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Foxconn unit to cut over 10k jobs as robotics take over (nikkei.com)
161 points by nreece 74 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 143 comments

I hope some Wisconsinites read this and better understand the deal their government is making with Foxconn. Investing in traditional manufacturing is risky if you expect those jobs to pay off over more than a couple years.

On the other hand, people need jobs and even a sub-optimal solution can be beneficial.

> people need jobs

I dislike this reductive reasoning because it basically turns predatory businesses into saviors by taking mercy on the poor fools who dared to find themselves with no means to feed or house themselves.

It really reflects on the last hundred years of human history how we try so hard to perpetuate a facade of how we get everyone doing something valuable to justify their existence, when a large (and growing) percentage of people can outright admit their jobs are pointless, don't contribute anything, and aren't meaningful to anyone but bean counters and a machine bigger than any of them in isolation.

So no, pointless bad jobs from Foxconn in Wisconsin are only beneficial as a means to kick the can down the road until society will wake up to the reality that it takes one person to feed a hundred and so long as the needs and wants of a population can be provided by only a subset of that population (and a shrinking subset as time and automation marches on) that there will be a growing fraction of people left surrounded by a glut of resources they are denied so long as they can't contribute anything back that satisfies those other producers.

And it absolutely is a glut. What are the figures, some half of all food in the US is thrown out, there are multiple times more unoccupied homes than homeless, and the department of defense regularly "misplaces" billions of dollars? There is waste and excess in every gutter of the economy while children are food insecure and people are giving themselves heart disease from the stress of trying to scrape by in a society that holds them in ire for not being one of the few massive producers. Producers who are themselves often overworked and abused through the same mechanisms that pressure them towards efficiency.

And I also despise arguments like an individual state cannot do anything. It doesn't require a heavy hand to create incentives to provide housing assistance, better utilize the food supply, and reduce the strain and stress on its workforce. Small changes like housing first initiatives or pot decriminalization have done wonders to reduce poverty and improve lives. What doesn't improve anyones life in the long term is giving Amazon tax immunity for building a headquarters in your city.

> I dislike this reductive reasoning because it basically turns predatory businesses into saviors by taking mercy on the poor fools who dared to find themselves with no means to feed or house themselves.

I'm onboard with a big chunk of what you are saying; we would have more if we wasted less, and we shouldn't organise ourselves such that we need to work more than we enjoy leisure time.

On to the part where I disagree - this lead sentence is absurdly one-eyed and anti-business. Employees have agency; it isn't a label applied at birth that they can't shake. It is as easy to quit as to be fired. Nobody is worse off if new sources of employment are made available.

While on the subject, I'm going to take a flying leap and say that the ideas behind there being "predatory businesses" are going to be completely at odds with the ideas behind "their jobs are pointless". To hold both these ideas in my head at once requires the company management to literally be insane and evil. I'm going to opine that they are not both.

> Nobody is worse off if new sources of employment are made available.

Sometimes yes and sometimes we are all worse, specially if the source of employment is the cause of a massive oil spill.

> "predatory businesses" are going to be completely at odds with the ideas behind "their jobs are pointless"

Again, not always. A "pointless company" (or government agency), however efficient, will always be full of people doing pointless jobs.

You might have misread what I put between the quotation marks, "predatory company" not "pointless company".

It goes a fair bit against the grain of stereotype to describe the government as a predatory employer.

You misread what I said.

Any company can be pointless, even predatory ones, and yes, even government agencies. And I never described the government as a predatory employer.

The quotation marks I added to "pointless company" have no relation to the quotation marks on your comment, which seems to be the source of confusion.

You make a litany of good points, but who wants to lose their job in the uncertain hope that society will “wake up” to reality? There is no real indication that such an awakening is imminent, so without the ability to earn poeple are deeply, horribly screwed. In the paradigm which persists, people really do need jobs because they won’t eat otherwise.

When talking politics especially on the scale of a state or country you aren't talking microeconomics. Microeconomically of course you optimize to survive with the hand you are dealt. If a pointless job is going to pay you more money than one that creates meaningful production as long as you can bear or be ignorant to the fact your time is wasted take the free money.

The problem is that the microeconomic reality at the personal level isn't reflective of macroeconomic reality. It is why political coordination and organization at the grassroots is so hard, and why the poor vote and participate so much less in government - you simply don't have the time to voice your discontent with the broken macroeconomic conditions when the micro keep you in a constant state of distress, anxiety, and uncertainty. All the figures on a national scale about waste or excess mean nothing to a child going hungry tonight.

Maybe poor people just understand that when they try to describe their plight and seek assistance, they’ll be told that “sorry your microeconomic reality is too far divorced from the macroeconomic reality for us to care.”

Sounds great. Let's all drop the charade and serve the betterment of mankind!

That's a wonderful ideal, but history has proven it to be folly. There may be an abundance of resources, but it's still a finite amount and humans are greedy. When a system like that scales, bad actors always take advantage.

We all want resources, but we all want things to get better too. Mechanisms like capitalism and meritocricy are the best solutions we've found for serving those two desires at scale.

They're not perfect solutions and their effectiveness is decreasing as humans are able to provide less individual value by the day. Still, we don't cling to them because we've fooled ourselves - we cling to them because nothing else has ever worked at scale for very long.

Maybe a better solution exists, but we need more than an idealistic notion of "working for the greater good" to keep it stable.

As an interesting aside, when the term "meritocracy" was created, it was a pejorative; something we should seek to avoid.

Interesting. It obviously has its failings - hence this discussion - but I still haven't heard of anything better yet that hasn't been proven to fall apart at scale.

I dislike it when people state opinion as fact.

Even if your job is to literally rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic, it may not be pointless at all for that person or for those who enjoy the fruits of the labor.

People not only need jobs, they want them.

Many people get great satisfaction in doing a good job, earning money, and supporting themselves and family.

Pretty much anything you do is "pointless" by someone's subjective opinion. I mean, we are all going to burn up from sun exposure in a few billion years anyway.

My job could be done by someone with maybe a months training right out of high school because 90% of it is applying our company specific css to create PDFs, and you can only learn once you are on the job. My company wants the prestige of being a "high tech" company, however so they've hired me at a 6 figure plus salary to do this job and in the interview pretended that it was going to involve the modern front end stack and building and maintaining containerization.

It's a pointless job in that the work that is done doesn't give any benefit other than aggrandizing one of the managers in my chain to their own manager.

Yes it has a point to someone, that literally being a singular someone, but is the waste generated by my job worth it? Why am I paid several times more than someone making minimum wage, when any random person can do the job, just to satisfy a single person?

The answer is because they currently have the economic power to create and keep this position, but that's not a moral reason and it's not an efficient reason.

Thank you for voicing the truth. I experienced the same. I made most of my fortune doing practically nothing. I also did lots of real and "fake" work that produced me just "get along by" income.

It's a shit show out there but people holding high income don't want to admit it. People on the other end either think we are stealing from them or we are wizards of the world.

The truth is that we had an equal chance to fall on one bunch or the other. It is practically a random, hazardous distribution that happens to work better than socialism.

I don't think you give people enough credit. There are a lot of people who view those "pointless bad jobs" as opportunities and who can and will work hard to make the most of them. Not defending the abusive practices of companies, but who are you to decide whether someone else' job is pointless and bad?

When I was in college a sociology class showed a video on factory conditions in china in the early 2000s. The point of the video (and class) was that companies are evil and will exploit you with terrible jobs with no path for advancement etc

The work conditions were terrible, but people chose to work in those jobs. They moved from rural homes with little economic opportunity and ended up contributing to one of the greatest periods of economic growth and wealth creation in history

I know very little about china and am not defending workplace abuses, but for many people those terrible jobs were opportunities that paid off for them

I too would choose to cut off my foot rather than cut off my head.

It doesn't mean that the choice is a good one, or one that isn't forced on me.

Artificially 'creating' or 'protecting' jobs doesn't help anyone, at least not in the long run. I get that people don't like change, but trying to stand still in a moving world only hurts the people standing still.

We still need social benefits to keep up with potentially devastating changes in society.

What devastating changes in society are you referring to? Changes in the trade of time+skill for money is nothing new, so probably not that.

>Changes in the trade of time+skill for money is nothing new, so probably not that.

Famine, war and poverty is nothing new either. Neither is social collapse for that matter.

Devastating changes in society are not new either, so maybe that?

We have social benefits. The US spends $4.x trillion every year on social programs, at the local+state+federal levels. The US has the world's largest welfare and social entitlement programs, and some of the richest per capita as well (only rivaled by elite Scandinavian nations).

About 65% of all US Government spending is going to entitlements at this point. ~80% is going to entitlements + welfare programs. That percentage will continue to increase over the next decade. At the current rate of growth, entitlement spending alone will consume all US Government spending in about 30 years. Entitlement, welfare programs, and defense spending are basically crowding out all other government spending, pushing the "other" spending toward an ever smaller share of the budget (which is why US infrastructure is in such desperate need of investment).

You can certainly argue we need to be a lot smarter in our spending allocation. The biggest problem the US has is not that it isn't spending, it's that the cost of these systems is astronomically out of line with what is actually sustainable (eg the US healthcare system at all levels).

> The US spends $4.x trillion every year on social programs


> About 65% of all US Government spending is going to entitlements at this point

Source? And does this include military?

> At the current rate of growth, entitlement spending alone will consume all US Government spending in about 30 years

Source? And is this just the "current rate of growth" frozen in place or does it take into account ways that that rate of growth has been changing as well?

That sounds about right. According to the Center on Budget and Public Policy [0], in the 2016 federal budget, this was spending for each:

  24% = Social Security
  26% = Medicare/Medicaid/CHIP/Affordable Care Act 
   9% = Other Safety Net programs ex-SS/Medicare 
   8% = Benefits for federal retirees + veterans
That's 67% right there.

Other significant spending:

  16% = Defense
   6% = Interest on debt
   2% = Transportation/Infrastructure
   2% = Education
   2% = Science and medical research
The federal government took in $3.3 trillion and spent $3.9 trillion, so $0.6 trillion borrowed, which is almost our entire defense budget.

To balance the budget, you'd need to take out 15 percentage points from the categories above, or increases taxes by ~$4,600 per US household (or a combination of the two).

[0] https://www.cbpp.org/research/federal-budget/policy-basics-w...

I never understood why social security counts as “spending”. We all are forced to put money into a fund that mathematically cannot lose money unless life expectancy shoots way up. When we withdraw the money according to plan, the government is not “spending” it.

The fact that congress borrows from the fund and doesn’t pay it back is a problem with the rest of the budget, not social security.

Medicare also seem to me to be simply shifting dollars over time. Some people may gain or lose, but on average, it's just financing my (the average person's) health care when I'm old with money from my salary when I'm young.

Due to demographics and inflation, you will certainly pay more into it than get out of it. Which means both social and Medicare are just welfare programs restricted to the old. Watch both become more and more means tested as the divide between haves and have nots grow wider. And the old vote in huge proportions so no one is taking away their benefits.

Given current life expectancy statistics, I expect to live to the age where I can benefit from Social Security and Medicare. In fact, I already benefited from Social Security as a child after my father died. I cannot regard the people who pay for these programs and the people who benefit from them as separate classes.

It seems like there is something similar going on with the debate over healthcare. People on the right seem to conceive of the healthy and the sick as separate classes of people. But I don't, so arguments based on an inherent struggle between the two are not sensical to me.

It almost seems as if the much older view of the rich and poor as separate classes has metastasized and mutated across ideological boundaries.

The excess revenues from social security are 'invested' in special government bonds that earn a fixed rate of return. We hit peak social security excess in 2008. To the powers that be a decrease in excess amounts to a loss in revenue. Wait until the social security administration cashes in those bonds, those redemptions go straight to the national debt.

OK, but isn't it true that a lot of Defense spending is categorized differently and doesn't show up on the budget?

When you ask for a source and someone provides it, any further rebuttals on your part really should include a source of your own.

Reasonable request. I thought that by starting with "isn't it true" I was implying that I didn't know.

Also, the person who provided the source was someone else, so if you're asking for a source re my question, perhaps someone will provide it. In any case your poke got me wondering and doing a bit of research.

I must admit, those numbers seem dramatically out of line with my intuition as well. If I was a betting man I'd say there's a bit more to the story, but then the source (https://www.cbpp.org/about/mission-history) seems fairly left leaning so if there was any bending of the truth I'd expect it in the other direction.

Perhaps the reason this feels off is because it's the government budget, which is a subset of the overall economy obviously. And, a lot of the dollars spent here are going back into corporations, for varying levels of return on the dollar I'm sure. I think this is why the numbers sound so great/generous, but don't match reality when you look out the window, watch the news, or read the newspaper.

You may be thinking of how Congress funds the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They do indeed fall outside of the ‘planned’ DoD budget, even though we’ve been at war for 17+ years. They’re funded by special appropriations bills.

This 16% ($605 billion) number includes $74 billion in a special Overseas Contingency Operations bill for Afghanistan.

Alternatively, you may also be thinking of the DoD ‘black budget’, which is classified. That is included in the budget, but it’s not itemized or described in any way to keep what it’s spent on a secret. It’s typically around $65 billion.

At least part of the problem there is that once you give people that social welfare they're expected to pay for ridiculously high insurance costs. Get rid of the rich-person welfare that comes in the form of bloated medical and insurance costs and your social welfare budget for the poor will plummet.

The way it's organised now is that your government gives the poorest some money while the rich complain incessantly, then the rich siphon it off for themselves.

>At least part of the problem there is that once you give people that social welfare they're expected to pay for ridiculously high insurance costs.

Only if your laws allow for "ridiculously high insurance costs". Caps exist for a reason.

> once you give people that social welfare

OK, I don't disagree with what you're saying necessarily, but I'm not convinced that social welfare is by any means biggest way we're wasting money, nor that it's necessarily causing some huge social dysfunction that would magically fix itself if we "trimmed the bloat". I think it's just hard for a lot of people to procure enough resources to comfortably live in this society, so we have to decide how to best deal with that.

> Get rid of the rich-person welfare

Great idea. How do you propose to do that?

> your government gives the poorest some money ..., then the rich siphon it off for themselves.

Maybe not the most favorable opinion, but U.S defense budget is out of control. I take the classic F35 development as the goto example. There is no accountability. There is no oversights. Contractors don’t seem always fulfill contracts on time, and the deliveries have quality problems. Contracts can range from millions to tens of billions. I honestly do not think we need this hundreds of billions budject. Even when we do, we need a complete accountability and we need to make sure money is spent on personnel’s well-being and safety over some “mega vision/next generation weapons we really won’t need and probably never going to happen.”

Sadly, unlike other manufacuring industries, LockHead and Boeing can’t just develop random defense products and then let governments buy them (regular annunitions are okay). If that was the case, then DoD would be a client rather than both the client and the project management. Instead, we as client lets Boeing builds the fighting jets, and DoD sells them to foreign countries.

The waste could have been invested in veteran service, healthcare, national infrastructure (bridges, highways, dams, power grids), and whatnot. Politicans are scared to cut DoD’s budget because in America we are so supportive of our troops, many get upset when DoD budget is reduced for cleaning up unnecessary projects.

[1]: http://thehill.com/opinion/finance/373136-congress-just-agre...

[2]: https://amp.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/20/pentag...

[3]: http://amp.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/mar/7/us-military-w...

[4]: http://www.industryweek.com/companies-executives/lockheed-sa...

Really unpopular opinion:

The US military itself is a social welfare program. It provides millions of Americans with a job.

> I take the classic F35 development as the goto example.

this is cutting edge, high risk technology bet, nobody in the world built something like that on such huge scale, it is expected to have problems in such projects. But what is the alternative?

Imagine robots taking away jobs. Now, do you think less people will require social assistance, or more?

Corollary: fewer jobs mean lower costs; social assistance could be more affordable.

Robots will create more jobs that have lower injury rates since they replace manual tasks.

This means that there will be less disability and worker’s compensation social assistance.

Robots will create fewer jobs than what they replace. Otherwise, why would a company purchase them?

Additionally, there may be less disability and worker's compensation but there will be more costs due to poverty. Homeless people cost society far more money than working people.

See the lump of labor fallacy. There's not a fixed amount of work out there and automating one process might make another one cheaper / more efficient causing growth in overall employment.

Tell that to the horses whose jobs were replaced by machines and cars during the industrial revolution. Now what use do we have for them? Entertainment. That's it.

I've often heard supporters of that so-called fallacy invoke the idea of humans maintaining and repairing robots. That's a pretty weak argument. Warren Bennis has the right of it:

The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.

You're comparing humans to horses, which isn't a good comparison in this case. It assumes they're both equally adaptable, except they're not, humans are infinitely more so.

Horses provided the muscle to replace human muscles in antiquity. Mechanical muscles (machines) replaced horses.

Now we are building AI (mechanical minds). Is there any reason to believe AI won't eventually replace humans for all mental tasks? I can't see one.

Muscles are infinitely less complex than the mind. We still don't understand how the human brain works, what makes us conscious, and many other aspects of cognition. And we've been studying these for centuries.

It's unrealistic to think we can simulate something we don't understand. BTW the same rhetoric was being said in the 80's regarding expert systems, as what folks are saying today about deep learning. In the former case expectations exceeded the result, and we got a decade long "AI winter". Why should this time be any different?

IMO AI won't be capable of replacing humans for centuries, maybe millennia. I predict we'll progressively automate more and more routine activities via AI, freeing humans to focus on more creative / higher value activities while being more efficient. We got the same deal from the Industrial Revolution, which also brought us the vast levels of prosperity we enjoy today.

The difference is that the industrial revolution created tons of jobs that anyone could do. The AI revolution is going to leave only jobs that experts can do. Most people simple can't become experts.

It's only going to take a few percentage points at the bottom of the income scale to create a crisis. Heck, we're already seeing that in countries like Greece and Spain. It's a cascade effect.

If we don't solve the problems created by structural unemployment then we'll see our society collapse long, long before we see the very last job automated by AI.

I am curious what you suppose the solutions are if not protectionism and tarrifs.

I cannot live in the US on a Chinese factory worker’s wage, and it’s my government’s job to protect me, not the free market.

I have said this repeatedly, so forgive the repetition, but this is not progess if we’re all going to live in poverty in slums paycheck to paycheck except for the wealthy.

Well, don't work in a factory, and don't depend on a position as if it's going to be there forever. It might sound strange or maybe harsh, but it's not some sort of 'given' that you are going to learn how to do a thing and then you can just lean back, stop learning, and do the thing forever.

You are born, learn a bunch of stuff to behave like other humans so you can live together instead of being dead, and then you select an initial training or education. Once you finish that, you usually start trading your knowledge and time for money. While you are doing that, you can look around, watch the world changing, change yourself, and maybe even arrange more change in your environment (i.e. by applying knowledge, skill and creativity to create something that wasn't there before). This process continues in an endless loop until you die (independent of doing something that would be called a 'job').

There is no case where you get born, learn some basic stuff on how to be a human, and then stop and pretend to be a basic automaton doing the same thing over and over until you stop existing (which is what protectionism, tariffs and artificial jobs boil down to at some point).

The long term solution is automate as much as possible and subsidize/invest in education. A robot in china more or less costs the same as a robot in the US. We are never going to be able to compete with the Chinese or other southeast asian countries with human labor costs. The next part of the solution is education and re-education of the labor force. If there is any place where deficit spending can make a real impact it is education. Student loan forgiveness, universal basic income for people going to school (university/vocational/community/etc), monetary incentives for going into highly skilled professions, increased teacher pay, etc. The key is transitioning the workforce to a knowledge based economy. Trying to resurrect the manufacturing jobs of yore is a sure-fire way to slow economic decay.

I feel strongly that the long term solution is to end our reliance on jobs for individual survival. If we automate the industries that produce what people need for survival, and we find some way of collectivizing those industries (I only support voluntary non governmental collectivization of industry via common share holding schemes), then we can make the marginal cost of living close to zero.

To me it seems perfectly reasonable that in 50-100 years people would no longer need to work to stay alive (as the norm). Productivity will continue to grow due to the high output (assisted by automation) of those who continue to work. The limits of a life supported by public infrastructure will still encourage anyone capable of doing useful work to do so, but no one would be cast away and suffering from lack of work.

I write about this at: http://tlalexander.com/machine

I only support voluntary non governmental collectivization of industry via common share holding schemes

There is such a thing as a Sovereign Wealth Fund:


"The fund is among the world's biggest investors in stocks, owning $667 billion worth of shares in over 9,000 companies globally. It owns on average 1.3% of all listed companies worldwide"

Your thoughts seem to have some similarity to the writings of Richard Wolff (WSDE, Worker self-directed enterprises, essentially cooperatives). AFAIU Noam Chomsky is also advocating similar stuff. Though not in the context of vast unemployment caused by AI/automation.

But yeah, if it turns out that the AI/automation revolution leaves vast numbers of people unemployed, we're in for some drastic social upheaval. Hopefully it will not result in a repeat of the bloodbaths of the 20th century communist revolutions.

You've correctly identified some of my heaviest influences. ;)

I've met Richard Wolff and have read his book Democracy at Work (which he signed). I'm also interested in what Gar Alperovitz talks about among others.

Chomsky has talked at length about automation. AI is a new one, but even back in the 1960's Martin Luther King Jr was talking about how to overcome the problems of automation. This Noam Chomsky interview [1] from 1976 talks about his belief in something like The Machine. He says that it makes sense for an advanced technological society to automate away the drudgery of survival. He goes further to elaborate how work that can't be automated could be shared amongst the people rather than relegating one class of society to do that work. In a way, deciding not to have class suddenly means you want to automate as much as possible, because in either case you don't want to do the hard work yourself. We can only maintain a class based society because we're satisfied making some people do work we don't want to do.

What I write about, is how you can make your society in to sort of a small closed system, where there becomes a fixed number of things needed to maintain a certain standard of living. People can then decide if that standard of living is better than life in the more traditional worker-based capitalist system, where most people end up being workers. And to reiterate - the system I'm describing still meets the definition of "capitalist" by most western libertarian standard, because it is still based on voluntarily agreed contracts and depends on the notion of private property (shares) to operate. It also necessarily requires economic (capitalist) exchange to the outside world to get things the society cannot itself produce. It's an engineering solution, in my mind, to what Chomsky and others talk about.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h_x0Y3FqkEI

Karl Marx once imagined an idealized economy. He called it communism. These theories rarely work in practice. I can't say with confidence whether or not your theory will succeed, but speaking purely from a perspective of probability, what you propose will unlikely be what's ahead for us in the future.

Thanks for your comment! Sorry for the downvotes, I see you're actually trying to make good conversation.

I think Marx's analysis of capitalism is over emphasized as a cause of the murderous regimes we saw under the "Communist" label in the 20th century. Stalin wanted control of the people, and he knew that Marx was very popular among the people at the time. But while I'm not an expert on all of these things, I don't think Marx advocated for the violent methods we saw used by those brutal regimes who used his name. And remember, Capitalist nations like the US were violent too (millions killed in Vietnam, and for what exactly?), but we don't blame Adam Smith or David Ricardo for those horrors.

When I do mention communism, I mean an agreement between people where some good or service it shared amongst them without any individual or individuals laying specific claim to more than their fair share. Families operate this way with food for example, and employers like Google share food freely this way too. I'm advocating that we build robots that are owned by huge groups of people who then share the rewards of the machines freely.

So it's "communism" because certain things are shared by the community, but people can still have their own private property and make other choices about what they do. It's a libertarian, non-violent non-coercive way to achieve a sort of voluntary communism for only life's most important goods (as decided by the people who choose to participate in these sharing schemes).

I hope that clears it up somewhat!

Not 'rarely,' never. Every time "pure" communism has been tried, it has ended is misery, death, disease, and horror.

What do you think led to misery, death, disease, and horror? I do feel that Capitalist nations also continue to be responsible to misery, death, disease and horror (typically in far off places).

I'm doubtful that "Capitalist nations" exist in the sense of nations founded on an ideology called Capitalism. My impression is that "Capitalism" was originally a pejorative term created by opponents to the established order and came over time to be adopted as a reaction by some of those being criticized to mean what they wanted it to mean. So we have an ongoing struggle over the meaning of the word, and reasoning based on a pretense of shared understanding of the meaning is not productive.

It's not as though someone wrote a Capitalist manifesto that initiated the practice of Capitalism.

You're conflating capitalism with colonialism / imperialism.

Not a single communist thinks "pure" communism has ever been tried, do you think you're being intellectually dishonest and strawmaning "whatever Mao did" as communism instead of using the vast philosophical works of leftists to define it?

While I don't think tariffs are a solution to economic troubles, I have to admit I see a fair amount of irony in your comments about education[1].

> We are never going to be able to compete with the Chinese or other southeast asian countries with human labor costs

Immediately followed by:

> The next part of the solution is education and re-education of the labor force

We educate our labor, they educate their labor; theirs is still cheaper.

A knowledge-based economy isn't a panacea; knowledge, like capital, is really cheap to move around (compared to manufactured goods).

The GGP says "Artificially 'creating' or 'protecting' jobs doesn't help anyone, at least not in the long run". Having worked in a large company, I find that statement quite amusing. The proportion of "actual" jobs to "artifical" jobs is tremendous. I'm not saying that all those people with "artifical" jobs don't do anything, but from a pure economic efficiency standpoint their work is probably unnecessary. So if successful companies can do it, why not at least entertain some amount of protectionism at a country level?

[1] With that said, I think education is important for the long term health of our society. I just don't think education will fix the economic struggles currently facing many residents of the US.

Knowledge is not cheap to move around. (At least not currently) Information is cheap to move around though. This perhaps is a subtle distinction, but an important one. Maybe eventually when we can directly write knowledge into peoples' heads (something akin to the Matrix) then I'd agree knowledge is cheap, but until that day comes knowledge will remain expensive. Chiefly because to be highly knowledgeable a great deal of time is involved in mastering the relevant information.

I actually agree though that Chinese citizens or anyone else can learn the same information, so overtime we can expect these jobs to become cheaper as more and more people learn them. In fact, I think some re-balancing of economic power is inevitable as a knowledge based economy likely favors the country with more brains. (This is why I think the US should actually be encouraging immigration or at least not actively trying to deter it) The one downside China has going for it (which is perhaps a benefit for the US) is the level of totalitarian control that exists with the government. If China was more of a democracy then I think the economic future of the US would be in even more jeoparady. People don't like to be controlled and more information will make people resistant to that control.

I don't think a knowledge-based economy is a panacea, but it's much better than what we currently have going and I think UBI will play a role in providing the country-level protectionism you reference.

One may ask then, if large corporations have so much dead weight, then why do they exist? My surmise is that the dead weight fraction in a large company may make them less competitive, but the ease of sharing knowledge within a company versus between companies compensates on average.

Education for what? Do you imagine that there is sufficient demand for technically skilled workers to absorb millions and millions more people? What happens when those jobs are automated as well?

You can see my reply in another response... IMHO the long long term answer is convergence. Well it's probably either convergence or total eradication by intelligent machines, so I'm going with convergence for now. :-)

It takes 3 technologists to create a robot that can do the job of hundreds.

So if that robot took the job of 100 laborers, then lets say those 100 laborers decided to become technologists... then for every robot made we'd have 3 technologists employed to design robots and 93 technologists unemployed. How is this problem solved? Please don't say universal income.

Knowledge has the property of needing only a few people who can fill demand.

Sure, but as technology develops faster new jobs will emerge; therefore, even though traditional jobs are shrinking newer positions will open up. What we can say for sure is that there will be whole new fields and jobs tomorrow that don't even exist today and those will need workers (human and non-human). I think UBI may be useful to afford people the time to make transitions to these new roles.

Well, things eventually worked out in the Industrial revolution and most people were able to get a decent paying job and enjoy a good standard of living.

However, I don't think it's a law of nature that "things will always work out ok". It's not written in stone anywhere that the AI/automation/whatever revolution will result in people having jobs, just different ones than what the Industrial revolution resulted in.

What if the future turns out to be that those in control of the capital (automated factories, data for running AI algorithms on, data centres, whatever..) manage to get by without the services of a vast middle class? Will it mean the return of a fabulously wealthy 1% and the rest living in squalor, like the royalty and serfs of bygone eras?

> I don't think it's a law of nature that "things will always work out ok"

So long as people like you keep asking the critical questions, we're not lost :)

Lots of resources/jobs could be spent making life better for the majority of people. UBI is an extreme example of this. Universal health care, free higher education, solving homelessness, a human justice system, entertainment, could all use more resources.

The question is if America has the will to make this happen. As it won't be possible with state-sponsored wealth redistribution. I suspect European countries will be a lot better at finding the balance.

Educate and re-educate toward what exactly? Knowledge economy jobs are being upset by technology almost as fast as manufacturing jobs. See financial adviser and paralegal positions as examples. Your solution also naively assumes that people in their 40s and 50s who have only ever had one type of job can all magically re-train into knowledge economy jobs that may or may not be available where they live. The whole "we just need to re-align the labor force" argument has never made sense to me.

Until they make a robot that can change out bedpans at nursing homes and hospitals, nursing is going to be an incredibly in demand field as the Baby Boomers retire, grow old, and require care.

Technology seems to be a field where the more tech is created, the more problems come up. There used to be typists who specialized in punching cards until the IDEs and compilers automated away their jobs. Their used to be entire staffs of people who would run programs one-after-the-other, until modern operating systems automated away their jobs.

Each time a job is automated away in tech, it seems like 10 more pop up.

That's simple. The jobs that are in demand and are needed. Software development, green energy, healthcare, etc. These jobs are not currently being upset by technology, which can easily be seen by the salaries that companies are willing to pay for these skilled workers. If you were correct about the speed of disruption then you should expect lower salaries across the board, but that is not what is being observed. You can cherry pick a few jobs of course, but even your example of paralegals is an exaggeration. (https://money.usnews.com/careers/best-jobs/paralegal)

People are very adaptable and given the option of living in poverty or going back to school, I'm pretty sure I know what most people would pick. Say what you will about coding bootcamps, but I'm willing to bet that someone who completes a 15 week course will have much better job prospects (and receive higher pay) than someone who does not. A lot of people just need a little financial help to make the transition and that is where the government can help.

There's no magic involved here. Just common sense policy and hard work.

It happens over time, but there is a lot of collateral damage in the meantime (the luddites never retrained because of the automated looms, they simply died out).

> The long term solution is automate as much as possible and subsidize/invest in education.

Does that take into the account that automation can more easily eat away at the low end of the (broad) IQ requirements of specific jobs? Otherwise it will only benefit some subset of the population and further increase wealth inequalities.

The world economy was once 100% subsistence and farming. Now it's, what, 1%? At least in industrialized countries.

What happened to those other 99%? OMG they must be living in slums paycheck to paycheck.

Workers moved from agriculture to industrial manual production as farming tools and machinery became more efficient. Then workers moved from industrial manual production to more mentally demanding work like radiologists and web designers as industrial automation became more capable. Now AI is taking over these more mind-based tasks.

The onus is on you to explain which entirely new sectors of the economy are suddenly going to spring into existence to provide jobs for people whose skills can't compete with those of ever more capable machines.

I'm not sure why new sectors need to suddenly "spring into existence" as though we are facing an inflection point.

Automation is something that's been happening for hundreds of years, and any automation that people could do last year was done already.

I don't understand why there is this feeling that there is a backlog and therefore automation is sneaking up on us to put everybody out of work next week.

Perhaps there is too much handwaving about the "technological singularity".

Rather than an "inflection point", I would think of it as a phase transition between the phase where new jobs are being created fast enough to replace those lost due to automation, and the phase where new jobs aren't being created fast enough.

Also, instead of a thinking in terms of a "backlog", I feel like the average human only has a roughly fixed amount of ability, while hardware+software is increasing in capability all the time, such that it might become more cost-effective than any human worker for any economically valuable task eventually.

Yes, humans are very flexible, and the same body+mind that can live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle can also live a modern office worker's lifestyle, but we're never going to be able to outrun a car, or beat a specialised chess AI.

There is no law of economics which says that the economy will always create jobs which humans can do better and cheaper than machines, unfortunately.

It seems to me that you just did literally describe an inflection point. Regardless of what you call it, as I think about it, in my previous post I ought to have used the word discontinuity, because an inflection point isn't a crisis. This article on Foxconn is about a discontinuity which is the sort of thing that makes people worry, but on a global scale, I don't see why we should expect a global dislocation from automation any time soon.

Because one is already happening? Full employment has become "folks who used to be engineers and scientists and office managers, are working the counter at a fast food joint ". And those jobs are going next, apparently.

There's no rule that says jobs will get 'created' at all. It hasn't happened for factory workers the last 10 years.

All three of those professions work symbiotically with computers and automation. It's hard for me to see them as competing.

There is a story on HN right now about how 10 000 people lost their jobs at Foxconn, being replaced by robotics. If the evidence is "evident" shouldn't we proceed to look for solutions?

I don't understand the relevance of your response to my post, and wonder if you meant to reply to a parent. We are in the thread about Foxconn, talking about implications.

My point was that at a macro level, automation seems to be a steady process that's gone on for much longer than any of us have been alive. But right now, it seems fashionable to assume a sudden discontinuous increase in the rate of automation is right around the corner. This only makes sense to me if there is a lot of "low hanging fruit" that people have not been automating until now. Which I think is implausible.

>Artificially 'creating' or 'protecting' jobs doesn't help anyone, at least not in the long run

Artificial jobs have helped people for half a century or more. The whole modern office jobs (and services sector) has been built up on them...

Protectionism is exactly how China ended up with > 1 million Foxconn jobs in the first place.

Did that not help China in the long run? Is China worse off than 30 years ago?

A million pretty shitty jobs by Western standards. China is an advanced developing country with low wages. Foxconn will have to pay higher wages in the US, and thus the pressure for automation will be even higher. The US, an industrial country, adopting China's tactics from a few decades ago, in today's environment, seems quite foolish.

>A million pretty shitty jobs by Western standards.

You'd be surprised -- especially after you factor in relative cost of life.

Building iPhones is way better than most American low wage jobs - driving Ubers, flipping burgers, etc.

If the alternative isn’t social and economic measures to help poeple out of a job, then what you’re saying is just a slightly glossy version of “fuck ‘em.” Telling people to just let “progress” roll over them without alternatives is nasty, useless, and counterproductive.

>I get that people don't like change, but trying to stand still in a moving world only hurts the people standing still.

Eventually the world will move so fast that all of us might as well be standing still.

The factory worker that this initiative affects is a just the first victim. He is a representation of the impending wave that is to consume all of us.

As the technology we create cannibalizes our jobs where does the world go from here? Many theorists talk about crazy things like universal basic income with machines as our servants. However, we all know that these theories rarely ever end up fitting the ideal fantasmical utopias we imagine. The future is unknown.

I feel remorse that people are losing their jobs and I sympathise with individuals taking measures to protect these people with 'job protection' or 'artificial job creation.' When technology inevitably cannibalizes your career, technology will be moving at such a horrifying velocity that no human, programmer, engineer, scientist technologist let alone a factory worker will be able to keep up. During this time not only would you want job protection, you'd be on your knees begging for it.

People have been making these predictions, that machines are going to take away all of our jobs, for 'literally' hundreds of years.

So, have those doomsday scenarios come true? Or, instead, is the world a much much better place because nobody is spending 80 hours a week working on a farm to feed themselves?

Dude. Those factory workers just lost their jobs. Machines literally took their jobs. It's not a prediction, the article literally said it happened.

>So, have those doomsday scenarios come true? Or, instead, is the world a much much better place because nobody is spending 80 hours a week working on a farm to feed themselves?

I'd say that technology has benefited society but has also widened the wealth inequality gap. Technology has benefited us but it is now harder to be employed in jobs that distribute wealth more evenly. My guess in what is to come with technology is that there will be a few mega rich elite people who own that technological real estate while almost everyone else works multiple menial jobs to barely get by.

These arguments don't seem to fit together.

On one hand, technological improvement has deprecated thousands of farm workers over hundreds of years, but you're making the argument that it's only happening now because some factory workers lost their jobs. People have been losing their jobs for a long time. Blacksmiths are very rare now a days, but were very common only a short while ago.

The second argument you make is that people will have to work multiple menial jobs to barely get by, yet you also state that menial jobs like factory work are going to be replaced by machines. If the jobs are replaced, nobody is going to be doing multiple menial jobs as those jobs won't exist.

There's only two options in such a doomsday scenario where all work is done by machines. Either humans will be given some kind of basic income, or the rich will get an army of machines and wipe out all the people they don't want. Or a combination of the two, such as humans given a basic income until the rich get tired of it and then build an army of machines to wipe everyone out.

By menial I mean jobs that can be taken over by machines but aren't. The sort of low paying job that's given out but not really needed. For example in china I once entered an empty restaurant and was waited on by by being encircled by 20 servers when in reality I only needed one. Sign spinners are a good example of this.

>There's only two options in such a doomsday scenario where all work is done by machines. Either humans will be given some kind of basic income, or the rich will get an army of machines and wipe out all the people they don't want. Or a combination of the two, such as humans given a basic income until the rich get tired of it and then build an army of machines to wipe everyone out.

I have to disagree with this. This is a speculative prediction at best, there is no way to narrow down the future into two possibilities given the multitude of possibilities that may occur.

Maybe this time it is different. Maybe the massive capabilities of modern robotics and AI are more transformative than the assembly line and sewing machines. Maybe our society isn't ready to handle mass unemployment from entire categories of jobs being eliminated.

Currently, I see a few ways this could go. One is the bright shiny utopia of robot servants and abundance for all. I don't think it's likely.

The other is a world that clings to jobs as long as it can. A society that demands its citizens' labor to pay for their own basic needs, even as more and more people are unable to cobble together enough part time work and benefits to support themselves. The desolate turn to drugs or suicide, perhaps rioting eventually. People demand industries be brought back, long past the point they're a viable career. Under debt and unemployment, the economy collapses.

I see a lot more political support for the latter.

There's also the possibility that new technology creates new jobs. That seems like wishful thinking to me. Do you think everyone will be AI programmers and robot engineers? I don't see that happening today...but I do see those old jobs being eliminated, right in that article.

Maybe this time IS different.

But if you want to assert that this time is different, there needs to exist evidence.

Such evidence should not be speculation. Such evidence should be things like "These quality of life metrics are going down, for these groups of people right NOW".

If this time is actually different, it should be measurable and provable, through quality of life or economic metrics.

But I don't think thats true. I think that society IS ready to handle the supposed "mass unemployment from entire categories of jobs being eliminated", as proven by the fact that it IS doing so, right now, because quality of life metrics aren't decreasing.

For example, the current us unemployment rate is around 4.1% (source: http://lmgtfy.com/?q=current+us+unemployment+rate)

I think a 4.1% unemployment rate pretty much proves that society is NOT devolving into a mass unemployment where robots take everyone's jobs.

Valid criticism. I posted emotionally. I will further educate myself on actual statistics and put together better edited and sourced posts in the future rather than knee jerk rebuttals. I appreciate you even using the repetition in calling me out, because that's a cheap rhetorical crutch I lean too heavily on.

At this time, I'm forced to admit you're right. The numbers I'm aware don't seem to currently show my bleak predictions of mass unemployment, so it's just a less rational gut-feeling type of belief that is unjustified of the weight I've assigned it. However, I still wanted to respond to this post (albeit a day late) because it was an effective and worthwhile callout. (LMGTFY is always a tad too harsh IMO, but your tone is 100% justified in context of my post's tone, and knocked some sense into me)

In my defense, I have avoided digging further into statistics because, well, if it's "different", can I even trust the numbers? But dammit, I try to be rational and justified. If I think unemployment numbers might be missing wider cases, I need to verify that. If I'm going to hold a belief that inspires strong emotion, there needs to be strong evidence. I can't just blithely imply that "oh no it may already be happening!!1"; I need to bring more to the table to discuss than emotion and rhetoric. Humbly, thanks.

We as technologists are the last to fall and the first to blame others for not being able to keep up.

It's not about blame, it's about trying to stop a tsunami with an umbrella.

Nobody is blaming anyone. It just is what it is.

Have you been paying attention to politics lately? Blame is alive and well, and I for one don’t want to put up against a wall by rioters because of the worst of us. The blame is real, whether it’s fair and accurately placed being another question.

Perhaps, but the grandparent comment was not engaging in any sort of blame. So, i'm not sure what relevance politics broadly has to my comment.

Sounded like blame to me. The person was attributing it to people who "don't like change" while the reality is that those people can't change even if they wanted to.

He said "I get that people don't like change". That isn't apportioning blame. It's just recognizing a fact.

> At one of our dinners, Milton recalled traveling to an Asian country in the 1960s and visiting a worksite where a new canal was being built. He was shocked to see that, instead of modern tractors and earth movers, the workers had shovels. He asked why there were so few machines. The government bureaucrat explained: “You don’t understand. This is a jobs program.” To which Milton replied: “Oh, I thought you were trying to build a canal. If it’s jobs you want, then you should give these workers spoons, not shovels.”

>people need jobs

If tax payers are going to pay for those jobs why not just cut out the middle man?

The answer to that is a belief with one name and two sides. "Protestant Work Ethic".

As a belief among those who are going to do the jobs the PWE is a psychological trick that gives humans a sense of self-worth through their labour. I say trick because intellectually our existence is clearly pointless.

For the tax payer PWE is a belief that this labour improves those doing it and so making them work for the money is an inherent good.

It is perhaps especially ironic that the US population believes so strongly in the PWE while at the same time it is unusually gullible about pseudo-Christian theologies that emphasise words over deeds, the literal antithesis of the PWE.

There's actually a lot of things that aren't being solved by the free market where tax funded efforts could be of substantial benefit to society (more than just the added jobs), but that's another topic altogether.

Oh I understand! I wish some law makers understood though! Crony hypocritical Capitalism picking winners and losers.

The foxconn package comes out to paying $200,000 per "created job". The economics of the deal requires other supporting firms/companies popping up to support supply chains. But how will they survive without incentives or using robotics/automation instead of hiring labor?

Advances in automation are the reason why Foxconn built in the US. No one expected them to employee the same number of employees as their Asian plants as US labor is so much more expensive. Hopefully the state built this into their analysis when offering tax incentives.

The government can ban imports and robotics.

The Wisconsinites who are capable of understanding this are probably also smart enough not to have voted for the jackass who made this happen in the first place.

Please don't take HN threads into political flamewar.


I've been amazed that Foxconn needed so many people to assemble iPhones. It's a huge run of identical items, the best case for automated manufacturing. Motorola was making flip-phones with very few people over a decade ago.

If by "very few people" you mean thousands of people, then sure.

Yea, Motorola was not making like 100 million phones in a quarter that had the complexity iphones do.. the actual crazy thing that I can vouch for is that apple actually has a ludicrous amount of people at many factories that feed into Foxconn that are actually dedicated factories for apple.. each of the sub components such as display, cover lens, metal frame, speakers, batteries, PCB, sensors, and all of the ICs.. it’s truly insane the qty of people and machines in that supply chain.. would not be surprised if it is 10 million people.. plus lots of machines and factories...

The Motorola RAZR sold about 130 million units. That was over several years, but Motorola was up there in volume at one time.

Well that is 5 times less then iPhone in Server Years time frame. Complexity is likely multiple times lower, not to mention it was the same RAZR, every iPhone iteration has slightly different manufacturing.

Having said that, I do agree and wonder why hasn't iPhone manufacturing been more automated. One thing i think was on Foxconn and Apple's mind; how Chinese Government think if Foxconn get rid of million of jobs.

Quite a bit of the iPhone production is automated from what I understand. Basically many of the sub components before they get to Foxconn for final assembly have huge chunks automated. Apple uses a lot of automation and people. Their idea is to use the combination of both to hit the highest quality mark they can get. Some companies will basically accept some fall off in quality because they can automate more things and save time and or money, but apple tries to get the best of all worlds. It’s not an accident that when you get your phone it has almost assuredly no defects electrically, mechanically and cosmetically. Of course they aren’t perfect but they do try hard to be close to it.

Yes definitely.. was truly amazing the number of those phones they built and sold.. pretty amazing phone for the time..

To be fair they had to make so many because of the incredibly poor quality control and replacement units. I liked my razr a lot.. When I got one that actually worked

as long as people are cheaper than robots, it's not a question of "needing" people.

I am amazed when I see video footage of a keyboard being put together by hand, each keyboard being a 102 piece jigsaw puzzle done with cottage industry workflow and technology levels.

I had assumed that all of this had been automated and that robots would be doing it all.

It really is a question of people being cheaper than robots.

Personally I would prefer people to be able to have the robots do the work and more people share that wealth in some socialist republic where there are huge sport centers, universities and creche facilities. The thing is that having factories full of people can be considered 'wage slavery', robots are okay with being slaves and they don't need wages.

it's not that the robots are okay with being slaves, it's that as soon as you automate a job is stops being a crappy wage-slave job and starts being a "good manufacturing job" and politicians start looking for ways to give them back to humans.

> robots are okay with being slaves and they don't need wages.

Quite the opposite. Humans are willing to work without a wage, proven time and time again with unpaid internships and the like. If you cut off payment to a robot (currencies differ for different robots, but electricity is a common preference), they always go on strike immediately. Cut off their company-provided shelter for any meaningful length of time and they will probably never work for you again. Humans are far more forgiving.

How long will that be true? And if it stays true, will it be because people are being payed less and less?

I'm curious what would have happened if China hadn't industrialized prior to robotics maturing and fully automating manufacturing. Can you leap from subsistence farming to software development without much infrastructure in between?

China was actually never that unindustrialized in recent history. They broke through subsistence farming at least 2000 years ago, so the current miracle is really more of just returning to a former prosperity than a huge leap in society development.

China was extraordinarily unindustrialized until recently. Their GDP per capita was $317 in 1990.

~25 years ago they had 3/4 of their population living on $5 or less per day. ~15 years ago they still had half a billion people living on $3 per day or less. Today they still have a quarter of a billion people living on $3 per day or less, one of the poorest large population segments on the planet.

China's total manufacturing sector output was a mere $100 to $150 billion in 1990, about 1/10th that of the US. In 1990 China had only 3% of global manufacturing output value, today it's about 25%.

China still has 250 to 300 million people living off of or doing subsistence farming. They have the most backwards and inefficient farming systems of any economic power. South Korea's farming is about 40 times more productive. 20 years ago, it was even worse. Their subsistence farming was so bad in the late 1980s, they had half a billion 'farmers' producing enough food to feed only a few hundred million people at low calorie levels; the US accomplishes the same thing with three million farmers. China had a ratio of farmer to provided ratio of sub 1 to 1, the US is typically around 1 farmer/farm worker to 100 provided for.


If you look at history before the industrial revolution in the west, China was on par with most western countries, and for many periods the richest country on earth. That is way beyond the subsistence farming level, which has a very specific meaning! Even in their darkest time, china did not fall back into subsistence farming, that is just totally ridiculous.

Yes, China has a lot of farmers. But no, it isn’t like a poor African country that really is dominated by subsistence farming.

Yes that's what India did.

I'm betting yield per robot for lower error rate rises, but when bad programming hits, yield per robot hits the floor and we get swamped with product failure down the track.

Highly repeatable acts on a circuit board or assembly become deeply ingrained into the product. Having a loose bond on two phones because a worker sneezed, vs having 140,000 trash in a year because a 1G placement force was 0.1G out of whack...

Include randomness. Tune parameters based on returns, factory test results, more. Is that feasible, maybe done already?

You see the same thing with humans on the manufacturing line with bugs in the process they're following.

Didn't they say they would do this five years ago?

In 2011. http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/08/01/us-foxconn-robots-...

Some argue [weasel words] it's a form of internal propaganda to keep the workers in line.

funny that robots are not freeing people much, there's a need to teach people to build robots for their own needs (when it's really helpful)


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