A few months ago, I lunched with a local robotics manufacturer. Quite naturally, we were talking about how his line of robots had streamlined manufacturing. As we pontificated on the economic effects of this trend, I asked where people, especially at the low end of the skill scale, are going to work in the future. I further made the flippant comment that, “not everyone can work at McDonald’s”.
My friend’s reply was that the fast food industry was the next target of robotics. After all, a robot can be programmed to prepare a highly sophisticated meal. The programming is very complex and difficult, but once it is done, the program can be replicated without additional cost to thousands or even millions of other robots. He claimed that within the next two years, all meals in fast food restaurants will be prepared in this way. Then I stumbled upon this article:
No longer will they say, “He’s going to end up flipping burgers.” Because now, robots are taking even these ignobly esteemed jobs. Alpha machine from Momentum Machines cooks up a tasty burger with all the fixins. And it does it with such quality and efficiency it’ll produce “gourmet quality burgers at fast food prices.”
A couple of months after this initial conversation, I read the following in Fast Company:
Chili’s, the casual-dining chain, will begin to offer customers access to tabletop computer screens at more than 800 locations in the U.S., starting Tuesday rolling out through early 2014. The Wall Street Journal reports customers will be able to use the tablets to order food and drinks, pay the bill, and play games.
Apparently, it is not only in food preparation that technology is taking over. The entire dining experience is being transformed as you read this post. In the very near future, fast food will eliminate the need for employees in both the front-end and back-end of your next visit.
The second huge job eliminator was reported by The Economist:
The University of Southern California is testing a giant 3D printer that could be used to build a whole house in under 24 hours.
Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis has designed the giant robot that replaces construction workers with a nozzle on a gantry, this squirts out concrete and can quickly build a home according to a computer pattern. It is “basically scaling up 3D printing to the scale of building,” says Khoshnevis. The technology, known as Contour Crafting, could revolutionise the industry.
Will Builders be Out of Work?
What the implications are for builders is, of course, a major concern. Building and construction has largely escaped the construction line automation of other industries and remains solid employment for millions worldwide. According to the International Labour Organisation construction employs nearly 110 million people worldwide and “plays a major role in combating the high levels of unemployment and in absorbing surplus labour from the rural areas.”
Another of the final bastions of entry level or lower end employment providing decent income has been order fulfillment in warehouses. In 2010, the Wall Street Journal ran a story on Kiva robots being used by 10 of the top 100 fulfillment centers. The notable exception was Amazon, who, WSJ noted, “has figured out how to do this with humans”.
Less than 2 years later, Amazon acquired Kiva for $775 million, and is expanding their warehouses using robots by 17 for a total of 69 this year. Jeff Bezos promises that this is only the beginning.
In the Mastermind group I facilitate, we are universally in awe of the incredible advances made through technology. Many in the group are early adopters, and have created innovative organizational structures to accommodate it. We are also, however, sobered by the realization that every aspect of our economy is strongly impacted by it.
Some would maintain that the employment situation I describe is primarily a political issue. Those of you who are more politically astute may have seen evidence that there are a few politicians acknowledging the incredible fluidity of our work culture. I personally have not. In any event, I would be extremely reluctant to relinquish the discovery of a solution to this impending crisis to a political system better structured to govern a century ago.
How are we, as a nation, going to accommodate a growing number of people unequipped for the new, more sophisticated requirements of the jobs created by technology? How are we, as creative entrepreneurs, going to design a new economic and social order that will recognize that vast numbers of people are being left behind? I encourage you to join in the dialogue with your thoughts and ideas. They are critically needed!
Next week: Let Them Pay – A simple solution to the money circulation conundrum.