Partial Transcript: Episode 44 (Robots & Jobs)

Virginia: There’s an Atlantic article out right now called “The End of Labor: How to Protect Workers from the Rise of Robots.”  There was a 60 Minutes episode this weekend about robots in the workforce.  I’m curious to know how you guys feel about it.

Mike: I have a robot vacuum cleaner, and I love it.

Virginia: Did you have someone that you had hired to do that for you?

Mike: Absolutely not.

Virginia: I don’t think that counts.

Andrew: I found out that Roomba doesn’t work for me because I have two cats, and they shed a lot.

Virginia: So they just clog it up?

Andrew: Yeah. It drives around for about ten minutes and then stops.

Nick: I had a friend who had a Roomba.  His dog really enjoyed it.  He would stand in places to mess it up.  So, the Roomba would stand in the doorway.

Virginia: It was probably like a sheep herder dog.  That’s funny.  Back to the real topic: Are we going to lose our jobs?

Andrew: The stuff that robots are taking over is stupidly simple stuff.  There is a lot of manufacturing stuff where a machine fills bottles with precision or makes parts.  Then there’s a conveyer belt where workers just count packages.

Nick: And then there’s a conveyer belt where people put stuff in boxes…

Andrew: It makes you wonder why robots aren’t already doing that.  The rest of the process is handled by a machine.  Why aren’t robots doing that?

Nick: Because boxing stuff into containers requires more work for the robot.  They’re already simplifying the major manufacturing parts.  Plus, the humans are doing quality control to make sure all the bottles are full.

Andrew: But now they’ve got optical recognition.

Nick: You know what’s cool?  They now have optical recognition for popcorn.  They run the kernels over a scanner and check for bad pieces.  If the computer sees one, there are air jets that shoot the bad piece off the line.

Virginia: How many people lost their job over that?

Andrew: Several.

Mike: That’s used to sort bad chips too.

Virginia: Candle makers went away from the light bulb came out.  There were other industries to replace candle makers, though.  When you think about industries that are very manual labor intensive, I wonder if there will be another industry to replace it.

Mike: Fixing robots.

Virginia: That’s a high-skilled job.

Andrew: Technology has continually lifted humanity up.  We used to have slave labor.  That’s how stuff got done.  Then we had poorly-paid labor.  Over time, technology has been replacing the brute force method.  Now we’re throwing machines at the problem.  That frees people up to do things that are creative and less menial.

Virginia: Do these workers have the skill set to do higher-level jobs?

Andrew: Just about anyone can be trained to do customer service type stuff.  I know Nick disagrees with me.  If you can train someone to box stuff, you can train them to box stuff.

Nick: Then it’s just a robot again.  We’ll soon have robots that sound just like people.  Then what’s the point of having a real person do it?

Andrew: I think when you have that good artificial intelligence, you’ve got bigger problems.

Nick: I’m just talking about a robot that reads it in a human voice.  At the end of the day, it’s still a script.

Andrew: People want slightly off-script answers.

Nick: How many times have you called a tech center and gotten an off-script answer?

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