Friday, August 31, 2012

Robots, the Middle Class and the Future

A recent comment by a reader on my Facebook author's page interested me. Besides expressing his admiration for the newly revised version of "The Reality Plague", he also commented on one of the hard technologies in the book. Specifically, he mentioned the idea of a general purpose machine that could manufacture anything, a machine called a "Fabber".
My mind works in mysterious ways and unbidden it started running threads ("what ifs?") following each thread to its logical conclusion.
The term "Fabber" came from a talk I attended years ago when I was an officer in the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. A professor from Cal State LA presented the concept and the newly coined word. In his vision, the user of the future would purchase a file from the internet, a file that contained the programming to use the Fabber to make something. It could be any consumer product. The user would pay a small fee for the program and the Fabber would make the item on demand.
Many of my colleagues thought the idea was science fiction but I knew better, because the machines were already in existence and making parts. At that time and (still) today the machine was not called a "Fabber" it was known as a "Rapid Prototyping Machine" and I’d worked with many of them, both using them and repairing them.
The machines varied, some used paper, some chemicals, some corn starch and some metal. Using these materials they converted a series of program commands to a useful object. In my own lab at San Diego City College we had fabricated dozens of objects ranging from a skull for medical research to aircraft parts and a plastic ball that actually bounced when thrown.
It's no secret that most of my career was centered on automation. I've worked with and repaired hundreds of robots and machines that are designed to replace people in the creation of manufactured goods.
Now, at this point you might rightly ask where is he going with this? As I said before, my mind led me along this path, and if you'll bear with me we'll get there together (eventually). If you have a tad more tolerance, a little history is in order.
Others might argue the point, but in my opinion the first true robot was built by MIT in 1955. At that time it wasn't called a robot. It was called a Numerical Control Machine (or NC). A 'robot' (unlike Isaac Asimov or other sci-fi authors) is a programmable machine designed to work in three or more dimensions and replace humans in various tasks. It needn't look like a human to qualify. The NC was designed to use a cutting tool and create useful three-dimensional parts out of solid chunks of metal.
Here’s where the story gets close to the point. Fast forward seven years later to 1962. At the company I worked for at the time, the United States Air Force had purchased two of the machines and had leased them to the company.
The machines produced an essential part for an airplane. Each employed one human operator and about three technical people to keep it running for a grand total of five. (I was one of those people.)
Prior to the introduction of the machines, the part in question was made of one hundred and two small parts, all assembled together. To create those parts required the services of forty-five highly skilled machinists and a like amount of lesser-skilled assemblers (round it off to one hundred people all working full time). Once the machines were installed, each machine could make the same part out of one solid piece of aluminum (exit, stage-left, one hundred well-paid, skilled workers).
It didn’t stop there. Over the years the machines (robots) became more reliable and more sophisticated, finally employing computers to control them. After a few sputtering starts, robots appeared everywhere, making cars, airplanes, cereal, kid’s bikes, the list is long.
In fact, larger computers began to control entire factories, sending programs to the slave robots to cause them to perform different tasks.
When robots begin to make things they replace humans. It’s as simple as that.
You might be tempted to think I’m talking about what’s going to happen in the future, but I’m not. I’m writing about what’s occurring right here and now. To get an idea of the impact of automation, think of this: if every component in a modern cell phone, pad computer, video game console or home computer had to be constructed by hand, no one could afford them. I’m talking about everything, the fabrication of the chips, the construction of the boards, and the final assembly of the device. (Yes, workers assemble iPads in China from prefabricated parts (parts built by robots), but they’re underpaid and commit suicide at a depressing rate.)
One might think that the new robots might have opened more opportunities for the people who repaired them but that didn’t materialize. The increased reliability and the more modular construction actually reduced the amount of technicians required.
So, where does this lead? We have a huge amount of manufacturing occurring (manufacturing has actually increased in the United States) but fewer and fewer people can obtain gainful employment by it.

Of the major economic and employment areas in the United States, one of them is manufacturing. Traditionally manufacturing was the place where the lower educated middle class could find a decent job and raise a family. However manufacturing as a place to employ people is, and has been, declining. In fact, I’d argue that the decline in manufacturing employment has directly led to our current economic woes.
For example, the disagreements over Social Security stem from the fact that not enough people are gainfully employed to support it. Social security has been likened to a Ponzi scheme and it’s true, but it was a Ponzi scheme created by people who thought it could continue forever.
During the years Social Security was created, manufacturing was huge and the other economic sectors small in comparison. The word ‘robot’ was in the vocabulary of a fringe group of sci-fi writers and no self respecting politician admitted to reading it. In the politician’s minds goods were created by people, plain and simple and that was the way it would be forever. Since the U.S. was destined to rule the world in manufactured products, employment could go only one way and that was up. Social Security could therefore never run out of money. Today we know that’s not the case.
(The detractors of Social Security never mention that the program worked and worked well for decades. It kept seniors from starving and pumped much needed money into the economy. In addition, Medicare prevented seniors from going bankrupt from catastrophic illnesses. The problems with a government program like Social Security or Medicare stem more from the fact that there aren’t enough workers to support them rather than the idea the program doesn’t work.)
In the past, manufacturing represented a place where undereducated people could find employment at relatively high wages. 
Even today, many potential young workers drop out of education, before or after graduating from high school, either because they’re not interested or motivated, or the cost of college is too high. These young men and women represent a large labor pool we could use but we can’t. They will find it difficult to contribute in this society. They face few choices and most of them only provide low to minimum wage.
Of the jobs lost and created after the banking meltdown in 2008, 60 percent were lost in construction and manufacturing, the places where the above young people might have found a decent job. However, of the jobs added since the crisis, 58 percent have been low wage and minimum wage jobs.
Those working for minimum wage are in the poverty level, only making about $15,000 per year. Providing minimum wage jobs for these people is clearly not the answer. After standard deductions, they pay little or no income taxes and their Social Security and Medicare taxes can’t support the programs. No matter how many jobs you create at low or minimum wage, it won’t solve any of the problems. Of the high wage jobs added, most were involved in moving around money to create more money, making the one percent richer.
Projecting the current trends into the future and looking at other trends eroding our freedoms, I foresee America as a police-state oligarchy, ruled by the rich, with robots making most of the manufactured products. The middle class is destined to vanish replaced by a huge disenfranchised slave-labor class that will be forced to work for a pittance or starve once the government’s economic safety net is jerked away.
The elderly (like me) will be allowed to die off becoming less of a burden on the national debt, and wars will be used to control the lower classes by distracting them and killing off the excess people.
In Robert Heinlein’s novella ‘Revolt in Twenty-one Hundred’ one of the characters discusses the use of the English language to appeal to emotions rather than logic. (The word is commonly known as ‘propaganda’.) Exciting one’s fears, racial and religious prejudices using loaded words, even though they might be blatant lies, works and works well. People want to be soothed by being told what they already believe, rather than facing the truly complex nature of the world they live in.
Perhaps Heinlein foresaw our current scenario in his novella or George Orwell in ‘1984’. They just got the dates wrong.

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