According to TechChrunch, Foxconn is planning to fully replace workers with robots.

If this would continue and spread to other manufacturers, what changes to the current system would be feasible to avoid mass poverty, mainly those unskilled, poor worker whose jobs would have been replaced by robots?

  • 5
    Did somebody say Luddite Uprisings?
    – mmyers
    Dec 19 '12 at 23:11
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    Anyway, I don't believe this question is suitable for our Q&A format as it asks for a debate… Dec 19 '12 at 23:13
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    @Sven Clement if they were more skilled, they could have a better job
    – nairboon
    Dec 19 '12 at 23:16
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    @nairboon but does "not skilled" implies "poor". I actually doubt that because I know of cases where bus drivers earn more than postgraduate chemists or where people working in low-skill manual functions earn more than people doing intellectual work behind their desk… Dec 19 '12 at 23:19
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    Objection, your honour. Calls for speculation. And discussion. Dec 20 '12 at 18:45

This very question was at the heart of Jeremy Rifkin's The End of Work. Way back in the mid-90s, already, he was noticing that low-skilled work in particular was being mechanized to the point where large numbers of people would be without work.

One major emphasis of his was that work weeks should be reduced in order to give less work to more people. The 35-hour French Work Week was, for Rifkin, a model of fairness, allowing people to have two jobs where needed or to maintain one and have leisure time. In his understanding of labor, the move from the 12 hour day to the 10 hour day to the 8 hour day was progress, in that leisure was a good in and of itself. By adding leisure to more people, overall benefit accrues to society.

Secondly, he forsaw the rise of the non-profit sector to take the place menial, automatable jobs. While I may not agree withe his prediction, the truth is that the "service" economy, of which the non-profit sector tends to be a part, is in fact where the bulk of new labor is growing. The comparative advantage in time of the unskilled lends itself to service, in that non-automatable tasks will always exist, and everyone has the same amount of time.

  • I do feel compelled to point out, I'm not sure that I actually agree with Rifkin on a lot, but his book directly answers this question. Dec 20 '12 at 2:15
  • While I haven't read "End of Work", my only other exposure to that know-nothing fraud (Zero Marginal Thinking) leads me to downvote this answer. It's one thing to refer to a genuine expert. It's another to a complete hack.
    – user4012
    May 4 '14 at 17:57

Well, first of all, we can take a look at the lessons of history:

  1. They get other jobs.

    • When industrial agriculture automated many farm jobs, the people migrated to the industries (wasn't the only or even main driver, industries also paid better and were safer, by comparison; but the point is, they did it).

    • When automation was introduced into production process, by Ford and then even more, the people working those jobs either re-trained for other jobs, or moved into services.

    So, one feasible "change" would be to do nothing, and let the free market create new industries (compare the number of people employed in software development today compared to 1950).

  2. They migrate to services, as products become cheaper.

    There was an interesting dynamic happening recently, which has to do with basic economics:

    • Many basic things became cheaper to produce (e.g. cloths, utensils, etc...)

    • This allowed poor people to spend less of their income on such necessities

    • The freed up money went to the services/entertainment industry.

    (have a look at how much money many of the ostensibly "poor" people spend on entertainment and services, such as fast food/haircuts/whatnot in inner cities).

    Now, this is important, because services/entertainment, unlike manufacturing, are much harder to automate, or offshore; and are pretty much in infinite demand.

  3. This one is oldie but goodie: they do what their ancestors did BEFORE them eggheads invented all the industrial revolution stuff.

    ANYONE can go and farm a plot of land. This may not always be sufficient for existance, but would make item #4 a lot more feasible - ask anyone from USSR who had to work on their "ogorod" (mini farm) aside from their main paying job, due to food shortages.

  4. They become public assistance recipients (welfare, basic income, whatever you call it).

    Now, this one is difficult. Can it be done in general? Of course. Can it be done as a feasible, long-term stable and sustainable solution? The answer greatly depends on just how much the appearance of robots made the basic material goods cheaper than before. I would (and did at the link) argue that at the current stage of robotics, it's not yet feasible in terems of being a globally stable and sustainable solution.

    It WILL become feasible once you get

    • VERY Cheap energy - fusion, geothermal, whatnot - not strongly dependent on expensive commodities like fossil fuels or land+materials for solar batteries or wind.

    • Commoditized cheap manufacturing of goods. The 3D printing technology sounds like a very feasible approach of attack on this

    • Cheap food. Production of that requires the energy, AND stopping religious environmentalists from ludditizing agricultural progress.

    • Cheap water. Same as food - very feasible with energy. Israel perfected desalinization technologies, but they aren't cheap because of energy requirements yet.

    • Land to build housing on. This one is politically tricky, but an argument can be made that the cost of living for the poor is very high because they freqiently live in large cities; where the land is very expensive. If you get your "basic income" recipients to accept as a condition of that that they must move somewhere else, where land is plentiful and cheap (which is a lot of places in the world - not every place is Tokyo), you solve that problem. Again, the main dependency is cheap energy, so people who live far away from big cities can actially have cheap delivery of their basic needs.

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    Do you have anything to back up any of your claims here? This seems to be based on conclusions and opinions that you yourself have without being based on anything factual or historical. The only citation you have here is to another answer of yours which is also without any sort of backing.
    – JNK
    Dec 20 '12 at 13:59
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    @JNK - the answer is based on Economics 001 and basic facts of life (you need cheap food and energy and space to allow someone a sustainable living without them being able to earn it). I can probably dig up references on service vs. production jobs but seriously, if you don't know THAT basic fact already you shouldn't be participating in political discourse. The fact that people could make a living (or a large portion of it) feeding themselves is History 001.
    – user4012
    May 3 '14 at 15:24

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