Michigan’s plan for the robot invasion

I suddenly realized a walk through a typical day in my life serves to illustrate the coming labor market disaster, something that may cost the jobs of millions of our fellow citizens:

Up at 6:00 a.m. Go down the driveway to pick up the morning paper, delivered as usual by the carrier. With the decline of print newspaper readers, his route is much smaller than it used to be. But he's reliable and friendly. The day of printed daily newspapers being delivered by carrier, however, is clearly coming to an end.

Off to work. I have a morning meeting with a guy who takes a cab to my office using a GPS to find the route. The cab waits for the return trip until the meeting is over. But in reality, jobs like his are also dwindling relics of the past. The man visiting me could have taken an Uber instead – and we could just as well have used a conferencing computer to conduct our meeting.

Lunch: Pizza delivered by a nice man in a uniform and a heated delivery bag. He too used a GPS to track his route to reduce downtime and costly waiting.

During mid-afternoon, FedEx delivers a small packet of documents. The delivery guy says business is down - people increasingly are faxing documents (another technology that is itself starting to wane) or scanning them and sending then via computer.

The U S. mail arrives around 2 p.m. We have a highly reliable carrier. She reports first-class mail use is going down and "snail mail" is increasingly dominated by delivery of magazines and pre-printed advertising brochures. She also wonders when "somebody is going to figure out how to use an automated mail truck to handle delivery."

Supper: Kathy and I typically make it together, and it's my turn to do the shopping. We don't have a supermarket food delivery service in our neighborhood yet, but places like Amazon are already experimenting with the service. And there's talk of home delivery via drone. The checkout lady at the store helps me as I run my purchases through a scanner – though it isn’t clear how long there will be human checkout assistance at all. Eventually, I get an automated receipt after paying with my credit card.

Evening: Our granddaughter's birthday is coming up. Kathy and I take a quick trip to the mall, where we try to understand the morass of electronic games for her.

Kathy notes that we could just as well have ordered them on the web and got next-day delivery, besides.

On the way home, we stop at the local gas station to fill up. Next car I get will probably be an electric hybrid. Why go to the local gas station when I could charge the car in my own garage?

You get the picture. Automation is not some vague development to be worried about in the gloomy future. It's rushing at us with the speed of a bullet train: "Recent developments in machine learning will put a substantial share of employment, across a wide range of occupations, at risk in the near future,” the respected Economist magazine recently concluded.

As Bridge recently noted, a pair of Oxford University researchers looked at 702 occupations in a widely cited 2013 study, and concluded that an astonishing 47 percent of American workers were at high risk of having their jobs automated. Particularly vulnerable are workers in transport and logistics, such as taxi and delivery drivers. Also at risk are cashiers, counter check-out staff and rental clerks.

MORE COVERAGE: The disappearing cashier. And why Michigan should worry

My guess is the march of automation is remorseless and unstoppable. And the consequences for workers seem equally dire, with enormous increases in unemployment nearly inevitable.

What's the solution?

Instead of fighting the inevitable, it's to give the labor force the skills they need to compete by adding capabilities and competency training to high school, community college, and even university curricula.

Just as important, we have to finding a way to impart those skills to the essentially unskilled high school graduates we’ve been producing, many of whom aren't even in the labor force at all, since they've stopped looking for any kind of job.

How are we going to do this? Who is going to pay for it? And how fast do we have to move to avoid an economic catastrophe?

This much is certain: These essential questions call for an unvarnished discussion to start right now, and this issue should dominate the statewide elections next year

We need to face what we’re up against ‒ and use that knowledge to set the agenda for our economy and our education system. But when I look at what’s preoccupying our representatives in Washington and Lansing these days, it doesn't give me much hope.

I hope something happens to make me pleasantly surprised.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Paul Jordan
Tue, 09/26/2017 - 11:02am

The main thrust of this article--that an increasing proportion of occupations are being effected by automation--seems absolutely accurate. The conclusion is that a fewer number of Americans in the future will be employed.

Unfortunately, the article approaches but then skitters away from confronting this fact: fewer Americans in the future will be able to depend upon employment to supply the means to live. The feel-good response of 'we'll just train people for the jobs of the future' has no substance if there are fewer jobs. There will still be massively more people who are unemployed--and situationally unemployable.

We are at a crossroads. One path leads to even more accelerated structural inequality with more concentrated wealth, an even smaller (employed) middle class, and a much larger class of unemployable, hapless, and desperate citizens. This will lead to a level of political and social instability that will make us nostalgic for the 'good old days' of 2017. (If you think people feel hopeless and angry now, just wait!)

The other path would require much higher levels of taxation on the beneficiaries of automation to ensure that the growing national wealth is shared with everyone through programs like a guaranteed minimum income, free (or highly subsidized) higher education, free (or highly subsidized) universal health care, and free (or highly subsidized) public transportation.

One of the great promises of automation that has been touted for years is that it would "free people up for more creative pursuits". It will be time to bring that promise to reality, if we are to avoid a level of distress and instability that will threaten the entire fabric of American society.

Tue, 09/26/2017 - 3:32pm

We have seen many technological leaps over the history of mankind starting with fire and flint knapping and writing, to metal working, printing, internal combustion, telecommunications, the internet and GPS. And everyone of these advances was met with predictions of doom and gloom and the end of civilization, but then it didn't. I'll predict cycle over cycle unemployment is within 1% of current 10 years from now. How much do you want to wager Phil??

Michigan Observer
Tue, 09/26/2017 - 4:29pm

There is little doubt that the Economist was right when it said "Recent developments in machine learning will put a substantial share of employment, across a wide range of occupations, at risk in the near future,” That does not translate into permanent massive unemployment. Consider that the number of bank tellers has increased from 400,000 to 500,000 since 1990 even though the number of ATMs have increased from 100,000 to 425,000. Hundreds of thousands of elevator operators lost their jobs in the 1950s; what happened to them? They got other jobs. At one time there were 350,000 manual telephone operators. Same story.

Mr. Power is mistaken when he says, "My guess is the march of automation is remorseless and unstoppable. And the consequences for workers seem equally dire, with enormous increases in unemployment nearly inevitable." There are occasional economists who agree with him, but most of the doom and gloom comes from technologists. Yes, there will be an unusual amount of disruption, but people will adjust; they always have. If they had not, we would already have massive unemployment from all the technological changes since 1800.

Ronald Bailey, in the July 2017 digital edition of Reason magazine, asks "Are Robots Going to Steal Our Jobs?", and answers: No. He says, " A 1989 study by the International Metalworkers Federation forecasted that within 30 years, as little as 2 percent of the world's current labor force "will be needed to produce all the goods necessary for total demand." That prediction has just two years left to come true." And, "This year the business consultancy McKinsey Global Institute issued a report that analyzed the potential impact of automation on individual work activities rather than entire occupations. The McKinsey researchers concluded that only 5 percent of occupations are fully automatable using currently available technologies. "

I also recommend that he read Deirdre McCloskey's "The Myth of Technological Unemployment" article in the August/September digital edition of Reason. He won't be nearly so anxious and depressed about our future. And he will reconsider his advice that "We need to face what we’re up against ‒ and use that knowledge to set the agenda for our economy and our education system." The economy is far too complex and dynamic to be managed by the political process.

Wed, 09/27/2017 - 1:04am

"Instead of fighting the inevitable, it's to give the labor force the skills they need to compete by adding capabilities and competency training to high school, community college, and even university curricula."
The same old failed approach "...give the labor force the skills..." When do people learn that skills and knowledge are learned, that they take effort/studying by the individual, they can't be given it.
If Mr. Power were truly interested in changing the work force so it will prosper in the future he shouldn't be asking his rhetorical questions, "How are we going to do this? Who is going to pay for it? And how fast do we have to move to avoid an economic catastrophe?". He would be opening a conversation with readers for ideas, innovative approaches, creative tools for helping people to want to learn, to have confidence they can/will, learn, and the tools for learning.
I faced this issue before the first Apple computer was release by helping plant operators move from manual to computer process control, they had to understand how the computer operated equipment, how to read the program and take control of segments when out of normal range, they had to look for opportunities to improve the program and operations. These were men in there 40s and 50s that had never seen a computer and had always been able to take apart and understand how things worked. They all doubted they could learn, they each expected to lose their job because of the computer, they all expect the world had changed and left them behind. They did learn, the became proficient, a couple did programing on their system, they found that they had more control than ever, and that the plant would still be providing them jobs until they retired.

The challenge was first recognizing what their personal concerns and issues were, then it was to frame the learning to them [not try to be efficient but be effective in training]. The other part was to explain the path they would take, it would be a stair step experience [doubts and doubts about learning with a break thru on one piece, then a new step, and ultimately learn all that was needed and then some. They all succeed, they not only had learned the computer language, they had to learned a bit about integral and derivative calculus [controllers], they learn new instrumentation technology required by the computers, etc. I was neither a computer person nor a teacher, I had some in house training about learning, and the rest was about the people studying, helping them to understand what studying entailed and providing the means to studying, reinforcing the studying. Nothing was given to these men, they worked at it and they learned it, because they wanted to learn. They affirmed my appreciation of how the individual must decide to learn and commit to the studying, for their is no other way to learn but to study.

I surely don't have the answer, for I doubt there is one answer, but I have seen how time and again how a diverse group of people [having only one or two 'experts'] can create innovative approaches that are more effective than an individual or even a 'expert'.

I am hopeful that at some point the diversity, the creativity, the desire to solves are so strong in the readers of Bridge that there will be an open conversation with readers for ideas and methods for solving problems such as developing a knowledge and skills based workforce that is needed now and will be in the future.

Automation isn't the issue, learning how to learn the necessary knowledge and skills, and the application, and always learning as the changes are always making new knowledge and skills demands.

Wed, 09/27/2017 - 9:31am

I work with autonomous industrial vehicles. I have a job that will take me into retirement age, and my replacement will have to be computer literate, self-motivated and willing to learn. In the places where our trucks are working, the people who used to drive the mindless repetitive routes around the plant are now learning how to manage the machines that are doing their former jobs...they're now better placed for jobs that pay better and aren't as easily replaced by technology. Carriage makers became chassis makers by evolving to meet the needs of a disruptive invention (the automobile): today's carriage industries will need to do the same. Education, particularly technical education, is key.

Fri, 09/29/2017 - 7:50am

So how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. You start at the beginning, elementary education. We can not continue to spit out a populace that is 47% illiterate and expect them to continue learning. We need to be graduating students that are 100% proficient in reading, writing, and arithmetic. At the same time, the students have to understand that they share in the education process, and if not willing to learn, they will be cast aside. Tough love, but in my lifetime, I've seen that those most successful in life worked for every opportunity they have.

Kevin Grand
Fri, 09/29/2017 - 3:08pm

I know that the tech-types just love to hype where they think that things will be in the future.

The problem is, things don't always go the way they plan.

In 2001, it was envisioned that we would have by now massive rotating space stations, multiple nations would have Lunar Colonies and there would be something called HAL (more on that below). At that time, computers were getting better, we were about ready to land on the Moon. People were optimistic.

In Blade Runner, we would have by now a very impressive grasp of genetic engineering involving not only animals, but people as well (and not in a good way) . As a society, we're not there yet. Pan Am isn't around either.

Those are just a few examples, but the gist is that the futurists don't always get things right.

And when you look at where things are at at the moment, it might take much longer than even they had hoped.

Tech that is supposed to beneficial to society from children's toys to transportation, has been twisted in ways that most people aren't aware of because it's not being very widely reported.



And if you think that taking people out of the overall equation and letting a machine run things will fix this...well, you might want to re-think that solution. Think of what happened with HAL at the end of 2001.



I'm not advocating that we all go and live huts and revert back to a strictly agrarian society as a solution for this. But reading about where technology is right now, Wozniak and Musk might be onto something. I would scale back the "robot invasion" predictions. No matter how much the tech types try to spin it, people won't be very accepting of new technology if it'll threaten more than just their job.