How Will Apple Cope with Decreasing Demand as Robots Put People Out of Work?

| Particle Debris

Apple's business model is based on the idea that ever more people will be interested in ever more new products in the future. But as the middle class disappears and robots slowly displace workers, who will be left to fuel Apple's growth?

An astounding video caught my attention this week. It's a promo video of the "Atlas" robot. TMO published a Cool Stuff Found article. For quick reference, here's the YouTube video.

All of a sudden, all my science fiction reading kicked into play, and I started thinking about how robots like Atlas (and their undoubtably superior successors) will start to put certain kinds of professions out of work.

Here's a short list of organizations that will be standing in line to acquire the future, commercial versions of this Cylon-like robot. I didn't try to be exhaustive.

  • The U.S. Army
  • Police Departments (Bomb disposal teams, SWAT)
  • Fire Departments
  • Amazon (Boxing up packages)
  • Road & Bridge Construction Companies
  • Mining Companies
  • Hotels (Maid service)
  • Automobile companies (Assembly lines)

Here's a (short) list of professions that, in my opinion, won't be supplanted very soon by this kind of robot because they depend on the human-to-human element or skills not yet mature in early descendants of Atlas.

  • Doctors and nurses
  • Day care/child care professionals
  • Massage therapists
  • Karate, Judo (etc) instructors
  • Software and materials (etc) engineers
  • Actors and actresses
  • Restaurant servers
  • Writers and directors
  • Politicians, scientists, attorneys, psychologists

Image credit: Boston Dynamics

In other words, this Google robot is "the end of manual labor." This demonstration should be a wakeup call to all young people thinking about their future. If you thought your career would be driving a truck, those trucks are going to be autonomous soon. If you thought you could work in construction, those manual labor jobs will be gone. If you wanted to be a fireman, those dangerous jobs will be handed over to the future generations of Atlas.

It's clear that the jobs of the future will require the exercise of those mental skills that are the hardest to duplicate by a machine. That will require a very high level of education in professions like those I listed above.

What we typically think of now as the human workforce will start to shrink. That will be bad news for some companies that depend on a growing base of well-paid customers to purchase consumer electronics. Will Apple be one of them? It's too soon to tell. Apple is a nimble company. But it's something to ponder.

Next: The Tech News Debris for the Week of February 22nd.

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Comments

William R. Dickson

I think you’ll find you’re mistaken about some of the professions you listed as not being replaced. Attorneys and programmers are already being replaced by software (Adobe is making use of software to clean up old code in a matter of hours that used to take a team of programmers months.)

Article on legal software: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/05/science/05legal.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Automation is going to replace tens of millions of jobs in the next decade or so, and the process will only accelerate from there. We’re going to have to figure out how to structure a society and distribute goods and services without assuming full, or even majority, employment.

Mike Crader

Not to worry. Apple has the ability to provide consumer level devices that reflect current technology. Just as they are rumored to be working on an autonomous electric car, they will no doubt develop domestic robot servants. Educators beware as those robots become our children’s teachers.

The larger social issue of distribution of wealth is a world-wide political one that will eventually find a solution. The alternative is not acceptable.

iJack

And yet, I just read tonight, that Mercedes-Benz is scraping it’s assembly line robots in favor of human beings.

Jamie

Hm . . . I’m not convinced. Robots and software are still very much incapable of the finesse and nuance required for most human activities. I think it’ll be awhile before this scenario is a reality. Every decade or so there is a great zeal for these miraculous futuristic prognostications, they seldom play out that way in life. A lack of consciousness about that discrepancy is actually the thing that would get us into trouble. Particulatly in America, profit motives are what darken people’s glasses. Kind of sad to me - science and technology were once the cornerstones of legitimate human advancement, that is seldom, if ever the case currently.

Jamie

Forgive the double dip, but here’s a case in point. No data terminal, humanoid or otherwise wink , will be capable of something like this analysis any time soon, if ever:

http://www.newyorker.com/news/amy-davidson/a-dangerous-all-writ-precedent-in-the-apple-case

Holding a fire hose? Probably. Doing triage? Not going to happen.

ibuck

Automation is going to replace tens of millions of jobs in the next decade or so, and the process will only accelerate from there. We’re going to have to figure out how to structure a society and distribute goods and services without assuming full, or even majority, employment.

IF this becomes true, what will be the response of those humans left behind, unemployed, unfed, unhoused, and unsupported? How long will it take for such folks to sabotage that which excludes them? Like taking down communication and power lines, bridges and freeway overpasses? Will robotic police be authorized to injure or kill these folks, or anyone, frankly, that impedes their programming? Will the AI in these robots conclude that (all?) humans are causing the problems and must be eliminated?

 

Jamie

That’s the trick - it’s very unlikely that AI will ever have that level of consciousness (different from ‘intelligence’), as consciounsness exists outside of the boundaries of mathematics, the absolutes of which which computer code is eternally bound to.

Also, great point: I can tell you what a catastrophe it is when my internet connection goes down even with the relatively limited extent to which we rely on such things today. It doesn’t bode well for large scale automation or even the IOT. There are a great many pieces to this puzzle and kinks to work out, some which will likely never fully materialize. I wish as a species we could put even half of this energy and funding into solving problems that already actually exist! wink

ibuck

How long will it take for such folks to sabotage that which excludes them?

Is this what happens in mass shootings? Are the shooters trying to sabotage the systems—in such cases, people—that they perceive exclude or harm them?

Advocates of the homeless, handicapped, aged and others swept aside, are working on treating such people with dignity, respect and inclusion, just as Turri, Bell and Cerf have done. Will society allocate enough resources, both mundane and high-tech, to include this ever widening pool of the excluded?

it’s very unlikely that AI will ever have that level of consciousness (different from ‘intelligence’), as consciousness exists outside of the boundaries of mathematics, the absolutes of which which computer code is eternally bound to.

Jamie, that’s an interesting idea about math and consciousness. I am not conversant enough in those fields to know about that. Even if accurate, would that be perceived by creatives as just another obstacle to overcome?

Lee Dronick

  How long will it take for such folks to sabotage that which excludes them?  Like taking down communication and power lines, bridges and freeway overpasses?

From I understand the word sabotage came from the act of workers throwing sabots, wooden shoes, into the cogs of machines that were taking the jobs of humans.

 

webjprgm

Don’t forget economics. Robots won’t replace humans as long as humans are cheaper. So laws on minimum wage and unions bargaining for higher pay and benefits could accelerate a shift to robots. But we won’t suddenly have a robotic labor force overnight because when things shift that way far enough politicians will intervene, either to block the use of robots or to adjust compensation schemes to let people be competitive. (We already see more shift of manufacturing to countries with cheaper labor, as opposed to building robotic factories in the US.) So I think it is a much longer term eventuality for robots to replace the bulk of manual labor.

In any case, I think of robots more as a lever than a replacement. The robot is controlled by a human who can now get more work done rather than replacing the human. It replaces several lower-tier jobs with one higher-tier job. For your fireman example, you definitely want a human involved in deciding who to rescue (you remember what happened in I Robot where Will Smith’s character was upset over who the robot rescued from the car crash), so you’ll probably have a human operator controlling the robotic firefighter.

A comment about software engineers being replaced: tools that do part of a programmer’s job will not replace the programmer, instead they give the programmer leverage to get more done with higher quality. We have been improving tools like this for the past few decades (compilers, compiler compilers, static analyzers, IDEs, drag-and-drop interface builders, newer and better languages, macros, build automation tooling, continuous integration testing systems, etc.) and it has not decreased the need for programmers. As robots take over the world the need for software to control them will only increase and we already have fewer qualified programmers than we have demand for them (a legal requirement to justify H1B visas to hire foreign programmers). The software industry could be affected and change a bit, but it definitely won’t go away.

(Plus you don’t want to get to a state where robots can both build and program new robots because then they don’t need humans anymore ... but I also don’t believe this is possible anyway. See above comment by Jaime about consciousness.)

wab95

John:

The threat you’ve highlighted, posed by robots to humans, is not fundamentally new to humans, apart from its being posed by an artificial humanoid of our own making. We’ve created machines throughout the centuries that have displaced human workers, primarily in the manual and hazardous labour sectors, including motors for transport (land and marine based), lifting, hauling, digging, printing and publishing, siting, felling and on and on.

That we are poised to sweep whole swathes of manual labour from the ranks of human vocation is perhaps greater in both range and scale, but not novel. Nor will it be simultaneous across the spectrum. Field tests and comparisons will need to be both conducted and studied prior to relegating humans to redundancy in these sectors, in addition, particularly in low and middle income markets, to the cost/benefit analyses - specifically with an eye towards political and social stability. The calculus for these settings will undoubtedly be different than that for affluent and more educated countries.

That the erosion of manual labour will likely be both gradual and piecemeal, even if relentlessly progressive, provides time for social engineers to plan ahead, not simply for job replacement but more importantly education for the generations most likely to be directly affected. Although we’ve been poor at this in the past, more recent trends suggest that many countries are taking a more deliberate approach to such planning, and we have some time.

Regarding Google’s neural network, I believe that the tech-educated already accept the proposition that AI will feature ever more prominently in our future, and the question is not whether AI will acquire specific capabilities but how they will be used, regulated and monitored and by whom. Apart from academic seminars on the terms and limits of use, there remains a disquieting silence from legislators on these rules despite their imminent need, or even the open and transparent public/private sector discussions on the same. Although history might suggest that the law will Ned to catch up to the technology as it has in so many other instances, this is one issue in which the security of both individuals and nations are alike in the cross-hairs, and that hopefully, those same stentorian voices clamoring for backdoors into encrypted software will soon clamor just as forcefully for regulating AI terms of use, at least insofar as surveillance is concerned.

Finally, as to the iPad Pro line up, it makes perfect sense to roll the iPad Air into the Pro lineup. My Air is a serious work tool (just completed an international teleconference on mine whilst reviewing slides for upcoming publications, communicating with colleagues on other topics and writing this piece - all in a morning’s work), and having the capability of the Pro for the 9.7” device only makes it sweeter.

YodaMac

I don’t think Apple will have any trouble.  Looks like those robots have wrists to hold Apple Watches just fine.  grin

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