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It’s Not Robots Taking Jobs—It’s Technology!

The rise of the humble, low-tech shipping container is an object lesson in what’s to come for robots and jobs​

We need to deal with the rise of robots, and to do it together, collectively,
and not be emotionally rip-sawed by every scary headline.

Fear and loathing of robots
The headline spat out in a Associated Press (AP) release  read: Mexico taking US factory jobs? Blame robots instead. Within minutes after the headline appeared, thousands of media outlets from small guys like Townhall.com to big guys like Fox Business reacted by pushing out another robot job-threat story to millions of ears and eyeballs around the world.

A TV feeding frenzy on job-stealing robots ensued for two days thereafter.

Robots, the handy media punching bags for any economic job woes, are getting another battering. Grim and menacing “If it bleeds, it leads” headlines quickly engage readers and sell advertising. Lately, stories about machines that steal livelihoods are bleeding bigtime attention!

But are the headlines true? Will this perceived robot threat continue to grow and make itself the menace of daily life for millions worldwide? Plus, isn’t everyone more than slightly nauseous listening to robot apologists cite the “three Ds” of robots culling only the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs? Ugh!

Bottom line: It’s not about robots. It’s all about technology. Technology has been unkind to masses of jobs since Rocket, Stephenson’s locomotive of 1829. Robots are technology’s newest Rocket.

 What came of all those tens of thousands of hard-working fingers that yanked the seeds out of cotton before Eli Whitney came along?

We can blame it all on technology, if we dare; yet technology is the best and ablest force we have to push reluctant humanity into bettering lives, extending lives, and creating millions of previously unimagined new jobs, seemingly out of thin air.

Jobs that will, over time, also become obsolete as technology repeats itself—as is its nature—all the while hurtling us forward to some as yet unknown destination.

“Endless newbies” is what Kevin Kelly calls us in his book, The Inevitable. “Because the cycle of obsolescence is accelerating,” he writes, dangling the fact that the average lifespan of a phone app is a mere thirty days, “you won’t have time to master anything before it is displaced, so you will remain in the newbie mode forever.”

Neanderthals did the exact same jobs as their forebearers: unwaveringly repeating everything for 400,000 years. What did it get them? Extinction!

Fear and loathing of shipping containers
In 1956, the introduction of the decidedly low-tech shipping container wreaked havoc on jobs, business and industry worldwide.

Without that 40 foot by 8 foot by 8 foot metal box modern life would be so much less. The technology of containerization, brutally wiping out millions of jobs on docks around the world and inciting a cruelly contentious 134-day dock strike in 1971, is now a necessity of modern life and the worst of its bad times are all but forgotten.

Great technological transformations have a funny habit of playing with recollections that way.​

​“By 1975, more than two-thirds of all dry cargoes moving across the docks of the major American ports were containerized in metal boxes.”

Where formerly twenty dockworkers could load twenty tons of cargo per hour, it now took one port crane and one operator one hour to load 400 to 500 tons of containers.

Fatalities: Job losses were from 40 to 60 percent in some countries. For example, the Port of New York/New Jersey went from 30,000 workers in 1970 to 7,400 by 1986; port employment in the UK went from 80,000 to 11,400 over a similar time frame.

The job losses were nothing short of total devastation for existing dock workers. As one Japanese/Hawaiian retiree said of his experience:

“When we used to load sugar onto the ships in 125-pound sacks, each ship was a seven-day job. Now, with the bulk ships, they blow in a full load in eleven hours. There were 370 longshoremen in the port. Now there are thirty-five. That’s how much air the balloon has lost. I was in the first bunch let go. That was 1958.”

Multi-billions of dollars were quickly invested to create a global network of container ports and container ships. Where would places like Singapore be today without the humble, low-tech shipping container?

The shipping container enabled Just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing, which enabled SONY widescreen TVs to get on living room walls a heck of a lot faster.

And wouldn’t you know it, multiple thousands of new jobs and careers tumbled out of the process; jobs that never were, but suddenly were.

The Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) has mapped these new jobs. Of course, Kelly’s cycle of “accelerating obsolescence” is hard at work on them, but that’s for us to deal with.

Where formerly twenty dockworkers could load twenty tons of cargo per hour, it now took one port crane and one operator one hour to load 400 to 500 tons of containers.

New robot fear factor
The next iteration of robot fear soon to be appearing regularly in headlines will be humanity’s fear of “smart” robots. Today’s robots are poor dumb critters compared to the AI-driven robot generations just around the corner.

Artificial intelligence (AI) in robots will send out shock waves. We’ll no longer fear the robots that just work tirelessly all day and night, and then go off to plug themselves in for recharging; rather, we’ll fear the robots that think about what job to do next, how to do it and why, even if they’ve never previously attempted the job.

But why the fear?

Hasn’t social media already shown the way to dealing with these perceived or real threats? “Collective influence” is what Kelly calls it: the sum outperforming the parts.

We need to deal with the rise of robots, and to do it together, collectively, and not be emotionally ripsawed by every scary headline. We need to do something now, and not pull a Neanderthal, endlessly repeating the old while the new makes us extinct.

All of us “endless newbies” collectively acting in concert to get us into a position to succeed with our robot friends is a good beginning. Then we need to stand up the technology that will produce the as yet unimagined jobs of the future.

That’s a tall but exciting order to fill.

To borrow from Abraham Maslow, we need to be “self-actualizing”, but as a community, not just as individuals.

And lo, even the humble shipping container has now acquired smarts:containers can listen and speak!

“Doing” is a good first step
About thirty miles outside of Shanghai the Chinese are building a smart factory that will be operational by mid-2017. The factory will take in raw materials and manufacture products, but none of it will be for sale.

The factory is actually a school which China will use to train, at first, factory managers—two thousand at a whack—on how to run their own factories back home as robot-driven automated factories; and thereafter China will train line workers—upwards of 10,000 at a time— on how best to work in those factories together with robots and other forms of automation.

The overall plan is to build multiples of these training factories, maybe a dozen to twenty, strategically placed throughout China.

Thailand is doing the same, but with a smart warehouse; one for now, but with more on the way.

Asia was the first to come to terms with the necessity for automation, and seems to be the first to be doing something about it. Asia knows that there is too much riding on a bad decision. Getting it right means everything.

See related:For Asia There’s No Turning Back
World’s oldest societies need newest technologies to survive. Robot-driven automation tops the list.

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