The outsourcing of human jobs as a side effect of globalization has arguably contributed to the current unemployment crisis. However, a growing trend sees humans done away with altogether, even in the low-wage countries where many American jobs have landed.
Citing brutal working conditions, inefficiency and corporate bottom lines, human beings are gradually becoming redundant. Moreover, there are indications that even skilled labor will soon be replaced, rendering humans obsolete in a variety of new ways.
At this point is doesn’t seem like the outsourcing of human abilities to our robotic counterparts is leading us toward the life of leisure that has been promised, but instead is leading to humans being perceived as nothing more than a troubling quantity within a new economic algorithm. How can we ensure that we maintain relevance during a time of such rapid change?
Product Fulfillment Process: We all have become incrementally familiar with the ways that our orders, requests and demands are handled by non-humans. Fulfillment can range from ATMs, automatic grocery checkout, online order processing, having a movie delivered by mail or Internet, to automated answer systems for nearly all of our products.
Order fulfillment by machines is nearly ubiquitous. A component of this is the warehouse — finding an item, packaging, and shipping it. The following personal account titled, “We are Obsolete” sums up perfectly the company reasoning behind getting rid of humans in this part of the workplace:
My boss informed me that another employee was replacing me. The new employee was far better then me and would never take a day off. The new employee would never fall sick, never ask for overtime pay, and had nothing to do with the union. The new employee would not waste time near the water cooler socializing with other employees and would never waste time on Facebook. The new employee would never get stressed out, or have a nervous breakdown. The new employee would never get tired and will work tirelessly forever. Most importantly, the new employee will never get injured and sue the company for compensation.
Meet 1557. The new employee is a robot. This robot just replaced me in the warehouse today. This is the reality. (Source)
The fulfillment process also takes place in the medical field. We are now seeing robotic assistants in surgery and diagnostics, as well as research, manufacturing and dispensing. Artificial neural networks have been implemented to help make diagnoses, thus reducing human error. Some speculate that with the advent of nanotechnology it won’t be long before autonomous robotic diagnosis and surgery from the inside out will be possible down to the DNA level.
Manufacturing: The Taiwanese Company Foxconn, answered criticism of its brutal working conditions by replacing its human force of 1.2 million people with 1 million robots to make laptops, mobile devices and other electronics hardware for Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Sony. The company previously had made workers sign contracts that they would not commit suicide, and would even install “suicide nets.” But even these measure seem to be too much of a hassle for executives to deal with. (Source) As computer engineer, and author Martin Ford has stated, it is not merely the repetitive and precise needs of the assembly line that are being met by machines in a variety of industries, but more skilled labor as well.
How could management get rid of these skilled workers?
They could simply build a remote controlled robot to perform the task, and then offshore the control function. As we have pointed out, it is the ability to recognize a complex visual image and then manipulate a robot arm based on that image that is a primary challenge preventing full robotic automation. Transmitting a real-time visual image overseas, where a low paid worker can then manipulate the machinery, is certainly already feasible. Remote controlled robots are currently used in military and police applications that would be dangerous for humans. We very likely will see such robots in factories and workplaces in the near future. (Source)
Domestic Service: A host of lifelike, even humanoid robots, have been developed with a range of motion and ability that is leading to a growing possibility of a “bot in every household.” An article written back in 2004 titled, “From Outsourcing to Botsourcing” posited a disturbing near-term future at the time of its writing:
If you’re middle-aged now, perhaps your closest companion in your dotage will be a wirelessly connected android that traipses after you, bringing iced tea or martinis, and reminding you to take your medications, send a birthday card to your grandson, and sell your Cisco stock. (Source)
Eight years is an eternity in computing, so where do we stand here in 2012 relative to the above scenario? The following is a short list of commercially available service robots, the prices of which have fallen at warp speed to be within reach of an increasing number of people. When Bill Gates says that this industry can change the world we should probably listen. So much so that even the world’s oldest service profession can be outsourced, which should lead us to wonder just how attached we already have become to the machines in our lives. (Source)