Saturday, September 5, 2015

Thank you very much, oh Mr. Roboto, for doing the jobs that nobody wants to

Thank you very much, oh Mr. Roboto, for doing the jobs that nobody wants to


Domo arigato?

Take the cavernous solar-panel factory run by Flextronics in Milpitas, south of San Francisco. A large banner proudly proclaims “Bringing Jobs & Manufacturing Back to California!” (Right now China makes a large share of the solar panels used in this country and is automating its own industry.)

Yet in the state-of-the-art plant, where the assembly line runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there are robots everywhere and few human workers. All of the heavy lifting and almost all of the precise work is done by robots that string together solar cells and seal them under glass. The human workers do things like trimming excess material, threading wires and screwing a handful of fasteners into a simple frame for each panel.

So in other words, no matter who wins the current dog(-on-roof)-and-(dancing) pony show, even a skyrocketing U.S. economy for the rest of the 2010s may not create any jobs for working class Americans. That's a problem! When I was a kid in grade school in the 1960s, the rapid technological advances after World War II used to cause idle sci-fi-ish chatter about robots replacing humans, but now that it's here no one really thought this through.

Capitalism worked in the 19th- and 20th Century because one could not become a successful capitalist without employing more and more workers. Now that incentive is disappearing -- first to outsourcing or offshoring or whatever a guy called Mitt Romney is calling it today, now to robots. The article compares this to the rapid shift from agriculture to manufacturing -- but until recent years neither of those fields required advanced higher education. Technology creates jobs -- somneone has to design and repair the robots -- but America has to get its act together on education and job training.

Right now, we don't.

Where's Kilroy* when you need him?

* Reference only understandable to those who suffered through the Styx years.

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Will Bunch
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