Culture

The Rise of the Robot Employee

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President Obama’s new initiative is a higher minimum wage, and if he is successful the result will not be higher-paid employees heading off to work every day. Instead their jobs will be filled by an entirely new sort of worker: Robots.

Robots, unlike humans, don’t require pay or sick time or vacations. If they break they’re thrown out and recycled. Robots are expensive, but the threat of a higher minimum wage is now making a robotic worker more cost-effective than hiring a real person.

Across Japan the noodle-making chefs are now made of metal, and when you order a Big Mac at a MacDonald’s in Europe you do it by touch screen. A company called Momentum Machines in southern California has developed a robot that cranks out 400 perfectly-prepared burgers every hour. (Note: Robots do not sneeze. Ever. Think about that for a bit.)

Where is this going? Are we heading for a future where slinky femme fatale robots plot the destruction of mankind while wearing the perfect red dress?

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That makes for great fiction (and now I want to watch the entire Battlestar Galactica series all over again) but in reality we’ve been surrounding ourselves with robots for years now. Just look around you.

Here’s the way we used to do dishes, and the robot that washes my dishes now. In a few years dishwashers might trundle around the kitchen at night and load themselves. Yes, please.

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Another favorite of mine is the vacuum cleaner. We used to beat rugs to get them clean. Now that I have a Dyson, you can take it from me when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers. The Roomba is more of a novelty than a serious cleaner but it won’t be long before it grows up into Rosie the Robot from the Jetsons.

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How about the good old days when you “put in” for a call to the relatives across the country, and waited until the connection was made before you spent a fortune trying to have a brief conversation. The robots that run our data centers give you instant access to your loved ones at the touch of your smartphone.

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And what about automobile manufacturing? The automation of assembly lines in automobile factories was seen as a terrible blow against the American worker by the unions who watched these well-paying jobs disappear. As for me, I worked as a programmer in a General Motors auto factory in the ’90s. I recall a metal fabrication robot that required spare arms to be kept in storage. Every once in a while the metal would enter the stamping machine incorrectly and lop off an arm. Humans used to run the machine, and when a human arm gets lopped off you don’t just bolt another one back on. I prefer the robot, thank you.

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Robots are built to perform repetitive, sometimes dangerous tasks.  They make our lives better and they never go on strike. President Obama’s push for a higher minimum wage is being cheered by the same people his policy will put out of work. They should stop applauding immediately. Then they should start looking for new jobs.  Perhaps in robot repair.