 12.00 an hour and indexed to inflation for the future. Note that our state minimum wage was already over a dollar over the Federal minimum wage and inflation indexed.

      In my small town, depending on size, between 1/4 to 2/3 of our retail spaces are empty. Our problem is not the level of minimum wage, it is the lack of jobs. Jobs that have to come from businesses. And businesses have to be able to stay in business in order to pay any wages.

      I write the occasional column for a local paper. The one I just submitted discussed this. I am encouraging local businessmen/women to start, right bloody now, to look at the effect of the wage increase and take steps proactively to deal with it. Those steps can include automating wherever possible [especially in the food service industry], reducing staffing proactively, and wherever possible to hire family members to keep the money in the family [old immigrant family restaurant practice. It works.] And to look at it honestly now, because things are not going to get better for a while, and if you are going to lose your business, liquidate now while you still might be able to get something for it.

    2. Exasperated Says:

      Isn’t this in part what the election is/was about? The “elites” whoever and whatever they are, have not had an honest conversation about this. I get that there are benefits, but despite that, the future looks bleak to even me, if you are not a mathematical genius, creative, or some sports or entertainment figure. And no, I am not satisfied by hand outs, subsidies, or fake make work jobs, like the Dems think will do the trick. And the Republican solutions are equally unappealing and head in the sand.

    3. Grurray Says:

      I’m sure the first assembly lines were probably seen by some as job killing. My observations of automation and robotics lead me to believe the jobs created by them elsewhere always outnumber the jobs they might replace in their immediate vicinity. And despite all the hype about the futuristic singularity and such, technology still develops and diffuses slow enough for people to react and adjust.

      Subotai hits the nail on the head. Supply creates its own demand, and that goes for labor and jobs. Government imposed scarcities are always the real problem.

    4. CapitalistRoader Says:

      Any chance of getting a link to the frame automation company/article? A web search on At the start of the process, rough steel plates are inspected by electronic sensors, automatically pushing aside any that deviate from tolerances. only brings up this page.

    5. David Foster Says:

      CapRoader…the frame automation company is described in “Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs?”, by Amy Sue Bix. I’ll be referencing additional items from this book in my next post of this series.

    6. J. J. Says:

      Manufacturing jobs can be done by robots, but jobs in the basic industries – mining, oil/gas drilling/production, logging, fishing, farming, ranching, and power production – are less subject to automation. All have been under attack in this country since the advent of the Endangered Species Act and the EPA. The environmentalists have been trying to stop or hinder all these activities, which create wealth and provide the base for the economy. Until the EPA and the Greens are reined in the economy will remain stagnant.

    7. David Foster Says:

      JJ…there has been considerable mechanization in coal mining throughout the 20th century, …here’s an assertion that there is considerable room for still more automation throughout the mining industry:

      Agree that excessive environmental regulations and litigation are seriously harming these industries.

    8. Erik Says:

      “I’m sure the first assembly lines were probably seen by some as job killing. My observations of automation and robotics lead me to believe the jobs created by them elsewhere always outnumber the jobs they might replace in their immediate vicinity. And despite all the hype about the futuristic singularity and such, technology still develops and diffuses slow enough for people to react and adjust.”

      I’m reminded of the engineering joke that all odd numbers are prime. Proof: 1 is prime, 3 is prime, 5 is prime, 7 is prime, 9 is measurement error, 11 is prime, 13 is prime…

      At some point, I expect robotics will reach a point where some people simply can’t adjust, regardless of speed. If robotics continues to advance (which is a nontrivial if, Silicon Valley is not a physical constant), robots will probably start taking over entire strata of jobs, rather than just automating individual processes. Low-skill, low-intelligence workers will be cursed by history: anything they qualify for, a robot can do more cheaply and with less risk of pilfering office supplies. Even if we stipulate that these robots will create net jobs, there’s no guarantee that the new jobs will be accessible to anyone below certain threshholds of ability.

    9. Whitehall Says:

      Go back and look at the George Sands novel “Silias Marner.”

      Poor flax weavers! Put out of business by the steam loom.

    10. Anonymous Says:

      “Even if we stipulate that these robots will create net jobs, there’s no guarantee that the new jobs will be accessible to anyone below certain threshholds of ability.”

      In which case the robotics slows because there are no high tech capable workers available to design, build and operate more of them. The reality up to this point is that tech has created more high reward employment than the low reward jobs displaced.

      The real question is why there are so many unprepared folks given the differentials in rewards available for the increasingly higher skill level jobs? Could it be a broken educational system, the opportunity cost of a generous and unaccountable social safety net, a culture that tolerates and even rewards irresponsible behavior and ???

      My experience is that the vast majority of the struggling low skilled are perfectly capable of raising their skill level but would rather not while complaining that their work rewards are not fair. There is a large cultural disconnect in their leisure-labor trade off and their expectation of standard of living. This to me is the basis of the dependency class and the differentiated employment and participation rates by skill level, education, age and culture.

      In concentrated manufacturing and trades one can add the effects of union power in accelerating automation and unemployment in those areas. Adding regulation and taxation and you get a pretty good picture of why we have moved so rapidly to a service economy with geometrically increasing social overhead. As transportation costs decrease with falling energy rates, further dispersion of production of goods will be likely. With better and cheaper communications even more services will be dispersed. This doesn’t bode well for the couch potato class and their expectations as well as for the support overhead placed on those who are productive.

      A motivated and skilled work force with a lower cost, more competitive business environment would provide the best way to counter some of these trends that are occurring so rapidly. There was a time when our limited government, effective educational system and rugged self-reliance made us the most competitive economic system. Some of those things may be gone forever given our corrupted political, legal and educational systems based on a toxic entitlement culture.

      Blaming bad trade deals and currency manipulations is superficial at best. The deeper issues are much more definitive and difficult. Certainly they will not be solved in the near term. At least some of the non-specific promises of the president-elect (such as deregulation, ACA replacement, school choice, tax reform, repatriation of profits for investment, disenfranchisement of the special interests, repeal of Dodd-Frank, freeing energy production and distribution) seem to be good steps to pursue as first steps.


    11. TMLutas Says:

      We all have selective blindness that makes us feel ok about our economic situation. We don’t consider it abnormal that government is fundamentally unmanaged by the people. We don’t consider it abnormal that we use lead water pipes. That we have wood water pipes is considered weird but we don’t take stock of how many of those actually still pass on water to customers today so it’s an ignored strangeness. We don’t consider it abnormal that we educate our children in public schools according to a system built to educate farm boys to be regimented factory workers long after farm boys virtually disappeared from the land. We don’t consider it abnormal that our old age pensions aren’t fully funded and depend on a rate of population growth that we don’t have. Ditto for public health insurance, which is going from one band aid job to another for decades.

      The fix to a lack of jobs is to create new demand and denormalize ignoring these and many other problems we don’t think about. Once we see the problem we will attack and solve it, along the way creating jobs in both fixing the problem and maintaining the fix.

      Unless we have solved all our problems already, the age of permanent unemployment due to automation simply has not arrived yet.

    12. David Foster Says:

      The second post of this series is now provides a brief sketch of the history of productivity-enhancing technologies (focusing on those technologies which are in some sense ‘robotic’ as opposed to pure power machinery) and discusses some of the debates about technological unemployment that took place in the 1920s and 1930s, drawing considerably on Professor Bix’s book.

      Also see Claire Berlinski’s post at Ricochet, “Reversing Automation,” and the long comment thread it generated.