Rise of the Job-Stealing Machines


It popped up in an Economist article on automation, but I have seen it in a few places before.

When Instagram, a popular photo-sharing site, was sold to Facebook for about $1 billion in 2012, it had 30m customers and employed 13 people. Kodak, which filed for bankruptcy a few months earlier, employed 145,000 people in its heyday.

The analogy sounds like an impressively devastating indictment, but Kodak was imploding before smartphones with cameras were even on the scene; let alone Instagram. And the analogy fails on many other levels.

Today companies can quickly pick up value without profits based on a user base. It’s a completely different model than the standard corporation and it’s not a point of comparison. Even if Kodak and Instagram had overlapped more directly in any meaningful way, the analogy still wouldn’t be meaningful.

Kodak made a physical product. You can compare it to HTC, which employs quite a few people, not to Instagram.

The larger point of the Economist article about the dislocation of workers in the service industry may be important considering how much of the American job market now depends on service jobs, but the article doesn’t really make a credible claim for this mass automation expansion.

There are a shortage of actual examples besides Kodak and Instagram, instead we get suggestive passages like these.

Services may be even more vulnerable. Computers can already detect intruders in a closed-circuit camera picture more reliably than a human can. By comparing reams of financial or biometric data, they can often diagnose fraud or illness more accurately than any number of accountants or doctors. One recent study by academics at Oxford University suggests that 47% of today’s jobs could be automated in the next two decades.

But what does that really mean? We’re not about to replace doctors with machines and accounting software already exists. All that this means is that doctors and accountants will have better software to work with.

And security guards probably aren’t going anywhere. A computer may be able to more reliably detect an intruder, but it’s ‘dumb’ and more vulnerable to being fooled once a weakness is found. And unlike Pete the security guard, a computer can’t pick up a flashlight and check out a problem.

The Economist article does miss the obvious. Call center operators may become a thing of the past in less than two decades. Getting a human on the phone will become harder than ever. Emailing customer service will tangle you in Turing Tests.

Physical labor jobs these days are not really worth replacing with machines. But a job that requires you to sit in front of a computer is much more vulnerable to being replaced with software.

  • http://libertyandculture.blogspot.com/ Jason P

    “But a job that requires you to sit in front of a computer is much more vulnerable to being replaced with software.”

    You don’t have to worry, Daniel. We could use a few of you and Hal just won’t do. (Written by the Jason P, the computer, somewhere in the Cloud.)

    • Daniel Greenfield

      Being replaced by a machine might be relaxing

    • Sheik Yerbouti

      Such a great point. Will we ever see an artificial Mozart? Who would want that? How about the Beatles? Hendrix? Reagan?

      The possibilities are starting to become frightening.

      • Daniel Greenfield

        Books have been written by computer, somewhat.

  • kevinstroup

    Most jobs that are “technical” can be automated. This has happened in manufacturing. We produce more steel today than we did in WW2, and we do it with 1/100th the manpower. Lawyers are being replaced, in part, by automation. Doctors can be supplanted by computers in many diagnosing situations, and the machines have better track records. My wife is an automation engineer for chemical plants. Same thing. You can produce way more chemicals, at better purity, in less time, with 1/100th the manpower. Banking has been radically changed by automation. Way fewer people work in it. I work in the skilled trades. Power tools and smart machines mean you need fewer people to accomplish a task, and they can do it faster still. In Europe there are completely automated hamburger joints. Fast food is next. What will happen to the half of the population that has an IQ at or below 100?

    • Daniel Greenfield

      I suspect a lot of the low IQ jobs are safer than some higher IQ jobs. There are plenty of things that just aren’t worth automating.

  • kevinstroup

    Something Greenfield does not understand is that machines are “force multipliers”. One man with machines can do what used to take 100 men. What happens to the other 99 men?

    • Daniel Greenfield

      That’s not quite as true in the fields facing automation now as it was in the factory.

      • kevinstroup

        I would beg to differ. Any task that is repetitive can be automated. Most White and Blue collar work can be automated. Think pineapple picking machines and inside sales. Most of what we call “work” is repetitive stuff. The fact that it has not been automated does not mean that it cannot be. Machines are getting “smarter” and CHEAPER all the time.
        One more thing. In the old days, if you lost your job due to automation, you just went to another place to work. But now EVERYWHERE is being automated. Where do you go now?
        How do 20 million illegal Mexicans with a 3rd grade education improve this situation?

        • A Z

          Other countries are outsourcing their unemployment to the U.S.

          Until they automate businesses are willing to insource il_legal labor.

          The Democrats just want a voting bloc so they can install themselves as modern day nobility. The first kings were elected. It was only later that it became hereditary. It could happen again.


          These are all aristocratic families.

        • A Z

          The moderating software tags the word I L L E G A L !

          REALLY !

          This must be a DISQUS travesty.

          In my opinion it is straight out of the book 1984 and DISQUSTING!

          • A Z

            My post is gone

            Here it is again.

            Other countries are exporting their unemployment to the U.S.

            Various groups in America are willing to insource these people for the the groups benefit. The Democrats want a voting bloc. Some businesses want cheap IL_LEGAL and legal 21st generation labor.

          • Daniel Greenfield

            I’m sorry about that.

          • A Z

            I was miffed, because I really didn’t understand the reason. I was miffed, because I used no cuss words or inflammatory language.

            Although I did use the verbotten word Il_legal.

          • Daniel Greenfield

            There are all sorts of triggers apparently. It happens to me too

        • Daniel Greenfield

          Cheap labor still tends to be cheaper than machines in many areas. But where we really need some automation is the nursing field. The Japanese are doing it because of their generational gap.

  • hrwolfe

    I am what is known as a Mold Maker. CNC machining is a great tool to use in the production of Injection Molds for the plastic industry like stamping dies for metal components. The well educated department heads, mostly never turning a handle in their lives, decided that with this technology they will replace the costly toolmaker, while their salary grows. This theory will bite the US in the ass in the long run. I challenge any of you who are in engineering “What do you know about designing/building an injection mold? Little to nothing but because you are an engineer it is thought that you can do it all, if your honest you know this is not true. We move in this direction foolishly. You need to train the Craftsman and it can not be done with books, skills are learned by doing. Automation has decimated the “Plant” where floor workers are concerned but Toolmakers will always be needed and they will have to be trained by their seniors. We are still suffering from the off-shoring and the fallacy of the Clinton declared conversion to a “Service” based economy is a not mentioned cause of how we got to where we are today. Who flipped a switch to a service economy? Did the things we need and want stopped being made? Well somebody is making a living somewhere making them but we do not need those jobs here? Off shoring is and was great for the investor class but it does not raise all boats here. America needs a very wide based economy, manufacturing is a large part of that and perpetuation of the skilled trades is crucial for our independence.

    • Charles

      Running a manufacturing company without tool makers and other craftsmen is like running an army with officer and no noncoms. That bird won’t fly.

    • truebearing

      I worked in a machine shop during my college years. We had engineers that determined the production rates and set-up times. According to their various tables, certain metals could only be drilled at certain feed rates, at a specific rpm. They were frequently wrong. Some parts could be produced at 5 to 6 times the recommended rates, while others were nearly impossible to meet. The reason for the variability? Time studies initiated after workers figured out how to produce things faster and punched in production totals that exceeded hourly expectations.

      We had a rule that we weren’t supposed to go to tool and die without permission. I did it anyway and the tool and die guys made me various parts that sped up my set-ups tremendously. Unfortunately, the engineers didn’t really understand how to speed up production, other than by reviewing production rates. Getting the expert machinists into the process never ocurred to them.

  • alericKong

    There’s a large backlog of manufacturing work because people cannot find qualified employees.

    Automation requires capital investment and maintenance which often defeats it’s purpose.