The Fruits of Civilization (56) Robotics


Globalization and automation have weakened the position of workers and their ability to secure a decent wage. ~ US President Barak Obama in 2016

Automation is mechanical labor-saving. Robotics is a combination of computerization and physical manipulation via mechanical device, based upon sensing the environment. The employment of robots in manufacturing is factory automation.

Since the onset of industrialization, replacing labor with machinery has been a major modus operandi for increasing profit. An automated glass-bottle blowing machine was introduced in 1905. With it, a 2-man crew could produce 17,280 bottles in 24 hours at 11¢ per gross, compared to 2,880 bottles by a crew of 6 manually, at a cost of $1.80 per gross.

In the 1930s, Japan was in the forefront of developing components for use in industrial automation: making “magic eyes” – proximity switches – along with solenoid valves, relays, and timers.

In the United States, widespread factory automation began in earnest after the 2nd World War. General Motors established its automation department in 1947.

The automatic telephone switchboard was introduced in 1892, along with dial telephones. Bell Labs’ interest in automation drove key developments in computerization. The Bell telephone system was completely automated in the late 1960s using digital technology.


In the mid-1960s, American metallurgist Kenneth Iverson was heading a wobbly conglomerate that had only 1 profitable business: steel fabrication. Unable to buy domestic steel at an affordable price, or get decent imported steel, Iverson decided in 1968 to extend Nucor Corporation into vertical steelmaking: from ore to finished product. In doing so as cheaply as possibly, Nucor innovated what would increasingly become the industry standard: mini-mills.

Nucor automated its mini-mills as much as possible. Advances in robotics in the decades that followed made mini-mills increasingly competitive against the traditional large mills.

Mini-mills accounted for 10% of US steel production in 1970. By 2006, over half of the national steel output came from mini-mills. Mini-mill production share has risen since.

Between 1962 and 2005, the American steel industry shed 400,00 jobs: 75% of its workforce. Domestic production dropped ~40% during that period, having gone south and overseas. The rest of the job loss owed to automation.


The advent of microprocessors afforded robotics at much lower cost than before. Car makers were especial enthusiasts for factory automation from the early 1980s. Between 1993 and 2014, the American car industry more than doubled its productivity while shedding 28% of its workforce.

Industries employ robotics as soon as they became cost-effective. As robots became more technically proficient and adaptable, particularly through the use of increasingly sophisticated vision systems, their application range broadens. In practically all industries where robots are applied, output rises at less cost with fewer workers.

From 1999 to 2007, for every robot per 1,000 workers, 6 people lost their job, and wages fell ~0.5%. From 2000 to 2018, automation replaced 1.5 million American workers. A 2016 projection put 6% of all US jobs being lost to robots by 2021.

Greater capital mobility and heightened international competition has led to unrelenting pressure on prices, which results in buyers continually looking for new producers who offer lower costs, including for labour. ~ Kevin Hewison

Computerization has advanced so that even small companies can replace, or at least hasten, many worker tasks with software. This trend is accelerating.

Even hiring has become automated. As more people applied for jobs after recovery from the 2008 recession got underway, employers substituted algorithms for people in the hiring process whenever possible. Job applicants feel dehumanized by the process.

These artificial barriers make people feel the hiring process is impenetrable. ~ English human resources coordinator Heather Davies

The world’s top tech companies are spending billions in a race to build the best AI and capture the massive market potential, which means the technology is rapidly improving.

Digital computers have transformed work in almost every sector of the economy over the past several decades. We are now at the beginning of an even larger and more rapid transformation due to recent advances in machine learning, which is capable of accelerating the pace of automation itself. A much broader set of tasks will be automated or augmented by machines over the coming years. The implications for the economy and the workforce going forward are profound. ~ American economist Erik Brynjolfsson & American computer scientist Tom Mitchell in 2017

Truck driver is the most common job in the world. There are 3.5 million of them in the US alone. Several companies are competing to create self-driving vehicles and may well have the remaining problems licked by 2020. The effort has had a long fruition. Experiments on automated driving began in the 1920s. A Japanese engineering lab created the first autonomous vehicle in 1977. Self-driving prototypes proliferated in the 1980s.

By 2021, a disruptive tidal wave will begin. Solutions powered by AI/cognitive technology will displace jobs, with the biggest impact in transportation, logistics, customer service, and consumer services. ~ American technology analyst Brian Hopkins in 2016

Just as it did with manufacturing, robotics is now coming to a wide range of service industries. By 2025, machines will be better at diagnosing medical images and researching case law than people can. Software will crunch accounting numbers. Bloomberg already employs AI to write company earnings reports.

Mathematicians may innovate their way out of work. Math mavens now try to figure structures in high-dimensional spaces: something which stretches the human mind beyond its natural parameters.

You can build an intelligent machine that is designed for that. It actually lives in a mathematical space, and its native behaviors are mathematical behaviors. And it can run a million times faster than a human and never get tired. ~ Indian American physicist Surya Ganguli

As before, the boon in productivity will be at the expense of workers. From 2016 to 2030, 25% of service-industry jobs may be replaced by robots. The massive shift will be much faster than previous labor-market transformations. Low-skilled workers, such as waiters, will suffer the largest loss in employment.

The collision of demographics, automation and inequality is likely to create decades of disruption. ~ American economist Karen Harris et al

Some technologists muse that 90% of the population will end up redundant to machines. Surely people will revolt against corporate dehumanization before then.

Particularly in urban settings, the lack of employment is tinder for lighting a fire of social unrest. ~ American labor leader Andy Stern