What happens when the robots come?

On Saturday I was at a party and got chatting to a nice French chap who was involved somehow in environmental management. We had good fun bickering over climate change and pollution, but there was something else we discussed which is worth expanding on. He raised the question that many others are asking, which is what we’ll all do for work as technology makes jobs obsolete and there isn’t enough work to go around. What was interesting is he, like others, spoke as though this was something coming in the future whereas I replied that I can answer his question because the situation has already arisen.

Rather than look to a future in which robots do all the work, we can look backwards to the closure of the factories and mills and the decline of labour-intensive industries and blue-collar jobs and see what happened. From what I can tell, we’ve simply replaced those jobs with mass bureaucracy. Governments everywhere have made it central policy to get more women into the professional workforce, and for more people to go to university. Vast numbers of these new graduates entered jobs in government created largely to provide work for otherwise unemployable people, and they set about creating more work for themselves, i.e. expanding government. One method of doing this was to dramatically increase regulations with which private businesses and individuals must comply, thus forcing them to create their own bureaucracies in order to avoid non-conformity and prosecution. Thankfully, companies had no problem filling these positions thanks to hordes of new graduates with soft-skill degrees seeking cushy process-driven roles in air-conditioned metropolitan offices.

Every year the government bureaucracies grow, the number and complexity of regulations increase, and companies respond by employing ever-more people in roles related to “compliance”. This has been going on so long that it’s obvious many departments in large organisations – public, private, or third sector – exist purely to provide jobs for middle-class graduates. In other words, they’re part of a giant welfare system that few seem willing to recognise. I’d love to know, as a percentage, how many overhead jobs in modern organisations didn’t exist thirty years ago. You’d expect some jobs to change – especially those related to new technologies – but I’d be willing to bet most of these new positions are a result of ballooning government departments and whole armies of people necessary to navigate the current thicket of rules, regulations, and requirements.

It beats me why people are currently wringing their hands at the prospect of robots taking all the jobs, and worrying over how the work will be shared around when we’ve already found the answer: we’ll invent jobs, and pretend it’s real work.

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33 thoughts on “What happens when the robots come?

  1. And the people running around panicking that they will be ruled by robots are unaware that they are already ruled, in every part of modern life, by other people.

  2. Well, big business Is complicit in the over regulation because it keeps upstart competitors out of the market.

  3. “It beats me why people are currently wringing their hands at the prospect of robots taking all the jobs, and worrying over how the work will be shared around when we’ve already found the answer: we’ll invent jobs, and pretend it’s real work.”

    Well, there is a problem for those ‘blue’ collar guys who simply can’t stand the tedium and pointlessness of telling each other which holiday form needs to be filled in. The largest single employer of men in the US is ‘driver; for example, drones are going to create a real problem there. It seems opiates have been one of the solutions….

  4. The creation of bullshit jobs works until it doesn’t. I find it unlikely that credit, both governmental and domestic, can continue at its current rate of acceleration forever, for example. I wonder what happens then and how?

    Douglas Adams had a solution, of course; Golgafrincham Ark B.

  5. Well, big business Is complicit in the over regulation because it keeps upstart competitors out of the market.

    Exactly.

  6. I find it unlikely that credit, both governmental and domestic, can continue at its current rate of acceleration forever, for example.

    The problem is, people have been saying that for several decades now…

  7. I suspect the panic is due to the fact that many compliance roles amount to box ticking which is fairly easy to automate at least for large employers.

    The declared panic is about machines ruling us but the reality is that AI is still decades off, if possible at all. However the sort of tasks that are needed to say provide the CO2 stats on a regular basis are not that complicated. So I see this as manufactured outrage on behalf of that class of employee. Commercial business may be happy or unhappy to perform compliance or other admin work but either way they will do it as cheaply as possible.

    On a philosophical point, regulations are onerous if the cost of maintaining them outweighs the benefit. That’s not to argue that banning bendy bananas is sensible but no one wants to eliminate all regulation related to adulteration of food for example. So the cost of some regulation compliance may soon drop.

    In contrast I don’t think government will be so easy to shrink.

  8. “Douglas Adams had a solution, of course; Golgafrincham Ark B.”

    Which, IIRC, landed on Earth, which makes us the B’s.

    Fortunately, we’ll have very clean telephones with which to call the unemployment office.

  9. @Tim “The problem is, people have been saying that for several decades now…”

    Robots wont take over jobs, people need to work that is the way our financial systems are structured. Anyhow look at employment levels now with the current state of robotics which only a fool would say hasn’t started. UK has its highest employment rate since record began, US and Aussie near full employment, they cant fill position in Japan, the EU has its highest number ever employed and added 3.5m this year. Talking about robots taking over jobs is as boring as fuck.

    There is much job creation going on globally, China has just lifted hundreds of millions out of abject poverty in a generation, they are building coal fired power stations quicker than McDonalds, Chinese companies like Foxconn are setting up manufacturing in the US. They know that cheap energy in the US means cheap manufacturing in the US, things have never looked better. Ali Bali has promised one million jobs in the US.

    Robots taking jobs, on yer bike.

  10. TDK,

    I know people who have developed software services to just handle compliance, and they run them as external services.

  11. Half the time I’m hearing worries about the robots taking all the jobs.
    The other half I’m hearing worries about an ageing population and insufficient working age people to do the work and support them.
    Maybe the two problems cancel each other out?

  12. When I was contracting for HMRC, I came across an internal magazine article by a fast-track Civil Service graduate, who’d been sent on secondment to… a company!

    The gist of the hilights was:

    “After I’d been there a week or so, I realised that companies don’t only have to keep HMRC happy. They have to keep other Government departments happy too!

    Then, after another couple of weeks, I realised that companies don’t only have to keep Government departments happy. They have to keep their customers happy as well!”

    I often get reminded of that when I’m dealing with civil servants, most of whom aren’t as high-flying as that lady.

  13. The problem I foresee is that robotics, and particularly AI, will start clearing out the entry level stuff. I love my niche, it’s intellectually and socially challenging, but I could probably do something else if computers ate my lunch. I could go and work in a bank, or teaching would be a safe job provided there isn’t an official 4-year minimum training period (already written law off as alternative career for that reason, nervously checks German teachers’ union website…)

    There’s a lot of people doing a lot of jobs that don’t have that option though, and as AI takes off we will lose, even in my niche, some of the entry-level, essentially training positions, where people do handle-cranking to learn how the work and the diplomacy is handled.

  14. “I never knew McDonalds built coal-fired power stations.’

    I should have said springing up faster than…………..

    And whilst we are at it another 204 million of them are forecast to start flying for the first time, how many jobs will that create in making planes, financing planes, flying planes, staffing airlines, staffing airports, duty free, casinos, shopping centers, hotels, restaurants, taxis and building airports. Back on the ground One Belt One Road is going to link them with over 60 countries, including ones with very large populations such as Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India with 1.3 billion and growing, how many millions of jobs will the create. If you look at the scale of what India has embarked on in improving its road, rail and port system its mind boggling.

    The question should be, with all of these millions of jobs being created is the world ready for it?

  15. And whilst we are at it another 204 million of them are forecast to start flying for the first time, how many jobs will that create in … casinos

    Racist!

  16. “Racist!”

    Too right, they have risen out of savage poverty that quickly that this new middle class that can travel around the world haven’t quite learned proper toilet etiquette yet, judging by the numerous reported cases of them shitting on the bathroom floors of cruise ships, European museums and aircraft aisles!

    https://www.google.com.au/search?source=hp&q=chinese+tourists+poop+on+floors&oq=chinese+tourists+poop+on+floors&gs_l=psy-ab.3…1083.12896.0.13688.31.31.0.0.0.0.174.3355.13j18.31.0….0…1.1.64.psy-ab..0.30.3213…0j0i131k1j0i22i30k1j33i22i29i30k1j33i21k1j33i160k1.0.exAbptlCMIU&gws_rd=cr&dcr=0&ei=je7tWYvYDcSZ0gSd642gBw

  17. Office Life by Keith Waterhouse, published nearly 40 years ago shows how governments might address the issue of unemployment. It is very funny.

  18. Bardon – http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/article/1870848/wealthy-chinese-pay-blueblood-british-firm-debretts-etiquette-training

    Some Chinese nouveaus are utter, entitled arseholes of the worst sort. Some, especially the old people who probably spent 50 year struggling in abject poverty, are quite sweet. I make an effort to be patient with them on planes and in hotels and note inwardly that it is socialists that need a good kicking, not some old dear on her first trip abroad.

  19. I have a friend who worked as a tenant participation office for 14 years for a council and didn’t work for the last 9 years at all.
    The amount of middle management now days is amazing Parkinsons law is real

  20. @MC

    I find their lack of queuing etiquette the most annoying. The Brits are undoubtedly the worlds best and most polite at taking one’s rightful place and giving way when required in forming a queue, that is something that always stands out to me when I am there. The number, length and orderly queues that magically form for nondescript goods and services, even rubbish pubs is something that is uniquely British. I would love to see Debrett’s and the like introduce this leaned skill into their etiquette curriculum training programs for wealthy Chinese.

  21. Well, if you REALLY want to know what a world controlled by robots looks like, go to Mars. It is populated entirely by robots, manufactured here on Earth.

    Yep – people DO call me “Prince of Trivia”. Why do you ask?

  22. Pcar, my understanding was Venezuela produced mostly heavy crude that required a degree of specialised processing/refining and is more technical challenging to extract. I can easily see them starting to sweat their wells in the absence of good technical support and the desperate need to pump oil for cash.

  23. I have a friend who worked as a tenant participation office for 14 years for a council and didn’t work for the last 9 years at all.

    That sounds a bit like me.

  24. PCar,

    I’m not sure if it’s true, but Venezuela produces very specific crude: thick, nasty stuff from the Orinoco basin. The only people who can really refine it (other than themselves) are the US coastal refineries, but even they will require incoming cargoes adhere to a specification (i.e. the range of water, salt, contaminants, etc.) For crude, adhering to a spec isn’t that difficult (compared to LNG, for example) but it still needs to be done. It wouldn’t surprise me if they’ve done what David Moore suggests and wreck the reservoirs to pump more oil without changing their process (which costs money) to handle the changed fluid characteristics. The result might well be off-spec crude. If so, it will either sell at a huge discount or not at all.

  25. “He raised the question that many others are asking, which is what we’ll all do for work as technology makes jobs obsolete and there isn’t enough work to go around.”

    We will do something else.

    Standard economics here. Human desires and wants are unlimited. Resources to sate them are scarce, labour is a resource. We don’t need labour to sate this desire? Great, it can now go off and sate that next one on Maslow’s Pyramid.

    Before the automation of agriculture we had 80% of the people on the land to feed 100% of the people. Today we have 2%. It’s that which allows us to have 10% of the population in the NHS, 5% in education, 3% making tiddlywink games and so on and so on. The automation of agriculture allowed us to redeploy labour to sate other desires.

    The NHS is a product of the tractor.

    This only stops when all human desires and wants have been sated. And wouldn’t that be a horrible world?

  26. Venezuela produces a range of crudes, from 10° to 39° API, as well as synthetic crude (Merey, 16°) made by mixing ultra-heavy Orinoco oil with lighter grades. As late as 2009, medium and light oil made up more than half of the total. However, output from the fields producing light and medium oil has been declining and its share could be down to one-third now. To replace it, PdVSA has been increasing Orinoco production via JVs. This oil is both heavier and more expensive to produce, partly because it consists of 75% ultra-heavy crude and 25% light crude, which automatically adds $10-$12 per barrel to production costs at the current prices.

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