Humans Need Not Apply

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Apr 21, 2005
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By Bill Bittner, President, BWH Consulting

I combined the subjects of many of the articles in the latest Economist Technology Quarterly with some of RetailWire’s recent discussions on “entry level employment” to reach a disturbing conclusion…Read on.

Many of the Economist articles describe advances in the fields of automation, robotics, artificial intelligence and voice recognition.


  • The Humanoids on the March article describes the advances that are being made in the creation of robots, which are able walk upright and grasp things in their “hands” much the same as humans.
  • In AI and the Law, the author describes how tests of artificial intelligence to provide legal advice and render decisions has led to more appropriate and consistent results than what often comes from attorneys and judges.
  • Finally, The Talking Cure describes the effort to create dedicated “voice recognition chips” as has been done with video chips that offload the voice processing so the PC can remain focused on problem solving. These voice recognition chips would allow the computer to accept commands verbally without slowing down the current processing.

One of the big pushes for NASA over the next 10 years is to be the increased use of robotics for space travel. The agency will continue to develop more sophisticated units that can be used in place of human explorers. Many of these devices will require the capability to exercise “free will” as they operate in remote areas where real time command from earth is impossible. They will have to be able to recognize and respond to the environment they encounter.

Automation and robotics have already proliferated across the consumer spectrum and in business. ATM’s, automated checkouts, and self-serve gas stations have all had an impact on the “entry level” job market.

More sophisticated uses for robotics have had an impact on higher paying manufacturing and service jobs, as well. Robotic dispensing systems are said to fill prescriptions at rates multiple times faster than human pharmacists and do it without making mistakes.

From a business standpoint, there is a lot to commend in the potential use of robotics. Robots don’t organize (at least not yet), they don’t require a salary or health benefits. It is no wonder that businesses wanting to reduce costs have turned to automation.

But robots don’t pay taxes, coach little league teams or participate in community volunteerism, such as the fire company or auxiliary police and, oh yes, they don’t shop in stores.

Moderator’s Comment: Is there a point in the development of technology where society’s need to “encourage full employment” must override the economics
of automation? Is it a proper role for government to encourage the use of people in place of automation?

Thinking about this whole subject makes my head hurt. I am generally not for government intervention and would prefer that the “free hand of the market
place” dictate how business is conducted. But in this case, I really feel there is a role for government. It seems a simple approach would be some kind of tax on robots. If they
are going to be generating revenue, shouldn’t they also be contributing to society? By putting a tax on automation, we raise its cost to the business (all businesses) which may
shift the economics back to human workers. The only robots exempt from this tax would be the ones replacing attorneys (just kidding).

Bill Bittner – Moderator

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13 Comments on "Humans Need Not Apply"


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Mark Burr
Guest
15 years 10 months ago
I’d like to take a bit of a different tact on this issue. Since the rapid onset of technology that has impacted businesses of all types, there has also been an equally rapid change in society as a whole. It certainly leads one to question the benefit. Now certainly, don’t misunderstand that I would wish a return to the days of Ozzie and Harriet or ‘The Beaver’, but, unquestionably, society was different. Growing up surrounded by the auto industry, I have witnessed in my own lifetime what automation, poor management and competition can do to an industry. In fact, it exists yet today with GM’s announcement this week of huge losses. In its hay day (during the period of my youth), GM was a powerhouse of passion for cars. It employed thousands upon thousands. Communities where they resided thrived and grew. Well, we all know what’s happened since then. At the time, there was a saying, ‘So goes GM, so goes the country.’ Seems laughable now doesn’t it? But should it? So what’s my point?… Read more »
George Anderson
Guest
15 years 10 months ago

I doubt we’ll ever see where society’s need to encourage full employment will override the economic benefits of automation, unless of course, someone develops software, a robot or other machine that eliminates the need for human CEOs and other top managers. 😉

Herb Sorensen
Guest
15 years 10 months ago
Since the first division of labor, and increasing productivity, there have been those who were against freeing humans from the drudgery that has made life meaningful – up till now! That is, people find meaning and value in the status quo, including pumping gas. What we have to look forward to is the time when one person can provide comfortably for all the physical needs of 100 (including technology and every other need.) What will the other 99 do? If basic food, clothing and housing all become “free” because their cost is so inconsequential (public restrooms don’t charge for toilet paper, soap and water even now) what will we DO? How will “wealth” be distributed? I don’t know, except that we will evolve the business and social systems necessary to allow people to spend their time being productive in possibly more creative ways. After all, hundreds of millions of people are even now facing long and prosperous retirements. Sure, not everyone is. But increasing health and better retirement preparation is creating a class that will… Read more »
Stuart Silverman
Guest
Stuart Silverman
15 years 10 months ago
Whoa Bill – you’re getting way ahead of yourself! I have had the opportunity to see robots in action at the Mercedes plant in Stuttgart – and it was very impressive how the robots could see which model they were working on and where to apply the adhesives to attach a windshield with higher degree of accuracy than an individual person could do. But my guess is that there were a limited number of options that needed to be programmed for. In the 70’s and 80’s I had occasion to visit a number of automated warehouses – essentially big vending machines – that were eventually dismantled. Why didn’t they work? The party line was because of the double handling required to manually fill the slots. The big picture issue here is really that the variety of items, sizes, packaging all caused havoc on the vending machine. I think that we may see robots doing small repetitive tasks in our stores and DC’s over time. As an example, you should see what B&H Photo does in… Read more »
David Livingston
Guest
15 years 10 months ago

Currently, I don’t see a point in the future where society encourages full employment in place of automation. Right now, we have a severe labor shortage in this country. Millions of jobs go unfilled because we don’t have the educated warm bodies to fill the needs. We must import millions of illegal aliens to perform the tasks that are beneath us. There are shortages of nurses and teachers – jobs robots cannot fill. Perhaps if we had more robots, the people they displace would opt in to the professions where we suffer huge labor shortages. That could be in both the professional fields or menial labor. As far as the government’s role? I think we should replace most of our government officials with robots. I wouldn’t mind sending a few Robocops down to the city to crack a few heads.

Warren Thayer
Guest
15 years 10 months ago

It’s a disturbing question. I fear a tax on robots would send even more jobs and business spending offshore. Use the robots in the Far East or wherever, and avoid the tax and find cheaper human labor (if needed) at the same time. Over the long haul, the trends are disturbing. It feels like we’re coming to accept the existence of a permanent underclass as just an unfortunate byproduct of technology. Hey, it’s not “us,” right? Reminds me of those famous words by Martin Niemoller, the German anti-Nazi activist: “…Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew…. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant… Then they came for me — and by that time no one was left to speak up.” It would be terrific if more people started speaking up and trying to come up with long-term solutions. But I don’t think enough of the people in charge of things have learned from Niemoller.

Rick Moss
Guest
15 years 10 months ago

Automation and technology are already so integrated into our work lives, I can’t imagine how government could ever regulate how machines replace humans (and thank goodness for that). Think about it. Businesses used to employ human messengers; now we have telephones, faxes and email. Do we tax phones because they replace human workers? How do you define a “robot”? Probably the most sophisticated and ubiquitous replacement of human workers is the PC. When I was first involved with publishing, there were big production offices filled with rows of workers at drafting tables pasting up magazine pages. They’re all gone, thanks to desktop technology. Do we throw out the graphics software and bring back the paste-up people?

Progress marches on. Use humans for what they do best…relating to other humans. Leave the grunt work to the machines.

Al McClain
Guest
Al McClain
15 years 10 months ago

I don’t think taxing new technology is the solution to this complex problem, as the government has a way of making things worse that they intend to make better – see this week’s stories on TSA and Homeland Security. There will be opportunities for businesses who rely on people versus machines for customer service – i.e. JetBlue versus American Airlines and Trader Joe’s versus supermarkets with self-checkout. Unfortunately, the consequences of automation include poor customer service, as in all the voice recognition systems that save businesses millions by eliminating jobs but force customers through series of mind-numbing prompts. And, entry-level workers will have to be more flexible in what they’re willing to do to get started.

David Berg
Guest
David Berg
15 years 10 months ago
Robots generate profits for businesses, and those businesses pay taxes on those profits. I don’t see a need for a special tax. Humans pay taxes to pay for the services we consume (police, fire, libraries, Medicare, Social Security, etc). Until robots start using those services, there’s no reason for them to pay taxes for them. Robots don’t coach little league games, nor do I think I want them to. But if I have a robot to do my chores around the house, then maybe I’ll have more time to get out and coach little league. As far as ‘full employment’ – that experiment has been tried several times and failed every time. How many buggy whip manufacturers should we employ? How many firemen should we have on a diesel train to shovel coal? Giving people meaningless jobs is not the ticket to happiness or prosperity. Assuming we have the money to pay people to do nothing, then why not just give them the money and let them go do something worthwhile (like coaching little league… Read more »
John Rand
Guest
John Rand
15 years 10 months ago

Great discussion!

When there are more people than there are meaningful jobs, then the system we’ve evolved to distribute wealth is broken.

Nothing we have ever experienced as a society is designed to let people take a direct personal benefit from the efficiency of the overall system. The closest we come is to pay welfare and unemployment, and both are stigmatized, and under constant political attack. We don’t fund health care or retirement willingly – how will we transition to funding entire lives? Will everybody be richer for all this efficiency? Or will most of us be poor?

Jeff Weitzman
Guest
Jeff Weitzman
15 years 10 months ago
Those of you who think robots are probably only going to be suited to repetitive, simple tasks haven’t seen the cutting edge of robotics! And the comment above about customer service suffering when technology is applied? Not so fast! Recent robotics shows have featured receptionist robots, for example. They listen, they talk, they never act bored, they are always pleasant, they always provide correct information… You get the idea… Scanner decries the loss of passion that came with the reduction of human labor in the auto industry, but I believe that passion simply moved elsewhere. Here in Silicon Valley, people drip with passion. (Some people drip with other stuff, too.) Walk the halls at Google, for example, and tell me you don’t get the sense that its employees truly believe they are engaged in a great effort to make the world a better place. I saw that passion at Yahoo! when I worked there and saw it when the employees created a charitable foundation to help others, and volunteered their time in local schools. I… Read more »
Bernice Hurst
Guest
15 years 10 months ago

Good on ya, Jeff. You can have my vote any old time. Passion is always the winner.

Dan Gilmore
Guest
Dan Gilmore
15 years 10 months ago
There was a famous “Twilight Zone” episode (the orginal Rod Serling series) in which some future CEO is shown commanding a large manufacturing company that somehow has automated away all of the jobs. In the end, it’s just him and the machines… Trying to outlaw automation will never work, especially in a global economy. Unions try to block it to some extent, and may forestall some automation/job loss in a given plant for awhile, but eventually, if barriers to automation are present, then plants just shut down. There is a parallel here to concerns about offshore manufacturing – if barriers are put in place to stop that, then domestic companies will just automate to reduce labor costs, and the result will be much the same. Already, something like 200,000 airline counter agent jobs have been replaced by self-service kiosks. The same is happening in call centers due to web ordering and voice system technology. In 10 years, self checkout at retail will be commonplace, replacing cashiers in many retail formats (grocery and mass merchandise). Beyond… Read more »
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