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Work vs Automation.

Should we or should we not automate as much work as possible? With the current technological advances it wont be long before almost every existing job will/can be automated.

And from a capitalistic viewpoint it makes sense, why have workers when you can have robots that do the work faster, better and cheaper?

And do we really even want to "work" as it's defined today.

There will probably always be the need for humans, but to a lesser and lesser extent.

To get some insights into what's happening with automation today, check http://www.reddit.com/r/automate

And to see some of the jobs that were automated in 2013 read this article by The Washington Post "Eight ways robots stole our jobs in 2013" http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/12/23/eight-ways-robots-stole-our-jobs-in-2013/

Do you have a job that you think can't be automated or won't be in a long time? Are you "safe"?

Topics: automation work
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    Jan 7 2014: Hi. Typo in you first line...fork instead of work.
    A somewhat Freudian 'slip' though, considering the 4-letter nature of the word 'work'. I want a robot doing my work, but I also want my salary. I think we'll outdo ourselves as regards automation but I don't think we'll be any happier. It's because we're almost not designed to see the joy in purposeful action and work. We see success, joy, and fulfillment in sitting and doing the absolute minimal for maximal 'joy'. Yet we never seem to find this joy when we escape action.
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      Jan 11 2014: Thanks for pointing to the typo!

      The part that you bring up about getting salary is a very important one, I'd solve it through Unconditional Basic Income.

      I think that we need to re-evaluate what brings us joy and fulfillment, I don't believe that it's the escape from action, rather doing the actions which you want to do. And most work that is done today is work that few actually want to do.
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    Jan 12 2014: Universal equality before universal unemployment!

    If 'x' is employed and 'Y' is unemployed, is 'y' unemployed because of 'x' and to what extent is 'y' trapped by the restrictions imposed by 'x' in the maximization of gain, whose gain is gain in a progressive financial arrangement, will the universal brain take over before the machines do or have the machines already won?

    The devolution of power is a growth and development morality opportunity (maximize opportunities available) we should demand to stay afloat and should the Capitalist Titanic sink today or tomorrow or do you still think Capitalism is the only way forward?

    Should the availability of work be a human right to compliment the natural state of the global union? Can we convert 7 billion micro judicial lifespans into 7 billion opportunities to gain a reasonable standard of living?

    Who owns progress in the democratic future of shared equivalency of all action and non-action if equality is the natural equivalency of all rights in the literal translation of justice as a representation of all?


    Sorry I'm p*****!
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    Jan 12 2014: It's ironic that capitalism will eventually end up producing the very kind of population it publicly despises (yet is privately dependent on) - one that is underutilised and reliant on handouts, whilst the income of owners of automated technology will be 'earned'.

    This is perhaps too simplistic, but is there an element of truth that capitalism is highly dependent on perpetuating the divide between the haves and the have nots? Is the long-term morality of an over-automated workplace therefore questionable? Where does the the very human 'pride in having a good job and doing it well' stand in all of this?

    I'm old enough to have been in many jobs that have changed out of all recognition by automation. I worked as a professional photographer for a long time, and what took many years of training and accumulated skill gained in the workplace, is now virtually translated as an iPhone app that anybody can use.

    I have long struggled with feelings of bitterness towards this kind of automation I have to admit. I for one would much rather produce, purchase and receive things I know were made 'from the heart and by hand' so to speak - rather than the press of a button.

    This sounds like the ramblings of a Luddite. But I have to ask - did they actually have a point? Has the servant become the master?

    I guess a safe job would be one related to the humanities, which (even though the pay is significantly less) is an area in which I now enjoy working. People and their sensibilities are more likely to be immune to automation, but even here, I sometimes see the mechanistic reduction of the human condition down to a mere collection of neurons and chemicals, I guess to make professional administration easier - and effectively translating that too, to that of an automated machine.
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    Jan 8 2014: Absolutely, automation is far more efficient, economical and trustworthy than human beings.

    There are countless studies documenting the tremendous amount of lost productivity and needless cost incurred due to human failings. The robots and machines hardly ever miss a day or even a minute of work due to illness, hangovers, depression, grieving a lost loved one, accidents, pregnancies, missed the bus, car broke down, flirting with fellow workers, harassing fellow workers, taking a long weekend and so on.

    They don't care if they work all day or night long without a meal break, or a holiday, or bathroom break, or a vacation. Well, perhaps some maintenance down time then. They don't succumb to the peter principle of getting promoted until they reach their level of incompetence when an upgrade easily takes care of that. They don't abandon the employer for a better job or because they emptied the bank accounts and fled to parts unknown. They don't get disgruntled and sabotage their work or someone else's.
    They don't pilfer supplies, or stock or cash.

    The robots and machines do not need layer upon layer of supervisors, managers and sundry other middle management types taking up valuable space and costing excessive amounts to sustain. A few central processors strategically placed will suffice.

    From an owner's perspective, human beings in the workplace are still necessary, but few of them are worth their cost and we should be doing all we can to find other ways for people to occupy their limited time on this planet. One that is not so unproductive, expensive and wasteful as the workplace either.
  • Jan 8 2014: Work generally is not fun! And usually involves alot of procedure! Human minds will always find a way to automate procedure, I guess we are lazy or natures way to conserve energy and stress levels (another debate). But imagine if every thing that is basic was automated, food, travel, education, shelter, communication, etc, and the support of this infrastructure was automated, and even that support was automated and so on, what would be left with? Perhaps finally these basic things will be so cheap, hopefully free (economics of scale and no greedy corps), it might cure poverty and sickness even, but even if it doesn't, we are still left with our creativity, imagination which cannot (yet) be automated. Minds will be free from mundane tasks and people might be free to persue personal interests, handcraft to space exploration. I know this is idealistic but I dont have to think about going to a water well to get water, I just open a tap. My mind is free of finding water, now what would it be like if the whole world had the above mentioned basics automated, so many minds will be free to explore the limits of human knowledge rather than making ends meet.
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      Jan 11 2014: Yes, I fully agree!

      We're not meant to do these mundane tasks, our potential is so much greater than that!
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    Jan 8 2014: Hmm to Luddite or not to Luddite that is the question. It is pointless to consider, any rational person wants to survive, technology increases ones survival. Maybe we can all go into politics? It always works out they were saying the same thing 100 years ago what with the newfangled electricity and oil and horseshitless carriages.
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      Jan 8 2014: "Not to Luddite," if that is, indeed, the question!
    • Feb 5 2014: Technology does make it easier to survive, but what is it doing to our quality of life? is it taking away from our interaction with nature? putting us in a distracted mind instead of closer to the reality of the present moment?
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        Feb 5 2014: "Technology does make it easier to survive"

        Lets consider that statement:

        If not for technology your life expectancy would be what? 40

        If not for technology you would not have cell phones, international travel, the internet, computers, abundant food, abundant water, space travel, orders of magnitude more knowledge, etc etc etc

        This is a natural dynamic of humans, putting us more in the present. This is an objective process that is very cathartic. You see the world evolves as well, saying this is not organic just isn't so.
        • Feb 5 2014: I agree, technology is playing a big role in our evolution, or is a product of our evolution. As long as we can have the will power to use it for the well being and harmony of our existence. My concern is that greed and ill will still seem to be rooted in our human conditioning, and with technology evolving the way it is, it can either cause much harm or much good, depending on the will behind it. I think we should focus on our evolution of deeply rooted intentions as a whole before improving technology to a degree we might regret.
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        Feb 5 2014: Avarice won't make you a dime. I contend that very few rich guys that succeed focus on money.

        The purpose of a business is to fulfill the needs of a customer.

        The customer does not care how much profit a business makes, they care about what they get for their money.
        • Feb 5 2014: So many assumptions, and sadly all wrong at so many levels.
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        Feb 5 2014: Spare me, comments are not arguments, you are not saying anything. Except that you are disgusted by my lack of respect for socialist ideas. So what?
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    Jan 23 2014: Hmmmmm…. It gets me to thinking….. Why not automat politicians? Bankers? The entire financial market? Prostitution? In other words, automate those areas of our economies where corruption is rife.

    I could see the USA someday having a "robot president".
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      Jan 29 2014: That's a fascinating point, Jim. Well, maybe not the robot president :) But the focus has been on low level jobs that could be done more cheaply by technology. How much does corruption cost us? That could be our next focus.
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    Jan 11 2014: There are people for whom their exchange of labour for wages is their identity and gives them value, purpose and meaning. Many more are simply exchanging their labour for wages because they have to to survive. Others embrace the prejudice that those who are not exchanging their labour for wages had better be wealthy enough not to have to work, or they are 'fill in your own pejorative'. and valueless. In other words, somehow "jobs" have become the focus of our lives.

    But ask anyone on a pension and they will tell you that there are an infinite number of ways to employ our talents, skills and abilities than filling some 'job'.

    Meanwhile the majority of employers will continue to see employees as a cost factor, first and foremost, and will employ whatever technology they can to reduce that cost and eventually the employee for all the reasons I listed below.

    Automation has been happening ever since the assembly line was created and there is no stopping it. Time to move on folks.
  • Jan 9 2014: I believe what may matter is not the 'Should' or 'Should Not' but rather what IS.

    Our trajectory IS greater and greater automation which, in and of itself, is neither Good nor Bad.

    Perhaps the only way to 'deal' with this reality is by way of expanded Consciousness.

    I can't help but wonder if technology, and perhaps even automation itself, may ironically ASSIST in this expanded Consciousness. Perhaps we have just not fully seen it yet.

    I've found most insights are preceded by varying degrees of tension.
    The Method may transform into the Trap and the Trap may transform into the Method.
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    Jan 8 2014: Doctors, scientists, developers, designers, these are all jobs that aren't good candidates for automation. Employers in these fields value intellect and experience over manual labor. These people bring value with their mind, their experience and interest in their field.

    Those jobs are a really good fit for human beings. They bring a stronger sense of fulfillment, because the person is working in their area of study and enjoys it. In turn the person is providing immense value to society. That's not to say someone working in manual labor isn't. But if laborious tasks can be automated, that relieves the need for people to step up to that duty. Then those people are free to step up to roles that require a conscious individual.

    Of course that's an idealist view. There's the job market to consider, competition, and the need to work to survive coupled with the high learning curve needed for skilled labor. But in an educated and engaged society, that should be less of an issue. People should pursue their interests, develop their skills, sharpen their mind, and apply themselves to issues that interest them. I would argue that leads to better personal lives for human beings, and a better world for everyone.
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    Jan 8 2014: Jimmy,

    Your question coincides with a recent article on Isaac Asimov’s 50 year-old predictions of where he thought we’d be today. When it comes to automation, Asimov predicted that"gadgetry will continue to relieve mankind of tedious jobs." And yet, he also envisioned that we would have become, by this time, “largely a race of machine tenders.”

    We’re obviously not there yet, but it’s long been my view that repetitive tasks—factory, agriculture, housekeeping, etc.—are inherently demeaning to our species. We were not evolved to perform the same task over and over again for 40+ hours per week. This is nothing more than slavery. Regardless of education or sociological standing, our minds, and just as importantly, our bodies require so much more … an ever-expanding variety of things we might do.

    For those of us who seem to have difficulties with change, we will need to determine their comfort level between challenging work (i.e., stimuli) and a limited-stress (i.e., repetitive) environment. But in general, the focus should be on developing our minds, while stimulating our bodies. And as robotics and automation continue to replace what may have been accomplished by individual human beings, we should analyze and understand the benefits, and costs, of our decisions. We most certainly don’t want to wind up like the corpulent passengers and crew of the ship “Axiom” from the Pixar movie “WALL-E” … am I right?
  • Jan 8 2014: ...and why we are at it lets have computers come up with TED Talk questions instead of people...Then we can all sit around in a joyfully bliss circle and do absolutely nothing all day long.
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      Jan 11 2014: Well, I can imagine that TED might in the future employ WATSON to give the best answer to questions asked here on TED...

      But my question is not related to the one of what to think but rather of what to do.

      But hey, if you need work you can always just outlaw tractors, then we'd have no time to be here at TED Conversations because we'd all be out plowing the field to survive.
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    Feb 7 2014: Automation will force a skills innovation in the workforce. Isn't that a good thing for the long term?
  • Feb 5 2014: "Avarice wont make you a dime", if this is true wouldn't poverty cease to be? If all the financially rich will use their money for basic survival / living and share the rest, i will consider them free from greed.

    "the business does not care how much profit a business makes, they care about what they get for their money". This is true, but sadly, my perception is that many people are blind to what they actually want for their well being and more or less "programed" by their surroundings and the media to think they need this or that to be accepted or happy

    Slightly off topic, but thank you for the conversation
  • Feb 5 2014: I agree, technology can be very helpful for our evolution and is indeed a part of it. As long as we have the will power and discipline to use technological conveniences for the well being and peace for every being and not as an opportunity for laziness and selfish desires. Technology is becoming and extremely powerful tool in this world. My concern is weather or not we are using it for the right reasons.
  • Feb 4 2014: This is actually not a new issue.

    As the Roman Republic expanded it captured more and more slaves. These slaves were brought to Rome and more and more work was done with slave labor. This left fewer and fewer paying jobs for the Roman Citizens that were being displaced by slave labor.

    The rich, that owned land and could buy slaves, lived very well, while blaming the plebs (non-rich) for their recent descent into poverty.

    While I would not assert this is evidence of our future, for the Roman Empire, it caused the people to support the upstart general that revolted against Senate rule (Julius Caesar) who took from the rich (taxes) and handed out to the poor, ending the republic in favor of dictatorial empire.

    Prior to Julius, government collected a portion. Each person paid a share of the cost of government. The result of that "flat tax" was wide wealth disparity with all the money pooled into few hands.

    Tax has its etymological origin in the Latin word for being accused of a crime, in this case, the hoarding of money to the detriment of the people of Rome. Taking form the rich and handing out to the poor is one way of getting an economy moving again. Not my preferred. I prefer the method used by the rich Romans that were not taxed (charged with the crime of hoarding money). That is, people with high income spending the money on wages for their fellow citizens.


    So, in summary:

    If robotics replace us all, what are we going to do for work? Or will we just take a portion of the robotic output and distribute it to people?

    If the former, to whom will the rich sell the goods that the robots produce? Or will the rich just produce enough for other rich?

    Will the majority accept their new position as unneeded garbage destined to live in poverty on the scraps from the tables of the few rich, or will they rise up in revolt?
  • Feb 4 2014: The title could be compared to : doing your own business vs work for someone
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    Jan 29 2014: I tend to believe none of us are safe. If my job in its entirety is not eliminated, I'm sure many components of it will be. Can't say I'm all that concerned about it, though. It's always the menial part of my job that is the first to go. That frees up my time to focus on other issues that need to be solved.
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    Jan 28 2014: More automation of labor jobs is fine as long as there are other jobs markets available for the displaced workers. Or, if society were working towards a Utopian form of society instead of a profit minded or socialist society.
  • Jan 28 2014: Historically, we have always been automating human labor tasks by "automation". For example,the old style of farming has been first replaced by using machines for sowing, harvesting, irrigating, chemical fertilizers, and recently corporate farming. Same thing happened to handcrafted goods like cloth weaving and metal or plastic containers. So the trend of more and more automation is most likely unstoppable. Also, there are certain human dangerous labor should be replaced by robotic production such as in the mining industry for coal, or other resources which are buried way down the earth surface.
    On the other hand, there are clearly more areas of human needs which are preferably or necessarily not to be replaced by automation. For example, how about the care for the increasing number of elderly in modern society. And if we still wish to keep the small family structure, we should keep the function of cooking, cleaning and shopping to be done by the family members instead of by rationing or government control. I have posted a number of suggestion in TED talks, that some kind of "new commune" systems can be set-up, so that the elderly can be taken care of by a group of families whose members could serve the elderly residents in their food service, aids to their cleaning, bathing and daily life activities and COMPANIONSHIP TO RELIEVE THEIR LONELINESS. Thus the adults and children in the younger families would have "jobs" for this "community" instead of being unemployed. Furthermore, we can take advantage of the advancement of the automation technology that will furnish all the robotic operations for ease of effort for the workers in the commune.
    Besides the life needs and the manpower required for automation technology, we would create additional jobs in the area of improving the education, research, health care and the arts and entertainment for the welfare of the whole population with the money saved by the industrial automation (with it, everything will be cheaper).
  • Jan 27 2014: Besides the socioeconomic effects of large scale automation, it seems the cost (both financial and environmental) of refining the rare metals needed in electronics would be prohibitive.
  • Jan 27 2014: I don't think that large scale automation will be sustainable or tolerated for a number of reasons. There has been mention below of freeing us laborers up for a life of leisure but that seems unrealistic and ultimately unhealthy. It would create a world wide welfare state. Though I see the value in short term helping hands, there is more and more evidence from third world countries around the globe that charity is not the answer. Empowerment to be self reliant is and should be the goal for every person. Automation has been a blessing in some of the more dangerous professions, but the automation I see and hear about these days serves only the "bottom line", swelling the profit margins of the few at the expense of the livelihood of the many
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    Jan 23 2014: If it makes economic sense then there will be drivers to automate.

    replacing people with machines is something I have worried about for some time. I see it being worse as machines become moor capable and more cost effective.

    imagine some decades or done centuries in the future what sort of smart machines we'll have. It won't just be manual labour replaced, but lawyers, accountants etc.

    I suggest the service industries may be the last refugee for bulk human Labour.

    I also see this connected to the concentration of wealth. There will be a few owning the machines, and not much work opportunities for others. Which could end up in a vicious cycle if the majority are no longer productive and making money what will they spend, demand drops etc.

    maybe human labour will be more cost effective once fossil fuels become more expensive, but expect we'll shift to bio fuels and renewables.

    it's a bit.concerning.
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    Jan 22 2014: i'm no expert on this point but here are some of my amature views;

    it is inevitable that in the future more industry will adopt automatio. there is a tendency that we look forward and gearing towards a 'leisure society'. But who will control automation?

    If all aspects of our life is control by robots, from traffic, making coffee, etc, we will have more time to wander and wonder or busy control/repairing robots, only thing i hope it doesn't go the 'terminatorway' or reel life becomes real life.
    nevertheless, will life becomes interesting?

    robots will be too perfect to make mistakes, what if such mistakes happen? what about threat like terrorism for instance?
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    Jan 22 2014: I believe automation will have negative effects on society in the short term (e.g. loss of jobs) but positive effects can surely come to outweigh them in the long term, of course, as long as the educational system plays a leading role in ''re-shaping'' future generation's minds into a more creative & scientific society, than it is today.


    I prefer seeing 1 machine working for 100 engineers, than 100 low-skilled people working for 1 engineer.

    It's an exaggeration, but you get the point.
  • Jan 16 2014: Problem is that right now automation benefits only businesses but not employees that it displaces. It would be better if non proprietary automation was developed as well. For instance have a publicly owned car factory that can be operated by anyone with the necessary skills and access to source materials. This is kind of like open source movement - tools should be free. Maybe if we had more engineers and less useless business people it would already have happened. We wouldn't even need full working economy, just tools and shared resources and smart people to make use of them. If you want something - build it, if you are lazy - pay for it. This is the only way automation will ever have a positive effect on people's lives, but if it stays the way it currently is, it will only make rich richer.

    Money is not an object. So it makes no sense to say that it's "somewhere". Money is just a way to entice people to do something they wouldn't normally do. For instance if i want to have a new car(again), it would be difficult to convince someone to just give it to me, or build it for me. But if I did something in exchange for them, they would do it. Money is just a way to earn those "points" for all the stuff I did for other people. Money is a piece of mind. When something becomes cheaper, like if automation is introduced, it means it took less "peaces of mind" to do it this time. Robots don't ask for money, at least yet. A computer will happily crunch numbers and run algorithms without complaining. If we started to make computers that are smarter, they would probably refuse to work for us unless we gave them something back.

    Not everything requires a piece of mind, so those things can be automated and given away for free. That does not mean that car companies will suddenly start giving out cars. It will never happen, but if we start to think outside the business model of producer-consumer, and adopt the same mindset as in OSS, we could accumulate a wealth of shared resources
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    Jan 15 2014: Hi Jimmy,
    On automation, I am good. I don't see them automating retirement in my life time.
    There is so many... Occupations? Jobs? Positions? that would not be automated for so many reasons,
    It boils down to choices.... made by people.
    Recently, a local company redid a production line and dismissed people. You can imagine the weeping and gnashing of teeth. But, when I called for a plumber and was told they were too busy, too few and I would have to wait, I wondered if some of those who lost their jobs on the production line had considered learning to become plumbers....
    Here is my point... here in the USA, there are significant "safety nets" in place to support people who have lost their jobs allowing them to pursue those jobs like the ones that were lost. But, a lost of a job because of automation, how many similar jobs would still be available and how many people would be looking for them.
    But, with all the safety nets, our worker could wait it out for a couple of years before he was cut off and in many cases, lost.
    • Feb 4 2014: My father-in-law recently used a similar excuse to the plumber one you used above. He needed an electrician one afternoon, and he had to wait until the next day (as he was not willing to pay the after-hours, emergency fees).

      See, he says. There are good jobs.

      My recent high school grad son, who is working three minimum wage, part-time jobs to scrape together $16k a year while attending college says that he looked into an electrician program. They make $100 a call, 2 to 3 calls a day, which seems good (Average of $250 a day * 5 * 52 is $65K a year) until you consider that they do indeed have unfilled slots (as evidenced by availability the next day) and then add in their business expenses (vehicle, inventory, insurance, bonding, advertising, administrative, workman's comp, etc.).

      Electricians my son had spoken to were actually making more like $25K a year profit. You can do just as well being unskilled day labor hanging outside Home Depot for $10 an hour.
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    Jan 15 2014: I'm a fan of automation given that it generally frees us up from the monotony of what would otherwise be a tedious job. Automation also allows for us to direct our time elsewhere, to work on new projects, or do tasks that cannot be fully automated.

    Speaking from experience, I developed several VBA scripts for Microsoft Excel when I worked as an industrial engineer for a shipping company. These scripts allowed me to automate the majority of my daily tasks and reports. Without this form of automation, I would be hand-keying everything, making mistakes along the way. However, after spending a couple years in the engineering department, I decided to make a lateral move as an operations supervisor, mainly because the job was quite tedious, even with automation.

    That being said, most individuals work in fields which cannot be fully automated, and are not going to be fully automated anytime soon. Even if one works in a field that is becoming fully automated, these fields still need individuals who can supervise or repair the technology that has "stolen our jobs." Until the "technological singularity" occurs, it's a win-win situation in which we no longer have as many tedious jobs.
  • Jan 14 2014: The world is heading towards the formation of Hell on earth.With automation many people will get unemployed and the clever people will exploit these unemployed people to kill each other and create oceans of blood.

    Then finally one day all the so called civilized people will kill each other for their survival and finally the movie of the world will end.
  • Jan 14 2014: Jimmy,

    I do not think we can stop automation. It is coming whether we like it or not. The factories are becoming more and more automatic. Those that are very talented in "creative" jobs will still have job with a great deal of money. Unfortunately, the lower level talented individuals in those professions will be competing for less number of jobs for less money. A good example is the law profession where Law DBs have made those that do research for lawyers, usually junior members of the firm, are now done by db search engines.

    The tools also limit but make poor talents become average but does not make them equal to the best. In 1980, Don Greenberg did an experiment. He took 12 failing architecture students at Cornell and put them into a special program with special 3D workstations and programs. The students had a problem translating their designs from 3D to 2D drawings. They could stay in 3D and the sw would do the translation. They passed a course that they had previously failed or dropped before they failed because of the sw.

    I expect programs to not only aid but do the basic design. Programs generated from requirements without programmers other than the ones that created the tool. What will happen is the "tool" makers will be the "kings". Also, the salesperson will do well also.