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Robot Workforce Threatens Education-Intensive Jobs 496

Posted by Soulskill
from the they-can-already-govern-california dept.
An anonymous reader writes "For years, robots have been replacing workers in factories as technology has come to grips with high-volume, unskilled labor. An article in Slate makes the case that the robot workforce is poised to move into fields that require significantly more training and education. From the article: 'In the next decade, we'll see machines barge into areas of the economy that we'd never suspected possible — they'll be diagnosing your diseases, dispensing your medicine, handling your lawsuits, making fundamental scientific discoveries, and even writing stories just like this one. Economic theory holds that as these industries are revolutionized by technology, prices for their services will decline, and society as a whole will benefit. As I conducted my research, I found this argument convincing — robotic lawyers, for instance, will bring cheap legal services to the masses who can't afford lawyers today. But there's a dark side, too: Imagine you've spent three years in law school, two more years clerking, and the last decade trying to make partner — and now here comes a machine that can do much of your $400-per-hour job faster, and for a fraction of the cost. What do you do now?'"
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Robot Workforce Threatens Education-Intensive Jobs

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  • by cptdondo (59460)

    the manufacturer and retire....

    • Re:sue (Score:4, Informative)

      by jhoegl (638955) on Monday September 26, 2011 @06:21PM (#37520922)
      Nah, they will move the lawyer jobs to India, then to China, then to some island country....

      Whoops, it is already happening. Doctors on India are viewing your x-rays and diagnosing your issues. (I know this to be true because I helped set it up.)
      But anyways, just look at low paying unskilled jobs now.... robots did not take over like the article seems to indicate, nope... instead they went to China, where you work in a building and rent a refrigerator box in another from the same company you work for. It is still cheaper than robots.
      • Re:sue (Score:5, Interesting)

        by rabtech (223758) on Monday September 26, 2011 @06:33PM (#37521034) Homepage

        Nah, they will move the lawyer jobs to India, then to China, then to some island country....

        Whoops, it is already happening. Doctors on India are viewing your x-rays and diagnosing your issues. (I know this to be true because I helped set it up.)
        But anyways, just look at low paying unskilled jobs now.... robots did not take over like the article seems to indicate, nope... instead they went to China, where you work in a building and rent a refrigerator box in another from the same company you work for. It is still cheaper than robots.

        This is only true while labor is really cheap. There are a huge number of goods you can make in the US or China at basically the same cost but in China you pay pennies to manual laborers, in the US you program robots to do it. That is happening in China right now as Foxconn is investing in robots due to rises in Chinese labor rates.

        Granted there are some new jobs overseeing the robots, programming them, etc but overall the number of warm bodies required per unit of economic output will continue to go down over time.

        We will eventually need to shift to a shorter work-week for the same relative pay or we'll need to find new areas for expansion in space. The alternative is to jump back to feudalism prior to the black death when labor was cheap and most people worked as serfs barely scratching out a living. I would point out that the black death brought about a huge increase in labor mobility as there weren't enough hands to till the fields; people migrated (including illegally) to work for new lords that offered better benefits and pay. I really hope we can avoid that fate this time around (massive death via war or disease required to change the status quo).

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Synerg1y (2169962)

          I read some of the article and it appears to be a futurist's ramblings on what s/he thinks robots will do, of course they will go terminator style eventually and kill us all, etc..

          1. Please please replace my IT job with a robot, I would love to see it fail, and do nothing about it.
          2. The concept of AI is beyond the scope of this article, but I believe the consensus is that it is not truelly achievable meaning... robots will never be able to: emotionally reason, have consciousness, or reproduce short of a fa

        • Re:sue (Score:5, Insightful)

          by AK Marc (707885) on Monday September 26, 2011 @07:38PM (#37521568)
          But what the people in the US don't understand is that if labor were free, it's still cheaper to ship the raw materials from Cupertino to Shenzhen, manufacture in China, then ship the product back to Cupertino to be sold. Why? Environmental regualtions and such. We are exporting our toxic waste to China by sending out the manufacturing. There's more to cost of manufacture than just assembly, but nobody on Slashdot ever seems to consider such things.
          • by Paul Fernhout (109597) on Monday September 26, 2011 @07:48PM (#37521654) Homepage

            "We are exporting our toxic waste to China by sending out the manufacturing. There's more to cost of manufacture than just assembly, but nobody on Slashdot ever seems to consider such things."

            This is insightful; thanks. This is a major problem with "free trade" agreements, not accounting for externalities.

          • by Genda (560240)

            And tell me what happens when someone finally reduces the size of robots to molecular machines and we can fabricate anything from a car to a steak from raw atomic stock. Then you can manufacture anything anywhere, and the important thing now becomes the molecular recipe for the Lexus, not the Lexus itself. Those anyone can have for the cost of the raw atoms and the electricity required to assemble them. What does that do to the economy? Everything is now priced be how long it takes to make it and some arbit

      • Re:sue (Score:4, Interesting)

        by OzPeter (195038) on Monday September 26, 2011 @06:58PM (#37521254)

        Doctors on India are viewing your x-rays and diagnosing your issues. (I know this to be true because I helped set it up.)

        A few years ago there was a kerfuffle about the transcribing of patient records being outsourced to India (or somewhere) because (I believe) that it broke some regulations about patient confidentiality etc. So how does your system hold up under a regulatory eye, and what protections do the patients have under malpractice etc (assuming that they even know their records are going offshore). Are these doctors in India considered staff of the medical clinic? Or have the clinics using your system washed their collective hands of the issue?
         
        I'm not implying that doctors in India are bad, just that patients expect their doctors to be working under the regulatory guidelines of where the clinic is located.

        • by AK Marc (707885)
          For one, nobody has ever gotten in HIPAA trouble for improper release of patient data, so worrying about such things is like wearing a helmet in case a satellite lands on you. For another, "authorized" people can have access. That would be the Indian clinic. If HIPAA has an issue with that, they'd have to send someone to Bangalore to check, again, by the time they land, you can fix anything not compliant. As such, I'd assert that they are compliant with the appropriate regulations, and if they aren't, t
  • by SleazyRidr (1563649) on Monday September 26, 2011 @06:12PM (#37520816)

    If you're getting $400/hour for something a machine can do, then you wasted your time in law school and clerking. Computers are getting better, but AI still isn't that good. If a computer is making you obsolete, then it's time for you to step up to the next level, use the computer for what it's good at, use your brain for what it's good at, and come up with a package that's actually worth the $400/hour you want people to pay you.

    • by jhoegl (638955)
      The Law is Black and white anyways... I mean how much more True/False can you get?
      • by Culture20 (968837)

        The Law is Black and white anyways... I mean how much more True/False can you get?

        I hear the spirit of the law is white as a bedsheet.

      • Re:Well (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Snotman (767894) on Monday September 26, 2011 @06:48PM (#37521176)

        You have a misunderstanding of law. For one, if law was black and white, there would be no need for judges which may be your point. People may miss judges if we went with black/white law because there will be no evolution in law. There are always new issues to litigate and ponder like stem cells, hacking, deep packet inspection, copyright on the internet, robotic rights, clones, artificial intelligence, etc. How does a robot respond to new ideas that are not covered by law? Constitutionalists seem to argue this point frequently as they would prefer the law was black and white and administered the way the authors of the constitution "intended". Robots would suit them nicely, but I am sure they are not prepared for the consequences of living with law that was made centuries ago.

      • Re:Well (Score:4, Insightful)

        by anagama (611277) <obamaisaneocon@nothingchanged.org> on Monday September 26, 2011 @06:50PM (#37521186) Homepage

        The Law is Black and white anyways... I mean how much more True/False can you get?

        Laws are often ambiguous or conflict with each other -- a large purpose of appellate courts is resolving such issues. But setting that aside, even if we were to assume perfect black/white laws, the facts that must be fed to these laws are often gray and very often completely opposed.

        Car analogy: Take the simple legal proposition that if you cause a car wreck, you are going to have to pay for the other party's medical expenses caused by your negligence (but not for any conditions not caused by your negligence). At trial, two equally qualified medical experts testify, one stating that the rearendee's neck condition was a direct result of the physical forces of the accident, and the other that the physical forces were too weak to cause any harm, rather, the neck condition is nothing more than the natural progression of injuries suffered ten years ago while skiing. Both doctors explain their opposite positions well and back up their opinions with peer reviewed medical science.

        The law itself doesn't answer this question of causation -- it merely creates a framework of liability rules and admissible evidence in which the question of causation can be asked of a jury or a judge. A simple T/F computer program would not be able to make a decision in such a case on any basis other than chance. While a jury might use gut feeling rather than a coin flip to decide the issue, and ultimately that is perhaps much like a decision based on chance, most people would probably object to having their cases decided by dice or the digital equivalent.

      • by WillKemp (1338605)

        The Law is Black and white anyways...

        The law would be more black and white if laws were better drafted. But they're not. They've often appallingly sloppily drafted - which means they're open to interpretation.

    • Re:Well (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Fluffeh (1273756) on Monday September 26, 2011 @06:32PM (#37521022)

      Some $400 per hour jobs have that salary becuase it is that difficult to do and requires an exceptional person to be able to perform it. Others pay that much because while easy enough, no-one wants to do that job so it is offered with a stupendous salary to make it more attractive.

      A few examples of highly paid jobs that could be done by just about anyone with a little training:
      - Mine Removal - sure there is training, but the majority of the pay is for the danger, not the expertise required to do the job.
      - Drug Running - Okay, not an official job title no doubt, but drug trafficers are payed loads of money to do a really simple job. It is just risky as buggery.

      Other highly paid jobs such as working on an Oil Platform or in a Mining Pit may not require a huge range of training and experience, but due to location you might well be apart from friends and family for weeks on end. Recently in Australia there has been a bit of a mining boom in Western Australia. The mining companies are paying insane salaries just to entice people to go work in the middle of the Australian desert.

      If your $400 hour job falls into the second bracket and there is indeed now a robot that can do the job, tough luck. Find something else that no-one wants to do :)

      • I didn't really think of that aspect of it... I usually see it as a positive thing that robots can now do risky work, so we don't have to put people in danger to do it. I didn't stop to think that those people in danger were being paid very well to do so.

        I guess the natural transition for those people would be to learn how to operate the robots that did the job they used to do. Probably won't need as many people doing that though, so there's still a lot of people looking for work.

        • by Fluffeh (1273756)

          I was more talking about some jobs just being paid a "danger" aspect to the salary.

          It is a positive thing in general if we can train a robot to do some highly dangerous work, not only because it means that we can remove the need for some poor sap to have to take those risks, but it also means that we can as a whole keep getting better and better robots. The flipside is that some chap was probably paid a damned fine salary to do it.

          Think, if we had bipedal robots walking around, able to interact with their e

      • by WillKemp (1338605)

        Recently in Australia there has been a bit of a mining boom in Western Australia. The mining companies are paying insane salaries just to entice people to go work in the middle of the Australian desert.

        Don't believe what you see in the media. Mining jobs are not that well paid. The workers' annual wage seems high, but they generally work 14 x 12 hour days (the equivalent of 4 x 40 hour weeks) every three weeks. They're mostly getting somewhere in the region of AUD35 an hour, which isn't really particularly good money.

    • by blair1q (305137)

      Factoid: 98% of people who go to law school don't end up practicing law. I heard that, but I don't really believe it. But the plausibility of it is enough.

  • Imagine you've spent three years in law school, two more years clerking, and the last decade trying to make partner — and now here comes a machine that can do much of your $400-per-hour job faster, and for a fraction of the cost. What do you do now?

    Buy one. It's a tool, not a lawyer.

  • Lisa: Maybe I ought to check with the doctor.
    [Lisa, Bart, and Homer gather around Lisa's
    computer. She starts a program that displays a
    medical logo -- the one with two snakes wrapped
    around a staff]
    Snake 1: Welcome to "Virtual Doctor."
    Snake 2: From the makers of "Dragon Q

  • Imagine you've spent three years in law school, two more years clerking, and the last decade trying to make partner — and now here comes a machine that can do much of your $400-per-hour job faster, and for a fraction of the cost. What do you do now?'"

    The answer is: write the AI code for such a robot.

    I'm assuming that a law-trained robot is not possible with just a small code base and a library of law texts. If such a robot is possible at all, it will require thousands of hours of laboriously writing

    • by anagama (611277)

      If, on the other hand, a team of 20 law professionals can write all the software for all situations themselves, then the rest of the industry will need to find new jobs. If this is the case, then we have to deduce that it was not a highly educated field after all, and that work in the law profession is actually manual labor after all.

      This doesn't make sense. Just because a profession could be replaced by a computer program doesn't mean its practitioners were not highly educated. It means they were highl

  • Wow, cool. So other than some monetary issues, we will now finally get to shoot all the lawyers without facing murder charges. I'm all for it, where's my 50 cal...

  • ...you get a subsidy, kick part of it back to your pet senator, and sue your way into perpetual employment.

    Think of all the buggy-whip manufacturers! Think of all the typewriter repairmen! And the telegraph operators! It's an assault on the wooooooooorkers!

    Not really a joke. For displaced workers, it's going to be a problem, and the first things you reach for are always the lawyers and the politicians. The first thing you seek is protectionism. Career-for-life as an idea is as deeply ensconced as it is

    • this is not 'buggy whip manufacturers'. this is mass unemployment on an unprecedented scale. there is no 'automobile industry' to replace the "buggy whip industry" in 2011, there is just a yawning, gaping void. once you automate automation itself, there is nothing to go on to. people cannot afford to go back to college a 2nd or 3rd time and get retrained, owing $40,000 in loans, and then, 3 years later, have to go back again and get re-retrained. computer science graduates are a dime a dozen, and a bunch of

      • by 0123456 (636235)

        this is not 'buggy whip manufacturers'. this is mass unemployment on an unprecedented scale.

        I'm sure they said that two hundred years ago when automated looms took over from people working at home by hand. Oddly, there are far more people working today than there were back then.

      • by blair1q (305137)

        Summary: Forcing people to learn new skills to be employed is not the same thing as making all the jobs go away.

        When the people who make money from productivity can multiply productivity deploying machines instead of hiring workers, they no longer have a reason to share that income with anyone, so they end up with all the money and nobody else has any. When the robots are building the robots, the circle will close.

        That's the system we're building at one end, while some people are actively tearing down the

  • It will all have been worth it.

  • Will a robotic lawyer be able to be a public defender or will it fail a constitution test?

  • by Krishnoid (984597) * on Monday September 26, 2011 @06:20PM (#37520912) Journal
    Marshall Brain described two possibilities of the social impact of ubiquitous robots in Manna [marshallbrain.com] -- definitely worth a read.
  • In the next decade, we'll see machines barge into areas of the economy that we'd never suspected possible — they'll be diagnosing your diseases, dispensing your medicine, handling your lawsuits, making fundamental scientific discoveries, and even writing stories just like this one.

    Yeah right. Like i'd believe anything written by a robot.

  • Ah, naivety (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mbone (558574) on Monday September 26, 2011 @06:22PM (#37520936)

    First, at the high end, I suspect that a $ 400 per hour lawyer with a robot assistant would run rings around a robot lawyer, and that that would be true regardless of the quality of the robot lawyer (as the $ 400 / hour guy would be able to afford a robot assistant of the same quality.

    Second, there is something that is not being broached here - who benefits from this ? And what determines that ? Suppose that robots could do all jobs. So, what, everyone, being unemployed, just sits in the dark and starves ? Or, everyone except a few robot owners sits in the dark and starves ? And, how, exactly, would those starving people afford the goods and services being turned out by the robots ? Believing that would happen is naive in the extreme. Doesn't mean what will happen is necessarily going to be good, but it will be different.

    • by Krishnoid (984597) *
      Marshall Brain came up with a couple scenarios in Manna [marshallbrain.com], an interesting read. People don't sit in the dark and starve, but something comparable.
    • Re:Ah, naivety (Score:4, Insightful)

      by cheekyjohnson (1873388) on Monday September 26, 2011 @06:45PM (#37521140)

      So, what, everyone, being unemployed, just sits in the dark and starves ?

      I think that would be one of the best times to scrap our money-driven society.

    • by Belial6 (794905)
      Yes, but when the all automated lawyer can initiate 1000's of lawsuits an hour against the $400/hr lawyer, the $400/hr lawyer is going to be able to review so few of the lawsuits that he might as well not be there.
  • How about the same thing the factory worker does when he's replaced by automation or his job is outsourced to cheaper labor markets. Survive. Adapt. Why is it so unthinkable that highly educated people would be put out of work by progress, instead of simply the low wage laborers?

    • It used to be that education was the way to "survive and adapt". If that changes we'll have to come up with something to substitute for it.

  • Rework your assumption that having studied law allows you to charge $50 for reading my email while on the John. I forked over about $60k to have a lawyer help me with the intricacies of overseas inheritances. In practice, it amounted to little more than telling me what documents I needed to have, and then forwarding them to the IRS. I always felt weird wearing shorts and t-shirt to the face-to-face meetings. Then I figured that they were the same as the $2k suit that the lawyer was wearing - after all, I wa

  • Do you understand anything they're saying?

    Oh, yes! Remember that I am fluent in over six million forms of communication.

    What're you telling them?

    Hello, I think... I could be mistaken. They're using a very primitive dialect, but I do believe they think I am some sort of god.

    Well, why don't you use your divine influence and get us out of this?

    I beg your pardon, General Solo, but that just wouldn't be proper.

    "Proper?!"

    It's against my programming to impersonate a deity.
  • Robots, due to the initial investment, may not turn out to be as cost effective as imagined. When Toyota opened their first plant in Japan in the last 18 years [cnn.com], they went for low cost of building the factory, and fast manufacturing times instead of complex robotics to minimize wages/benefits.

    In an age where things like company agility is valued, and start-up capital (including commercial lines of credit) is very limited, I'm not sure that robots are going to beat humans on price any time soon.

  • Anyone who works regularly with lawyers (as I do, (and I'm a geek (as demonstrated by these nested parens))) will know that it will take nothing short of full strength AI to replace them, lawyer jokes aside. There is so much nuance, subtlety, and tweaking of agreements that a using a simple computerized approach won't work for a substantial portion of what (say) normal corporate law firms do. If we magically move to a machine readable contract language, portions of contract verification might be automated

  • by VAElynx (2001046) on Monday September 26, 2011 @06:31PM (#37521010)
    Since, it can't cope with people not being needed, as even if it'd be economically feasible, it refuses to provide people with anything free. When human work becomes obsolete, and unemployment crosses some threshold, there will be widespread revolts. Compare with industrial revolution and Luddites.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The Butlerian Jihad!!!!!

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by khallow (566160)

      Since, it can't cope with people not being needed, as even if it'd be economically feasible, it refuses to provide people with anything free. When human work becomes obsolete, and unemployment crosses some threshold, there will be widespread revolts. Compare with industrial revolution and Luddites.

      Socialism will up against the wall before capitalism because its workers will be more expensive and hence, obsoleted first. I can see several endstates (none of which are mutually exclusive): 1) some degree of rejection of technology, enabling humans to compete for certain jobs, 2) improving humans so that they can compete with the new robotics (this probably would entail a merging of human and machine), or 3) we find that there are comparative advantages to human labor that don't go away.

  • Then Communism.
  • by confused one (671304) on Monday September 26, 2011 @06:34PM (#37521044)
    Throw your sabot at the computer
  • Remember the Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn movie "Desk Set?"

    What about that Twilight Zone episode "The Brain Center at Whipple's?"

  • And if you can't, too bad.

  • by McGruber (1417641) on Monday September 26, 2011 @06:53PM (#37521206)

    "Imagine you've spent three years in law school, two more years clerking, and the last decade trying to make partner — and now here comes a machine that can do much of your $400-per-hour job faster, and for a fraction of the cost. What do you do now?'"

    Sue!

  • This is just another scarcity that is being encroached on. Scarcity of labor. Once all scarce needs of humans are met by a self-sustaining system then we will be in the "Star Trek Economy" future where you just do what you want and status is what you fight over by being exceptionally good at something. Like providing "status" human-made (not robot made!) food.
  • ... welcome HP's robotic overlord, er I mean CEO.

  • You can bag groceries, that's one area the humans have defeated the machines. "Supermarkets bag self-service checkout" [forbes.com]
  • by bcrowell (177657) on Monday September 26, 2011 @09:14PM (#37522186) Homepage

    The article doesn't contain what the /. summary says it contains. The article is actually a come-on for a promised series of blog entries which are supposed to substantiate the claims it makes. The article claims that within about 20 years (i.e., soon enough to "steal your job"), a whole bunch of intellectually demanding professions (including writing magazine articles and doing scientific research) will be automated. It offers no evidence for that claim. Maybe he believes that strong AI is coming within 20 years. Maybe he believes that computers can do these jobs without strong AI. Neither of those predictions seems plausible to me, and since he doesn't give the slightest hint of what he has in mind, there's not much to discuss.

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