Will robots eat our jobs? Automation and the slow jobs recovery

Is automation contributing to our continuing slow jobs’ recovery, as its use increases in so many industries (manufacturing, retail, clerical, financial services, medicine)?  Seems the answer is yes and no, and still in transition, just as the use of robots is in transition.  Some robots replace our skills, some robots become our tools.

An excellent long article in the MIT Technology Review, explores theses issues, which I highly recommend.


Some excerpts:

“Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time, we have a falling median income and we have fewer jobs. People are falling behind because technology is advancing so fast and our skills and organizations aren’t keeping up.”  [Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, co-author of Race Against the Machine (2011)].

“A warehouse equipped with Kiva robots can handle up to four times as many orders as a similar unautomated warehouse, where workers might spend as much as 70 percent of their time walking about to retrieve goods.”

“Despite the labor-saving potential of the robots, Mick Mountz, Kiva’s founder and CEO, says he doubts the machines have put many people out of work or will do so in the future.”

“By making distribution operations cheaper and more efficient, the robotic technology has helped many of these retailers [e-commerce retailers, the majority of Kiva’s customers]  survive and even expand.”

“One of the friendlier, more flexible robots meant to work with humans is Rethink’s Baxter. The creation of Rodney Brooks, the company’s founder, Baxter needs minimal training to perform simple tasks like picking up objects and moving them to a box. It’s meant for use in relatively small manufacturing facilities where conventional industrial robots would cost too much and pose too much danger to workers. The idea, says Brooks, is to have the robots take care of dull, repetitive jobs that no one wants to do.”

“Asked about the claim that such advanced industrial robots could eliminate jobs, Brooks answers simply that he doesn’t see it that way. Robots, he says, can be to factory workers as electric drills are to construction workers: “It makes them more productive and efficient, but it doesn’t take jobs.”


Again, we are watching the slow unfolding of technology that disrupts our earlier assumptions about our work.  New, necessary skills will need to be adopted by workers.   As Alvin Toffler once wrote, “The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who does not know how to learn.”


3D Printing of weapons and wonders and the disruption of both: two arms races

New technology has always been pushing the edges of both the malign and the benign.  And so again with 3D printing.

One of the first things produced by 3D printing?  A gun.  And it can shoot.

A more recent production from the new printer technology?  “Magic arms” — a brace for a 2-year old girl who would otherwise never be able to raise or use her own arms.

These two extremes, of course, simply reflect the range of human behavior and our reaction to opportunity.

The breakthrough achievement of the first “replicator” seen outside of sci-fi movies will move us to new thinking (again and again) on moral, ethical, legal and economic issues.

  • How will the inexpensive production of weapons or medical wonders change the means of production, the leverage of costs, and the laws on distribution?  Will regulations try to restrict any of these?  Legislative pronouncements have already begun about the gun.
  • How will access to either of the “arms” disrupt the inequalities of medical care, and political revolution, at home and around the world?  Will we level the playing field for access to medical inventions for other than those who can afford them?  Will foundations spring up to support the cost of the printers and printing materials to support the poor, or the revolutionaries?  Will weapons be manufactured in protected places around the world to support civil unrest and uprisings?
  • What does it mean that 3D printers can already replicate their own parts and pieces (with our help to feed in the blueprint and push the button, of course), immediately disrupting the means and distribution of the 3D printers themselves?

A new look at class distinctions and opportunities will emerge in light of just these two inventions, the gun and the other kind of arms.

And soon we will evolve to producing commodities and that will trigger price disruption, and then we may see a tightening (or loosening) of access to distribution of our most common things.

3D printers are just emerging and proving their concept in the marketplace. Blueprints for production are distributed over the Internet, as is all data.   In less than 15 years (as with other new technologies), the technology itself will become refined for practical and efficient common use, its price of production and materials will become commoditized, and everybody’s brother’s cousin will know how to use it.

We should start thinking about the larger issues now.

The upside & downside of crowdfunding for gaining your first professional investments

Turns out that successful equity crowd-funding your startup may be a detriment to your gaining funding from professional investors afterward.  And, as of now (May 2013), this cannot actually be done in the U.S.

I’ve been talking with attorneys and investors about the JOBS Act (“Jumpstart our Business Startups Act), which was signed into law in April 2012, a law which has not proceeded quickly since that time.  Now, more than a year later, we have little clarity on the restrictions and structure of how we can offer early stage equity for our new ventures through public solicitation, primarily the Internet. In fact, it is not at this time lawful to do so.

We can accept cash contributions in exchange for rewards (like T-shirts or access to back-stage events) and this is working well in the arts and entertainment sectors.  But we cannot yet accept cash for an equity stake in any venture.

And it seems this may make some trouble if you need more than the crowd-funding capital to build, launch and grow your venture.  Currently the proposed cap on crowd-funded investment is $1M.  Here’s how professional investors may see it:

  • Your cap table is too complex.
  • There are already too many investors in the mix to ensure an ROI,
  • You may not be communicating with those many investors correctly, which may imply some later liability for the venture.
  • The ROI for those early stage crowd-funding investors may be questionable, implying later trouble from them.
  • The hassle of handling these many early stage investors when setting valuations and creating an ROI scenario may be too much work for the professional investors, in light of the risk of a follow-on investment.

Professional investors (angels and venture capitalists) are generally looking to say “no” to most early stage opportunities, and this may count on the negative side of their evaluation of your venture.

That said, crowd-funding for ventures needing serious equity investment in an upcoming round can use rewards-based crowd-funding to establish important benchmarks with those potential professional investors.  Here’s how:

  • Establish your product’s market viability by driving early sales through promotions and discounts offered through your crowd-funding site.
  • Show you have tested your product in various market sectors and at various price points, and share the results.
  • Prove which of your product’s target market sectors are responsive at what price point through tested online channels, and build your growth strategy on real data.
  • Validate your market traction, and projected market penetration, from early market response and sales.
  • Offer metrics to support your claims of rapid scaling.

So, while we are all waiting for the JOBS Act to become law, we can leverage crowd-funding in ways that direct our launch and growth strategies, and which investors will appreciate.

Good luck.

The history of US debt from 1790 to 2011 by Richie King & Matt Phillips

A long look back, especially over history or economics (or both) is always useful in placing our hopes and dreads into a stronger context.  I recommend Matt Phillip’s post in the link below, with thanks to Richie King for the chart (and to Kevin Kelley for sending it to me).

debt-and-gdp-main6 (1)


“This chart, by Quartz reporter Ritchie King in a post by Matt Phillips, is my favorite because it contextualizes the US economy to show that we’re not quite in the financial apocalypse that seems to be upon us. The debt load during World War II was far worse—and it was followed by one of America’s periods of greatest prosperity.” —Lauren Brown

For all of Atlantic Media’s/ Quartz’s 2012 favorite charts:  http://qz.com/36149/our-favorite-charts-of-2012/

PC & chip sales decline in U.S. for first time in 10 years as mobile spreads

from Marketplace….

“We have one desktop and everything else is pretty small and mobile,” John said. <who owns a family business>.

He adds that his family is online a lot, but his wife surfs the web on an iPad. And his kids?

“The kids, they don’t have their own computers but they’ve inherited our old iPhones and they work fine in terms of getting onto the Internet,” he said.

The shift to mobile computing on tablets and smartphones is hitting the sales of computers and chips in the U.S., with the first significant decline in both since 2002. The worldwide economic conditions do not help.  HP, Acer, Dell, Intel and AMD have suffered.  These companies must focus now on developing markets in international territories, where there is market share to gain.

For the full report ~