Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Division of Labor Lost


“. . . the best we can do is to divide all processes into those things which can be done better by machines and those which can be done better by humans and then invent methods to pursue the two.” —John von Neumann

Instead of asking how to divide labor, businesses are misusing computers by trying to computerize everything. They seem to believe that everything that can be computerized, should be.

They assume, regardless of the initial cost, in the long run it will be cheaper for a machine to do it than a human (no training, benefits, pensions, etc.). Not to mention a 24 hour workday.

Look at cars. Much of the production and assembly is now done by programmable robots. Computers assist in every facet from design to engineering, accounting, and sales. But computers don’t actually design, engineer, account, or sell. Humans do.

Cars are very high-tech devices, requiring very precise manufacturing. Contrast that to logging: felling trees, trimming them, and transporting the resulting logs to the sawmill. This work required many people, called lumberjacks. Not any more.

Check out the logging robot on YouTube. It does the work of dozen loggers. And it does more: works on steep terrains and it doesn’t need access roads. The robot logger is very impressive.

The industry could follow von Neumann’s advice, using this device only where it’s far superior to men. I don’t see that happening. What I see are laid-off loggers in a bar, ironically singing Monty Python’s “I’m a lumberjack, and I’m OK.”

One robot on an assembly line replaces many human workers. Humans make and run those robots, but the number is only a small fraction of the number of workers replaced by the robots.

This is more efficient for the company, but how will the displaced workers make enough to buy those robot-built cars? Robots make manufacturing more efficient, in part by eliminating jobs—but that also eliminates consumers.

If there aren’t enough consumers able to afford the products made by the robots, won’t the robots be out of work, too? How about companies that bought the robots? How will they survive?

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One thought on “Division of Labor Lost

  1. Of course the world of the future could become like the pre Civil War South. However, instead of negro slaves, people would own robots. The more robots, the richer you are. In South Carolina in 1860, the average South Carolinian had a net worth higher than the average American. But half the people in the state were black slaves and the other half were white, some of whom (but not all) owned slaves.

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