Invisible Robota: the robots who ate our jobs

Joe Posner sez, "A month ago Marketplace told me they're doing a weeklong special called "Robots Ate My Job" this week and asked if I could make videos to go with it. Where to start? "Even though we don't see them with anthropomorphic features and two arms and legs walking down the streets, there are robots all around you," say Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAffee, authors of "Race Against the Machine." Here is one of the two short films we made for them, about the hard work, now robotic, that invisibly surrounds us. It's called "Robota" rather than "Robots" for a particular reason ... (hint) -- Enjoy!"

Here's the other video.

Joe and Ian McAlpin had a harrowing time shooting the footage of the toll-booths here, with authorities first demanding a $15,000 fee and then saying they wouldn't permit filming at all ("security," natch, as if protracted toll-booth waits don't give attackers ample opportunity to study the high-stakes target that is a tollbooth; and as if a bad guy would have a hard time sneaking a video camera onto a car). He eventually just shot it on the d/l.

Invisible Robota


  1. man, where are those machines on the TTC?  On my station I still have to buy tickets from a surly ticket booth employee that’s missing half the time.

  2. For years my family has watched shows like HOW IT’S MADE and counted the number of times in each episode the script says “…then, a robot takes the…”

    Usually, the number is over 10.

    1. I actually have the opposite impression whenever I watch those kinds of shows (and similarly when I finished school and got my first job in the ‘real world’): I was surprised how much human involvement there is in making things. There’s still people putting things in boxes, or installing batteries, or doing welding, or screwing on the back plates of machines, or carrying things around. Somehow I grew up with the impression that robots can do everything! But as I later learned,  robots are actually pretty expensive, and expensive to change, so if your rates are low or your process changes frequently, the robot may not be worth it.

      1.  This will change going forward tho, observe the NASA/GM robonaut, and envision it being put to work by simply having someone go thru the moves once while wearing some kind of sensor rig for the joints.

        and here are two others with much the same concept in mind:

  3. There’s a bunch of sci-fi out there where we all live in a futuristic utopia where nobody works because robots do everything.

    Which sounds great and everything, except who is paying us to not work?  And how do you get to a utopia like that without everyone starving as robots slowly replace human workers?

    1. Someone has to wrap that burger and hand it to me with a smile when I’m not wrapping burgers and handing it with a smile to someone.

      Although, if I could make a hamburger wrapping machine..

    2. Well, in at least some of these utopias, they’ve also abandoned the concept of money and moved to a more socialistic/mutualistic society. I am skeptical of that. No society on earth has yet stamped out profit-seeking trade between humans, even if some try to keep it out of sight.

      I think the pattern though is technology enables new things to spend time on as it displaces old ones. When we as individuals were limited to farming all hours of the day to avoid starving, we didn’t have much need for professional engineers, computer programmers, performance artists, etc.  The fact that we don’t need nearly as many farmers to support or population as we used to enables all manner of other professionals and human accomplishments.

      I’m sure the same is true of industrial automation.

      It’s just that it happens so quickly that makes it uncomfortable.

      [Edit… actually watching the videos, the argument is that my view doesn’t work forever. So I may be wrong. ]

      1. What needs to change tho, is the idea that anyone not spending 5 days a week (or more) working is somehow a “sinner”. The ones that should be really scared out of their brain for such a “utopia” would be the entertainment industry. This because their basic claim to payment is the basic needs of the people involved.

        Hell, digging into human history the original trade was one of friendly “i can have something you made now, you can have something i made later” rather than some haggling over trading chickens for axeheads. This at least within the local community cluster. This breaks down with larger groupings, like what we find in cities, because of our inability to keep track of more than about 100 people long term.

        1. “The ones that should be really scared out of their brain for such a “utopia” would be the entertainment industry. This because their basic claim to payment is the basic needs of the people involved.”

          Of course, with people working less of the time their potential customer base goes up.

          1.  Yes, but with basic needs covered without having to work for the money to buy those needs (see my earlier comment about people sitting around during a work day being “sinners”). End result is that people get to be creative for creatives sake, and would be more willing to share the results with others without worrying about compensation.

    3. Every human born gets automatically granted some significant (e.g. 3x-5x median annual income) amount of money with which to buy/invest in some robots.

      As one possible solution…

  4. Maybe my semantics understanding is obsolete, but I always differentiated the idea of robots and machines, robots are machines, but not all machines are robots. Most of the examples shown in the video I would classify as machines, not robots, highly developed machines, but not robots. It doesn’t have to be athromorphized to be a robot, but it has to I don’t know… have more of a physical motion element. Perhaps I am just not keeping up with the times?  Get off my lawn?

    1. It is slippery and I’m not sure a well-defined set of definitions would serve a useful purpose at this stage unless you’re selling the systems. Personally I classify what they’re discussing as automated processes and then use machine or robot as it feels right.

      Let’s look at mail sorting. The first mail sorters were human. At hubs where many pieces required sorting, machines with OCR were developed to scan addresses and put the piece onto the correct conveyor belt/box. Maybe some people lost jobs because of it, I don’t have any numbers and it would be difficult to say considering other technological changes to the mail industry. As there were physical parts I think it fits with one’s idea of a robot if avoiding the anthropomorphic angle. 

      Another mail sorter is an email server (that other change I was talking about). In this instance it doesn’t have any moving parts specifically for handling pieces of mail. It’s definitely an automated process but is it a robot? Conversely, one could look at the entire machine and decide it’s a robot if physicality is the key determiner. No jobs were taken directly but I don’t see a lot of secretaries any more.

      And the vicodin just hit so I don’t really have a final sentence to close with.

      1. It IS hard to define. As I use it (i.e., how I learned the word from talking and reading, not from a dictionary) physicality matters — a robot has to have moving parts.  Also, it requires some sort of processor that at least in theory could be reprogrammed to change the timing or even the sequence of the robots action. Last, it has to be autonomous, which is why my car is not a robot despite having computer-controlled engine valve timing, fuel injection, brakes, and transmission. The problem is this still doesn’t perfectly…

    2. I had the same reaction to the videos.  As far as I can remember, Rossum didn’t have any manual typewriters working for him.

  5. Oh Linotype, how I love thee…. the smell of boiling lead based type-metal, the deafening rattle of brass and steel, the ever present threat of a hot-metal backfire all up your face..?
    Good time, good times….

  6. Automation would be a better word than robot for most of what was shown.

    Automation has been an on going process since the late 18th century so its not actually a new thing. 

  7. Most of the roboticized jobs in the video were not done by the kind of people who listen to Marketplace. they were done by poorly educated ethnics, who spent all day doing insanely boring drudgery like collecting subway tokens or filling up your gas tank. Are you sure you want those jobs back, and would any of you take them if they returned?

  8. Another thing to keep in mind about “losing” jobs, is that many of these “jobs” wouldn’t exist without a machine doing them.  The net result is that we get more things done with the same number of people we have.

    I’m interested in CNC machining, for example.  It’s possible, for about $20,000, to set up a shop, with “robots” to make little parts.  Such work would *technically* have been done by a human a hundred years ago–but then, a hundred years ago, I would have been *much* less likely to be able to obtain the capital to put together a factory to have humans do the machining.

    So it is with other things:  it is highly unlikely that someone would have put an entire restaurant in the basement of my graduate school building, for example, but it’s a lot less work to put a few vending machines there; likewise, while a small business might not afford having full-time security check everyone’s identities, they may be able to spring for a card-reading device, and so forth.

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