Where Will the Jobs Go?

Where Will the Jobs Go?tcbrPDF normal

Technology may soon make obsolete factory workers, professors, nurses, and Teamsters.

By Jaron Lanier

Where Will the Jobs Go?

Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, composer, visual artist, and author. Adapted from Who Owns the Future? (Simon & Schuster) ©2013

When it comes to the future of manufacturing jobs, the key question isn’t, “How much will be automated?” It’s how we’ll conceive of whatever can’t be automated at a given time. Even if there are new demands for people to perform new tasks in support of what we perceive as automation, we might apply antihuman values that define the new roles as not being “genuine work.” Maybe people will be expected to “share” instead. So the right question is, “How many jobs might be lost to automation if we think about automation the wrong way?”

The particular way in which we are digitizing economic and cultural activity will ultimately shrink the economy while concentrating wealth and power in new ways that are not sustainable. And that mistake is setting us up for avoidable traumas, as machines get much better in this century.

One of the strange, tragic aspects of our technological moment is that the most celebrated information gadgets, like our phones and tablets, are made by hand in gigantic factories, mostly in southern China, and largely by people who work insanely hard in worrisome environments. Looking at the latest advances in robotics and automated manufacturing, it’s hard not to wonder when the labors of these hordes of new potential Luddites might become suddenly obsolete.

In this case, even once the technology becomes available, I suspect politics will slow it down a little. It’s hard to imagine China deciding to throw much of its own population into unemployment. It is still a centrally planned society to a significant degree. It’s hard, even, to imagine one of China’s neighbors doing it. Would an aging Japan automate its factories to undercut China? Seems like a significant risk.

But somebody somewhere may find the motivation. Maybe a low-population but capital-rich Persian Gulf nation worried about the post-oil future will fund gigantic automated factories to undercut China in the production of consumer electronics. It might even happen in the United States, which has ever-fewer manufacturing jobs to protect anyway.

What would it look like to automate manufacturing? Well, the first word that comes to mind is temporary. And the reason is that the act of making manufacturing into a more automated technology would inherently move it a step closer to being a “software-mediated” technology. When a technology becomes software-mediated, the structure of the software becomes more important than any other particularity of the technology in determining who will win the power and the money when the technology is used. Making fabrication software-mediated turns out to be a step toward making the very notion of a factory, as we know it, obsolete.

A Factory in Every Home?

To see why, consider how automated manufacturing might advance. Automated milling machines and similar devices are already ubiquitous for shaping parts, such as forms for molds; robotic arms to assemble components are less common but still present in certain applications, such as assembling parts of large items like cars and big TVs. Detail work (like fitting touchscreens into the frame of a tablet) is still mostly done by hand, but that might change soon. At first, manufacturing robots will be expensive, and there will be plenty of well-paying jobs created to operate them, but eventually they will become cheap and the data to operate them might then be crowdsourced, sending manufacturing down the same road traveled by the recorded music industry.

Making fabrication software-mediated turns out to be a step toward making the very notion of a factory, as we know it, obsolete.

Consider 3D printing, which in a matter of months has graduated from academic theory to hobbyist dream to Staples inventory item and, in the form of home-printed guns that can fire, security threat. A 3D printer looks a little like a microwave oven; through the glass door, you can watch roaming robotic nozzles deposit various materials to form a product as if by magic. You download a design from the ’net, as if you were downloading a movie file, send it to your 3D printer, and come back after a while. There, before you, is a physical object, downloaded from afar. There are fledgling experiments with printers that realize physical products, including working electronic components. A chip is just a pattern deposited by something like a printing process to begin with; so is a flat display. In theory, it ought to be possible, in the not-so-distant future, to print out a working phone or tablet.

The key point: Once a 3D printer can be deployed in a factory, it might just as well be placed close to where the product will be used.

Being able to make things on the spot could remove a huge part of humanity’s carbon footprint: the transportation of goods. Instead of fleets of container ships bringing tchotchkes from China to our ports, we’ll print them out at home, or maybe at the neighborhood print shop.

What will be distributed instead will be the antecedent “goops.” These are the substances squirted out by the printer’s nozzles. Right now, there are about one hundred goops in use by 3D printers. For instance, a particular goop might harden into the kind of tough plastic found in car interiors. It is too early to say what goops will be in use in the future. Nor do we know how many different goops will be needed. Maybe a single supergoop would go a long way. Perhaps a suspension including graphene particles will be configurable into a variety of components such as nanotube digital circuits, battery layers, and tough carbon-fiber outer shells.

Will there be goops delivered by pipes to the home? Goop trucks that make rounds to refill printers once a week? Goop refill kits sold by Amazon and delivered by parcel? Little blimps that alight on your roof to refill your home printer? This we do not know. At any rate, a new infrastructure will be needed to get goops to printers. Expect goop to be as overpriced as ink for home photo printers is today.lanier3

The real magic might come about because of the transformation of recycling. Right now, when we throw something away, no information is packaged with that thing that described how it could best be disassembled into its constituents in order that they might be reused. This is a great inefficiency. We rely on human labor to very approximately assess what we toss away so that it can be recycled. This happens when we choose the right trash bin at the cafeteria, or when poor people pick over garbage dumps.

Once 3D printers commonly create objects, the nature of recycling will transform utterly. An object that had been printed will be remembered in the cloud. There will be “deprinters” that accept objects that are no longer wanted, like the previous year’s tablet. By referring to the original printing specification, always retrievable online, it will be possible to unravel the object back to its original goops with precision. Instead of melting it down, little nozzles with specialized solvents and cutting tools will separate each striation that originated from a different antecedent goop. The process will not be perfect, since the laws of thermodynamics cannot be revoked, but it will be hugely more efficient than what we do today.

Between the obsolescence of shipping and an extreme increase in recycling precision, 3D printing could create a massive explosion of convenience and fun and, at the same time, vastly reduce humanity’s carbon footprint and reliance on nonrenewable resources.

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