wowt explains: what is automation?

Few topics today are as relevant and impactful as automation, changing the fortunes of developing nations and deeply reshaping the economies of politics of wealthy ones.
recore robot
Illustration from ReCore

From a strictly dictionary standpoint, automation is machines performing tasks that used to be done by humans. But that doesn’t even pretend to scratch the surface of modern automation and its complex relationship to jobs, the economy, and the future of humanity. Between ever more sophisticated robots, powerful cloud servers, and artificial intelligence, the landscape of work, and even civilization, is quickly changing, which usually turns into a lot of fun and not so fun questions that just beg to be consolidated in one place.

what’s the earliest example of automation?

The exact answer depends on how we define task automation. Perhaps the first practical use of machinery in place of human work may be the Antikythera Mechanism created by the ancient Greeks to keep track of stellar alignments. Another attempt at automation in the ancient world was a basic steam engine built by Hero of Alexandria. It was never ultimately used since there was always plenty of cheap human labor to do the menial work Hero wanted to streamline. The first practical implementations of industrial automation as we know it were Oliver Evans’ water-powered flour mill in 1785 and Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, invented in 1793 to speed up cotton processing.

how much manufacturing has been automated?

Virtually all of it in some form or another. From computers to keep track of parts being built, to robots manufacturing components or assembling pre-made parts shipped from vendors, to the electronic inventory systems, there is no part of industrial fabrication untouched by machines unless the products are being created by artisans and meant to be more decorative souvenirs than purely utilitarian objects, sold on street corners and flea markets for cash. It’s impossible to get a purely numeric estimate without a concrete definition, which will be very hard to agree on due to all the different forms of automation being used today on a wide variety of scales.

does automation eliminate jobs?

Yes and no. The alarm clock made “knocker-uppers” irrelevant and radios eliminated the need for lectors. Today’s assembly line robots are producing more goods than ever with a fraction of the people. At the same time, automating routine work opens people up for new jobs either made possible by the products of this automation or the spare time freed up for current and future entrepreneurs to come up with new ideas. This explains why the vast majority of those in post-industrial economies today are working primarily in services rather than agriculture and manufacturing while growing more than enough food and building more stuff than ever, even as fewer workers are employed in those sectors.

how does automation create jobs?

Machines can create new jobs in three ways. The first, and most obvious, is by creating the need for workers to maintain, repair, and improve machines or computers. Robots need replacement parts, fresh fluids, and debugging. Computers running code which makes the digital economy function need updates to their operating systems, security utilities, and code. And when machines and computers do their jobs well, there’s always the question of whether they can do those jobs even better, creating demand for new robots and software which start this cycle all over again.

The second way is by freeing up people to take on tasks they otherwise couldn’t because there was no machine to do their existing ones. For example, some products can only be checked for quality control by humans, so those once in charge of making the products are not best placed to gauge how well the machines put them together, and as the machines crank out more and more products, more and more people are needed to examine their quality and figure out how those products can be improved. Likewise, a worker previously on an assembly line could be retrained to do something different as production ramps up.

The third way is by making completely new things possible because they simply couldn’t be done efficiently or cost-effectively by humans, if at all, or by putting products that were once only available to the wealthy within everyone’s reach. This enables new businesses to take off, hiring all the workers required for a company to operate and make money. At the same time, new technology can create new problems and require new kinds of specialists to solve them, which creates completely new careers. Tangentially, as companies can produce more products or more varieties of products than ever, they’ll need workers to help deal with growing pains, sales, and the logistics of delivering those goods to customers.

if automation creates jobs, how do people lose jobs to automation?

Losing one’s job to automation with seemingly no alternative is a very common complaint today, and it’s not entirely incorrect. Getting a new job after yours was taken by a machine requires three things: a desire for a new career, a means to train for a new career through an education program or employer training, and employers willing to hire those who changed careers. If these three things aren’t there, or aren’t working in a virtuous cycle, people get kicked out of jobs with no other place to go and no one willing to help them over the long term. This is why there have to be transition plans for what happens to those whose jobs are lost to automation. If they have no place to go, it doesn’t do anyone any good over the long term.

what is the risk of my job being automated?

This depends largely on your job. The more creative independence you have in your daily tasks, the more variation is allowed, and the more external circumstances and others’ feedback have to be taken into account for you to do your job, the less likely it is to be automated. That said, at least some of your daily tasks could probably be automated with code or AI pretty much no matter what you do, and if too many of your daily tasks fall under that category, your job could be eliminated as the position is consolidated to fewer people. On the flip side, the more such automation would help you get your job done, the less likely you are to see your job gone.

does automation make income and wealth inequality worse?

It absolutely can. The wealthiest people in the world tend to own businesses, which is how they earn their wealth. Automation allows them to do much more at lower costs and with fewer overall workers, which means their profit margins will be higher and push the value of those businesses higher as well, while those they’d employ would be out looking for new jobs. It can allow some of those workers to become entrepreneurs as well, but their success in business is not guaranteed, and even profitable businesses may not grow to be large companies which will make them well-off, much less wealthy.

what would happen if we automated everything?

If we automated everything that could be automated, we’d be facing an interesting decision. With everything being created or aided with robot labor, basic products and housing should be quite cheap because they can be made quickly and require minimal human involvement. Do we allow ourselves to become a post-scarcity society in which freelance work can comfortably support pretty much anyone, enact a sort of “fully-automated luxury communism,” or go full dystopia and recreate the plot of Elysium?

Of course, post-scarcity doesn’t mean there would no longer be a need for jobs, but it would likely entail that jobs as we know them would have to be very different as society would have new and unprecedented problems, ambitions, and competitions. Basically, we’d need to figure out what a society where we no longer have to work in schedules based on factory shifts to keep the world running will look like, and have the foresight to elect politicians who see this world coming and have good ideas for it before it gets here.

is there a difference between automation and artificial intelligence?

Artificial intelligence is a type of automation in this context. It’s intended to make software and robots nimbler and take on more complex tasks. While the current wave of automation with which we’re commonly familiar targets manual, routine, and dangerous labor, AI is going after high skilled assembly and decision-making that was often left to supervisors and middle managers. This the current wave of automation: enabling software and machines to make operational decisions on their own, with minimal, if any human input.

# tech // artificial intelligence / automation / robots


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