Friday, October 12, 2018

The Next Industrial Revolution (?)

Deus Ex Machina came home from work the other day and asked me if I'd heard of Industry 4.0.  

I hadn't.  

According to Google, Industry 4.0 is a name given to the current trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies. It includes cyber-physical systems, the Internet of things, cloud computing and cognitive computing. Industry 4.0 is commonly referred to as the fourth industrial revolution.

It's more than that, though.  

The belief that American manufacturing jobs left the US for cheaper, overseas markets is only half true.  It's true that some manufacturing companies shuttered their factories here in the US in favor of cheaper labor markets in developing countries, but the real culprit, the real elephant in the room that took American jobs was automation.  Yes, the robots supplanted us.  More jobs have been lost in the last three decades to machines than to overseas cheap labor markets.  

Let that sink in.

Then take a look around at the other jobs that are currently being replaced by machines, because the replacing of humans with machines for those unskilled labor jobs is only going to increase.

Any one remember the joke about the Liberal Arts grad?  Back when I went to college, we were strongly encouraged to select a course of study that would net us a future career.  I chose teaching, but I had a friend who was a non-teaching Art History major with a minor in philosophy.  I heard more than one person who advised her to learn the phrase, "Do you want fries with that?" for her future career.

The problem is that machines are taking that job, too.  So, my friend, who has a degree in Art, won't even be able to work at McDonalds.

I have another friend who has a degree in Library Science.  I met her when she was a Children's Librarian, and when she left that job (which isn't a great paying job, either), she ended up at a home improvement store.  In general, I'm not a fan of big box stores, but every now and then, when we're working on a project at our house, we end up there.  We started going to Lowe's, thinking it the lesser-of-two-evils, but over the last couple of years, something happened at Lowe's.  I've resolved not to shop there anymore, as a result.  

They have been trying to replace their cashiers with self-check outs, and while I don't have a problem, necessarily, with self-check outs, that's the only option ... and half the time they don't work properly.  So, the store may be saving a bundle on labor costs, but because their machines are inferior to a human, who can see that I have paid for the item that was just scanned, or figure out how to scan an item that I'm holding in my hand, they are losing sales.  I tried to purchase an item the other day - a gift for a friend on impulse - but it wouldn't scan.  So, I didn't buy it.  Take that Lowe's.  Lost a sale, because you decided not to employ humans.  

Unfortunately, the "unskilled" labor sector aren't the only ones who have to worry.  Loss of jobs to machines will only increase as Industry 4.0 continues to take hold.

Self driving cars will replace taxi cab drivers (I shudder, remembering that scene from Total Recall when the animatron cab driver turns to Arnold Schwarzenegger's character and introduces himself as "Johnny Cab"), bus drivers, and long-haul truckers.  The last one will be a significant loss, as truck driving as a career has surpassed nearly all other careers as the top job in twenty-nine states.  Transportation accounts for 3% of the jobs in the US.  

Millions of people out of work, because someone thinks a machine can do it better.

Here's the thing.  I like my washing machine, and I know that there was a time when the job of "washer woman" was the only way a single mother or a poor, Irish housewife could feed her children.  Creating a mechanical washer women took jobs away from hundreds of women.  

I'm thankful that I don't have to pay someone to do my laundry, but I'm more thankful that I don't have to put my hands into hot water infused with caustic laundry detergent, scrub my family's clothes on a board, and then wring them out - as best I can - and hang them on the line, where they may or may not dry this time of year.  The nice thing about machine washing is that the machine is able to get out a lot more of the water than hand-wringing does.

But, for me, and maybe I am the Luddite I've been accused of being, I believe that there are some jobs that should not be handled by machines.  Maybe driver-less cars would cut down on traffic jams and accidents, but maybe having both driver-less cars and humans on the roads at the same time will cause a lot more injury and devastation.   

The top 5 industries in Maine are:  healthcare, retail, tourism, education, and construction.  Every. Single. One. of those jobs can be replaced with a robot.  

A video I watched on Industry 4.0 explained that healthcare workers are already at risk of losing their jobs to machines.  It's not the CNAs, though, that will be losing their jobs.  It's the higher paid, more technical jobs, like surgeons and radiologists.  Look out, Dr. McDreamy.  Johnny-5 is coming for your job. 

Technology isn't bad, necessarily, and there are a lot of things I like about living in this very luxury-centric world, but there are many more very negative things about living a life that is so wholly dependent on technology and computers .... 

... not the least of which is that technology is wholly dependent on a working grid and that grid needs a lot of power and that power, mostly, still comes from fossil fuels, and while too many people don't want to admit it, the use of fossil fuels may be the culprit in our current climate anomalies.  

Even if the latter isn't true, and we could still burn fossil fuels like there's no tomorrow, fossil fuels are a limited resource, and we already know that we have surpassed Peak Oil - which means that there's only half as much as there was when we started AND what's left is harder and more costly to get.

So, while other folks are wiring their houses to sync up with Rosie ... or Siri ... or Alexa ... or whatever the name of the robot that's going to connect all of the appliances and thermostats and whatnot, I'm collecting oil lamps and tapping into those old-timey, mostly forgotten skills, because we aren't ready for Industry 4.0.  Power outages still happen.  Computers malfunction (almost as often as they work correctly), and as we become more dependent on systems that are completely imperfect, things are going to get a lot ugly.