Saturday, December 17, 2005

...the work week will be 24 hours long.

Over the last 100 years technology has enabled people to get more done in less time. At home, we have household appliances such as dish washers, washing machines, and microwaves. At work we have computers, e-mail, video conferencing, and high speed internet connections. Don't get me wrong, we don't always like these devices. Windows crashes, our inboxes fill up with spam, and everybody's PC seems to have joined the virus of the month club. Even as I write this, the spin cycle on my out-of-balance washing machine is registering 3.2 on the Richter scale.

As frustrating as technology can be, it's hard to argue that we aren't more productive because of it. So, if we can get more done in less time, why aren't we working less? In the 50's and 60's futurists promised us lives of leisure. They thought our every need would be tended to by robots while we lounged in a hammock sipping colorful drinks shaded by a small umbrella.

There were two large problems with this idea. The first being, it's 2005 and certain technologies haven't advanced as quickly as expected. Artificial Intelligence has proven to be a very difficult problem to solve (the technology required for a computer or robot to understand what it's being asked to do and respond appropriately). Image and voice recognition has been equally frustrating. Although reliable systems have emerged for certain specialized applications, there's not a computer out there that can recognize objects and sounds the way a human being can.

The other large problem with the idea that our work will be done by machines is this - there is no arbitrary measure for how much work a person should accomplish in a day. We live in a competitive, capitalistic society. You're measured against the people standing next to you. If they get more done, you have to compete. As such, we now work just as many hours per week, if not more, as we ever have. The times may eventually change though.

In 2002 a robot named Grace completed a unique challenge. It was dropped off in front of a conference center full of people. Using voice and image recognition, it made it's way to a registration table by asking directions rather than being guided by an operator, After registering and then finding its way to an auditorium, it gave a short speech about itself.

The technology is still young but ask yourself - how far is this robot from being able to ask if you'd like fries with your burger? If packaged in a body capable of moving like Honda's Asimo, how far would it be from doing many jobs requiring unskilled labor? This is great right? We'll all be able to have our own personal electronic servants. They'll be able to act as a butler, maid, personal shopper...

Well, not exactly... or maybe eventually...

I think it's safe to say that these machines will be extraordinarily expensive when they first hit the market. They'll be used in very specific niches such as search and rescue or health care where their expense can be justified. Eventually, the cost will start to fall though. Let's say the cost falls to 40,000 of today's dollars. Who will have them in their homes? A handful of wealthy individuals and fanatic early-adopters - not many people overall.

At $40,000, who else may buy them? Well, what does a typical fast food worker make these days? I know there are a handful of places around here that start at $10 per hour but I'm guessing $8 is closer to the norm with places hiring as low as minimum wage. We'll use $8 as an average. Let's assume that most places are open approximately 16 hours per day. For one employee to be working during that entire 16 hours, it costs $128 in wages alone, not including social security matching, benefits, unemployment, etc. That's well over $40,000 per year. Even if that one employee could be replaced by a $100,000 robot, the cost savings would be worth it in a couple of years.

What we are likely to be facing instead of a life of leisure is an unemployment crisis. We've seen something similar happen in the manufacturing industry with a combination of automation and outsourcing to eastern Asia and Mexico. We may be on the verge of another similar event in the IT industry by outsourcing to India. This, however, will likely be far beyond the scope of anything we've seen before.

I expect first it will happen in an industry such as the fast food industry. We'll find out that McDonald's has outfitted a handful of stores with prototypes to try the idea out. People may balk at first and complain that they aren't dealing with a real person - especially if the technology is rolled out too early and buggy. Eventually though, the kinks will be worked out and people will find that there are some advantages. The machines will never cop an attitude. They'll never be off on a smoke break when you are ready to order. They won't give you back incorrect change or mess up your order. It's an even better deal for McDonald's. They'll be cheaper. They'll never steal. Once they're eventually given cooking duties, they'll never undercook a burger and make anybody ill.

Once these machines have been successfully deployed for one line of work, people will soon start adapting them for other types of work. In fact, I expect that our definition of skilled vs. unskilled labor will get a major overhaul in a relatively short period of time. Perhaps we'll find that painting is easy for a machine to do but framing a house is difficult. Perhaps we'll find that roofing is difficult for a machine but excavating is a piece of cake. We're almost certainly going to find that a machine can't replace a gourmet chef but it may be able to replace a short order cook. It probably can't sell a car but I'd bet it could wander the isles of Wal Mart helping people find things.

Regardless of which jobs become automated, it's almost certainly going to be a ton of them. If the transition is slow enough, maybe we'll see most people adapt smoothly into other lines of work. If it is rapid though we may see boycotts, mass protests, and riots by a large body of displaced workers. How do we allow progress to continue while protecting people's livelyhoods? Better yet, how do we capture a slice of the future we were promised by 20th century futurists.

I'd say one of the most promising yet difficult solutions to implement would be cutting the work week back to 3 or 4 days per week with the same pay as 5 days. The remaining jobs would be spread between more people reducing unemployment and everybody would have more leisure time which would probably be a boon to recreation based industries.

The only problem with cutting back the work week is actually implementing it. Companies have an incentive to squeeze as much out of their salaried employees as possible to compete with other companies. Even if they were forced to cut work hours through legislation, individuals would almost certainly take on two jobs for the additional income. In the end, even though most people would say they'd love to have 3 or 4 days off a week, if you give it to them, they probably won't actually take it.

What to do? Well, we've probably got at least 20 years to figure it out, maybe more. I say we start learning how to work less, appreciate the extra productivity that our tools have created for us, and enjoy some extra time with our friends and family.

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