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Automation and full employment

April 1st, 2018 / By: / Editorial

Pessimists have already begun to worry about what is going to replace automation.
~John Tudor

If any of you watched the “X-Files” episode in early March entitled “Rm9sbG9eZX.Jz” and are still happily chatting with Alexa … your intrepid nature is an inspiration. The program basically depicted Mulder and Scully having dinner in a completely automated sushi restaurant, with Mulder receiving an entrée that resembled a large, bald fish sculpted in jello and glazed with WD40. When he couldn’t find a human anywhere in the restaurant, he paid with a credit card, refused to tip, and set off a series of events in which both he and Scully were advised by every electronic interface they encountered that they had “45 minutes … 30 minutes … 10 minutes” remaining to tip the robotic server, which kept chirping: “We learn from you!”

Ultimately, a drone picks Mulder’s phone out of the trash, delivers it to the robot that’s smashing down the door to get to them—and then the robot offers Mulder his phone, which tells him he still has 10 seconds to tip. When he finally does, everything goes back to normal, with happy faces on every screen.

I have been a science-fiction fan for more than 50 years. I am not anti-technology. But I will never set foot in a driverless car, I want
my house and all my appliances to remain efficient but utterly stupid, and lately I find myself arguing vehemently with anyone that’s ordering everything online, assuring them that they are hurting
small businesses everywhere.

I’ve started researching an upcoming article in the July issue about automation, equipment and ROI, a topic we’ve covered before, but perhaps not with a direct focus on whether there really is a reciprocal effect between automation and employment in the workplace. It’s natural for a business owner to cut labor expenses … but isn’t it also natural to want full employment, so people can afford to buy the products you make? With so many public and private efforts now on training a new workforce for manufacturing jobs, just what kinds of jobs are those going to be? If your current job gets taken over by a black box, do you get a job making black boxes?

The true “circular economy,” as defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org), is “restorative and regenerative by design. Relying on system-wide innovation, it aims to redefine products and services to design waste out, while minimizing negative impacts.” Maybe what we need now is a circular workforce, utilizing system-wide innovation to redefine jobs and skills and minimize unemployment.

In my very first editorial for the Industrial Fabric Products Review in September 1999, I introduced myself as a “rabid science-fiction fan and a relentless afficionado of robust red wines,” with no children, no pets, six dying house plants and “only a fading hope that I will ever actually meet David Duchovny.”

Full circle.

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