Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The future of work in a digital world

Robots in a warehouse
Since the economic crisis politicians from all sides have been pledging a return to full employment as soon as normality returns, but all seem to be in denial - the new normal will be profoundly different to the old normal. An article in The Economist points out that in the US "employment in retail trade is down by more than 300,000 jobs over the past decade, employment in computer systems design and related services is up nearly 400,000 jobs. Crucially, these employment trends are not symmetric. Retail employment is middle- to low-skill... The e-commerce services that are taking its place employ different sorts of workers"  - i.e., highly-skilled computer science graduates.
   In March Amazon announced that it was buying the industrial robotics firm Kiva Systems for $775 million. Kiva make robots that can pick items in warehouses and so can automate Amazon's vast distribution service.  Whilst this purchase makes a lot of sense for Amazon our politicians seem to be ignoring, or worse, are ignorant of its implications. There once, quite recently, was a time when if a person was willing to put in a hard days work they could get a job with a living wage. But as warehouses are staffed by robots, e-commerce replaces many shops and banks, vehicles become driverless, and as even fast-food outlets use robots, where will the jobs for the low-skilled come from?
   I love technology, but frankly this worries me. This dilemma is discussed more in chapter 13 "Machines of Loving Grace" and chapter 14 "Digital Consciousness" of The Universal Machine.

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