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Robotics The Almighty Buck Politics

Job Automation and the Minimum Wage Debate 870

An anonymous reader writes "An article at FiveThirtyEight looks at the likelihood of various occupations being replaced by automation. It mentions President Obama's proposed increase to the federal minimum wage, saying big leaps in automation could reshape that debate. '[The wage increase] from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour could make it worthwhile for employers to adopt emerging technologies to do the work of their low-wage workers. But can a robot really do a janitor's job? Can software fully replace a fast-food worker? Economists have long considered these low-skilled, non-routine jobs as less vulnerable to technological replacement, but until now, quantitative estimates of a job's vulnerability have been missing from the debate.' Many minimum-wage jobs are reportedly at high risk, including restaurant workers, cashiers, and telemarketers. A study rated the probability of computerization within 20 years (PDF): 92% for retail salespeople, 97% for cashiers, and 94% for waitstaff. There are other jobs with a high likelihood, but they employ fewer people and generally have a higher pay rate: tax preparers (99%), freight workers (99%), and legal secretaries (98%)."
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Job Automation and the Minimum Wage Debate

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  • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Tuesday March 25, 2014 @08:56PM (#46579925)

    Gonna be a long while till robots will be able to do all the shitty things nomadic, entry-level employees do.

    It will be a while before robots can do all of those jobs, but many of them will soon be automated. If you go into a McDonald's, half the employees are taking orders, and the other half are fulfilling them. The people taking the orders could easily be replaced: Just turn the touchscreens around so that customers can enter their own orders, and then swipe a card to pay. Grocery stores have already done this, and so have banks. Fast food is next.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 25, 2014 @09:44PM (#46580335)

    What about the impending failure of capitalism?

    You're confused. Capitalism is doing fine. It's government that's failing.


    Pure capitalism is letting the market decide which leads to the monopolization of industries. This leads to a dearth of choice for consumers. Some government interference is required to keep markets open. The reason why government is failing is because it has been bought by corporations and financial institutions.

  • When? (Score:3, Informative)

    by rsilvergun ( 571051 ) on Tuesday March 25, 2014 @10:19PM (#46580603)
    Russia? China? They didn't even get close to communism. They were fascists dictatorships and kleptocracies that happen to use Karl Marx's writings for propaganda.

    European socialism got pretty close, and they seem to be doing just fine except when they start acting like Americans and deregulating their banks.

    Seriously, I know you're trolling, but there's a chance someone out there is taking your seriously...
  • Russia != Communism (Score:4, Informative)

    by rsilvergun ( 571051 ) on Tuesday March 25, 2014 @10:24PM (#46580645)
    or Socialism. Or anything other than a fascists dictatorship that just happened to use Karl Marx's writtings for propaganda. They had about as much to do with Communism as North Korea, but for some reason we sorta forget all that. Also, Russia was a _lot_ worse off from WWII than anyone really remembers. They used mules to drag their tanks back home for lack of fuel for God's sake.
  • by RobinH ( 124750 ) on Tuesday March 25, 2014 @10:33PM (#46580741) Homepage

    I work in industrial automation, so I do PLC programming, robot programming, control system integration, etc. I've been doing it over 15 years now. For the first 10 years I bought the whole "luddite" argument, and figured that automation only displaced people to other, ultimately higher paying jobs.

    However, in recent years I've really started to worry. Imagine the person who is barely functional: they can follow instructions but you have to repeat yourself a whole bunch of times, and even then they still make lots of mistakes. My experience tells me this is around 30% of the workforce, at least. Back when everyone was in agriculture, these people couldn't really do too much damage, and if they were strong, they were useful. The magic of the industrial revolution was that we were able to both magnify the strength of everyone, *and* reduce the chance of making errors by (a) breaking things down into tiny tasks so people only had a very very simple thing to do (tighten nut A on bolt B all day long), and (b) designing things such that they couldn't assembled incorrectly (the modern term is poka yoke). This "lower" 30% of the workforce became very productive, and they joined labor unions and owned big houses and boats. They retired with nice company pensions. Their kids got much better educations than they did.

    So, if you look at the things that these people made lots of money doing (something extremely simple, repetitive, and designed to be error-proof), then that's exactly what is simple enough to automate with a robot. We recently had a job that was taking 3 operators to do and produced parts at the rate of about 3 parts per minute, and they couldn't meet the production numbers even with 2 shifts (total 6 people). We replaced all 6 of those people with a single robot, and we're up to about 8 parts per minute so we probably only need to run about 1 shift.

    The difference is that this new robot assembly cell requires a semi-skilled operator to run it. They need decent troubleshooting ability, with a bit of mechanical knowledge and decent computer skills (not programming, but basic stuff like navigating screens, understanding slightly more abstract concepts, etc.). They need to be able to look at the robot gripper and determine if anything's worn and needs replacement. We happen to have someone who's almost overskilled for the position. So we keep shuffling those other 6 people around in the plant, trying to find something for them to do, and almost always realizing that whatever they're doing could be automated. Plus, I really need to stress that these aren't people with decent troubleshooting skills, computer skills, etc. Any process we put them in requires us to remove all human decision making, because we can't tolerate errors (or they're very expensive).

    My point is that unskilled laborers are a hassle to employ. We have a hard time thinking up things for them to do, and we'd love to find something because, well, they're so cheap! (And we already have $10/hr+ minimum wage here.) But so are robots. It used to be that a bare robot (uninstalled) cost $50,000. Integration costs might push that to $125,000 or $150,000. That really limited the choices... you pretty much had to eliminate one operator for 3 shifts to make it a valid investment. Now those costs are almost cut in half. The robots are well under $30,000 and integration is getting cheaper, plus we're just getting better at it.

    As we transition into this "new economy" where there are no unskilled manufacturing jobs left, I really don't know where these people are going to find employment. I don't just see it happening in manufacturing either. I'm pretty sure that truck drivers and taxi drivers will be the first to get automated by the kind of auto-drive technology that Google's working on. We're already seeing automated forklift trucks in factories. I just don't know.

  • by shutdown -p now ( 807394 ) on Wednesday March 26, 2014 @02:57AM (#46581825) Journal

    You could pay them not to work but then that also encourages other people not to work.

    Not if you pay the people who do work significantly more. After all, one other point behind all those robots is that they make things cheaper (as GP noted, the robot that replaced 6 people could do their job more than twice as fast), so there's more profit to be made selling them.

    BTW, Canada ran an experiment [wikipedia.org] on guaranteed minimum income a few decades ago, and, interestingly enough, they didn't see a problem with people's motivation to work being significantly reduced.

  • by BasilBrush ( 643681 ) on Wednesday March 26, 2014 @07:27AM (#46582657)

    While it is tragic, I agree. Many low-paid jobs are low-paid because many people that do them do not care about the quality of their work.

    What utter bullshit. A job category isn't assessed for the average level of quality of work, and then cross industry pay rates set accordingly.

    Nor in most classes of work is individual pay varied much according to performance. There may be scales according to years served, and small differences according to appraisals. But for example, a waiter will earn about the same, regardless. For sure in the professions, such as programming, performance can effect pay much more. But most jobs aren't professions. And your post was about "low-paid jobs".

    Pay rates are simply set by supply and demand of qualified and willing workers. There are plenty of people that are willing and able to flip burgers, so the pay rate is low, even though demand is high. There are relatively few people qualified to do surgery, relative to need, so the pay rate is high.

    Incidentally, a lot of outsourced programming suffers from the same symptoms: Code produced without understanding or interest in the matter. The few that care in outsourcing move rapidly to better jobs. The ones that stay are the dross and what they produce has negative worth.

    Domestic outsourced workers tend to be called consultants, and tend to get higher pay than the permanent staff. On equal pay, people would chose to be permanent for the security and benefits, so supply and demand requires higher pay for these consultants. For sure, foreign outsourced staff earn less. But again, it's supply and demand - there are an awful lot of trained computer programmers in India, eastern Europe, etc.

Information is the inverse of entropy.