Post XI: People vs. Robots

Automation is quickly becoming more and more prominent in our society, and not just in industries that utilize the top technologies. Walk into almost any supermarket and, at least, four of the cash registers are self-checkout. Granted, it’s not really like a robot is taking the groceries out of my shopping cart and bagging them for me, but it certainly isn’t a human. That small change certainly must have cost a few jobs at each store, or at the very least reduced someone’s hours.

At GE Transportation, locomotives are built pretty much from the ground up- very few things are manufactured outside of Erie, PA. Though much of the work necessary to build a locomotive requires highly skilled workers, a lot of the general labor has been automated. I can’t help but think of the union workers who were let go because of this “advancement.”

From a business and production standpoint, there are very few downsides to automation. After the initial capital that must be invested to get the new technologies either developed or just brought to a certain business, there are few expenses that are required to support the automation. Without considering the workers’ livelihoods, automation seems like a no-brainer. The tough question is one that has been asked in this class a few times: do companies owe anything to their employees?

I definitely think that the Luddites were onto something. Until listening to the Planet Money podcast about the Luddites, I had never even considered things like Instagram and online travel sites being automation. Though they mention those examples in jest, it is an interesting thing to consider. How many postal workers have been let go because email is much more prominent than snail mail? Things like printing out pictures or delivering mail are not necessarily highly-skilled jobs, but the sentiment is the same. Another good point that the hosts of the podcast make is that machines do not need vacation or sick days. While working in a union environment this summer during the height of union negotiations, I experienced a few strikes. At a place where each worker’s station depends on the one before it, random halts in production–even if it is only a single eight-hour shift–could have serious repercussions down the road when production goals need to be hit. In the highly unlikely event that the entire plant was automated, there would not be any such production halts, save for occasional maintenance delays.

Basic Income is a new idea for me. At first, it seemed like a completely impossible idea. How would this possible come to fruition when our basic social security and welfare programs are already under fire and unstable? Fortunately, Jim Pugh addresses this concern and many others. If Basic Income were to pass, the programs already in place (i.e., unemployment, food stamps, etc.) would be unnecessary. Therefore, the money that is going towards all of these preexisting social programs could be reallocated to Basic Income. I would be absolutely amazed if Basic Income became a topic of national discussion anytime soon, but whenever the conversation does happen, I will be happy to listen and engage in it.

Ultimately, I don’t think that automation is good or bad. Certainly, jobs are taken away when a machine is created to do a task, but jobs are also created because someone needs to be able to service that machine and make sure that it is running properly. Additionally, what happens when machines break and need intensive maintenance? The chance of this happening is not high, but the idea alone would make me uneasy if my business relied on a machine. Sure, humans are not as consistent as machines, but we are adaptable and [moslty] reliable.








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