manufacturing robots

Donald Trump and the Rage Against Robots

I’ve been thinking about a couple of things lately—Donald Trump (for obvious reasons) and robots. The two are, in this election season, related. How? For all of its insanity, buffoonery, cluelessness, bigotry and narcissism, Trump’s candidacy is tapping into something else besides racism and xenophobia: Economic displacement. Many of his supporters, grunt workers in the age of the new machine, are obsolete, they know they’re obsolete, and they’re angry as hell about it.


And while they have many unreasonable fears and frustrations, this isn’t one of them. It’s true: some factory jobs have been shipped off to Mexico and other lower-wage countries. But countless others have been swallowed up by the incredible efficiencies created by digital technology.


Contrary to popular belief, we still have factories and warehouses in this country, but they utilize far fewer human beings than they did in previous decades. And this trend is likely to continue apace, a la Moore’s Law. A recent study estimated that robots would replace about 5 million additional jobs by 2020, and I’m not sure those calculations even take into account the emergence of self-driving cars. It’s pretty clear that anyone who drives professionally is living, occupationally, on borrowed time. They are like blacksmiths in 1906: still numerous in number, but greatly endangered.


Autonomous cars will eventually become a reality (damn the liability laws) and save hundreds of thousands of lives, billions of hours of time (no traffic—sounds like a World’s Fair prediction), and free up huge tracts of valuable land. All unquestioned social goods. But in the short term the technology will be economically devastating for millions of people. We can’t pretend otherwise. (There are an estimated three and a half million truck drivers in the U.S. alone.)


Mass job automation won’t stop at the factory floor either. It’s creeping into the white collar world, too. Computer programs now write simple news stories faster than rooms full of cub reporters. Insurance rates are no longer set by boring, heartless “adjustors,” but are instead calculated by code and algorithm. It’s safe to say that the old Silicon Valley adage (whatever can be digitized will be) is likely to hold true for the future of work as well. Even extremely high skill disciplines such as surgery will not escape automation. (Perhaps a win-win proposition for nurses the world over: fewer mistakes in the OR and no surgical divas.)


Most of this qualifies as old news in the architecture and design world. Large buildings that once took huge teams to execute can now can now be done with a handful of designers and a CAD program. The tools are becoming increasingly powerful and more sophisticated, and it’s not hard to predict where this leads: to the design and construction (almost entirely by automated means) of amazing, energy-efficient buildings, created by ever smaller teams of architects, engineers and tradespeople. Yes, actual humans will remain intimately involved—and they’re likely to be highly skilled and well compensated—but they will be far fewer in number.


I once interviewed several people from Autodesk, an innovative company that’s deeply involved in mapping our collective future. Toward the end of one of my talks, I asked one of my deliberately “dumb” questions, in hopes of eliciting an unpredictable response. “If computers can do everything for us in the future,” I asked, “Where does that leave us humans?” He paused, as if envisioning a truly bright future, and said, without a trace of cynicism, “They will do what humans do best: dream.”

He’s right, I think. Technology will remake our world—and perhaps even save it. For now, though, in this messy transition period that promises to last at least a generation, if not longer, it’s not the visionary dreamers I worry about. I see a bright and prosperous future for the people who own, operate, code, design, and manufacture the work-enabling technology of the future. (Everybody under-40 should be jumping on that train.) My question is: what about everybody else? Especially the scary guys in the baseball caps?


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