What's he trying to hide? Oh yeah, a robot. Via the White House
Yesterday, President Obama took to the Sunday talk shows to discuss the future of work. Serving perhaps as a reminder that the Syria debacle isn't the only issue facing America, or perhaps as a "robots are taking our jobs" smokescreen to problems of structural unemployment, Obama joined ABC's "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos to talk about how technology is an economic factor that's out of Washington's hands.
According to Brett LoGiurato at Business Insider, Obama referred to these problems as being "beyond Washington," saying that developments like ATMs and the internet have taken people out of the economy through automation. It's an interesting, if obtuse, admission that the current economy places enormous value on corporations with historically low levels of human employment. It makes sense: Humans are costly and unreliable, and thus a business that can do without them is worth more.
It's also a huge problem facing the shrunken economy. Unemployment for the poor has hit Depression era levels, and long-term unemployment is stickier than ever. America's shift away from a manufacturing economy has eliminated a stable source of jobs that fueled America's middle class boom, and continued automation across all sectors will eliminate more jobs in the future.
It's good to see the President acknowledging the issue. He also offered solutions that the government could implement, including developing a smarter workforce and offering incentives to bring manufacturing back to the US, which probably won't happen. But there's one line Obama mentioned that I have to take issue with. As quoted by LoGiurato, emphasis his:
So there's a whole bunch of stuff that’s happening in the marketplace. But if we have policies that make sure that our kids are prepared for higher skilled jobs. If we have policies that make sure that we’re rebuilding our infrastructure, because a robot can’t build a road. And we need, you know, new ports and a smarter electricity grid, if we’re making investments, to make sure that research and development continues to happen here. If we have tax breaks for companies that are investing here in the United States as opposed to overseas, all those things can make the situation better.
Obama is obviously trying to illustrate two points: First, we desperately need to fix our phenomenally shitty infrastructure, and second, Republicans want to accelerate the robo-job-killing of America in order to concentrate more money at the top. The first point is valid, and the second one you can argue amongst yourselves, but both miss the mark. Why? Because robots can build roads, and that's an extremely important distinction to make.
First, the relevant robot info. In 2004, Google received a pretty fascinating patent for a "modular, robotic road repair machine" that is fully automated and could drive and direct itself. How about that mental image: a robot creating a road with a legion of Google self-driving cars following behind.
A 2001 Wired article looks at robotic road repair's growing use, noting that it could save highway workers' lives. (But would they have jobs?) Oh, and the robots are better at sealing cracks than humans:
"We've increased productivity to such an extent that we can't provide material fast enough," he said. Velinsky and his staff are now figuring out a quicker way to melt the sealant.
As of last year, Georgia Tech was touting its road repair bot's ability to create "crack maps" within 100 milliseconds. Unsurprisingly, the government was an early adopter, as this wonderful Department of Transportation website from 1995 shows. I mean, the Federal Highway Administration established its Office of Advanced Research in 1992 with the goal of automating infrastructure survey and repair.
That the US has been experimenting with road robots for more than two decades serves to prove a simple point that Obama ignores: No traditional jobs are safe from automation. I care far less about the President being mostly wrong in his example, and more about the underlying logic. We should not be pretending that there will always be safe havens in the economy for skilled labor and much of the service industry. Whether it's farming, construction, auto manufacturing, investment banking, or—oh no!—blogging, automation is the driving force shaping the future economy.
We need to accept that fact and figure out how to address it, not hide from reality by touting job sectors that haven't been robo-fied just yet. (Preview from 2016 presidential debate: "Gift wrapping! At least we've still got that!") As Obama rightfully notes, a large part of the answer lies in making a smarter workforce to help develop and maintain the tools to automate the rest of the world. It's also looking more and more like we should at least discuss the idea of a guaranteed minimum income.
As plenty like to point out, maintaining the future robot and app workforce will also be the source of plenty of jobs. But even operating a plumber drone still represents a massive shift from the mid-century American economy everyone loves to daydream about, and the base of high-paying skilled labor positions of yore are disappearing. It's time to accept that fact and move forward, not cling to what's left of the past.