Tag Archives: WSJ

Thoughts on automation, from the WSJ (and me, someone who specialized in automation)

Robots
Christopher Mims has a good piece here that touches on many of the recent arguments concerning automation, here: Automation Can Actually Create More Jobs (WSJ). Well worth reading.

For my own perspective, early in my career my job was automating many of the systems operations tasks in my part of IBM. In one year I automated essentially the work of 10 people. No one lost their job as result, because while it was good to have these activities automated, the activities were not valuable enough to justify hiring people to do the work. Essentially the automation improved the quality of our work. Automation using IT to improve the quality of work is a good use of automation, be that automation be a lowly shell script or very expensive robot with A.I. Quality aside, how the automation affects staff depends on the culture and the makeup of an organization.

There is talk of places like McDonald’s replacing workers with kiosks as a result of a drive by some for a higher minimum wage. First off, McDonald’s are rolling out those kiosks in Canada, too, which makes me think they are going to deploy them regardless of what the minimum wage is. Second, I have used the kiosks a number of times, and they are of a limited benefit to a McDonald’s customer. The kiosks are good if there is a long line for a person to take your order: they kiosks are bad if there is a small line or no line. They are bad because it will take you many more minutes to place your order, due to the kiosk’s user interface. (Try one and you will see.) The kiosks some time will fail to print out your receipt: if you don’t remember your order number, then you have to go in line, tell them what you ordered, and then get your number. Overall the kiosks are not bad: they are especially good if you like to special order. But if the lines aren’t long and your order is standard, skip them and go in line.

Besides that, McDonald’s will still have plenty of staff and likely will for the future. Kiosks can’t cook, can’t pack your order, and can’t clean the restaurant. If you think robots can do that and do it cheaply, you need to learn more about robotics. I can see why McDonald’s and other fast food places need automation: they are constantly trying to retain people while trying to keep costs down. But the notion they are automating to spite people looking for a higher wage is ridiculous. McDonald’s is not going to become a glorified vending machine and they should not try to be. People go to restaurants and coffee shops to socialize and to come in contact with other people, and automation will provide less of that, not more.

As well, smart fast food places will learn that human contact makes for better business (see Starbucks). There are many ways to be successful as a fast food business, and a positive experience in dealing with staff is one of those ways.

Automation changes work. However, how it changes work is complex. It is tempting to assume that it will eliminate all work, but that is too simplistic. In addition, we need to think about work, income, and why we do what we do. Automation can help us do that, and that is one clear benefit of automation.

(Image: link to image.freepik.com)

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At Theranos, things are coming undone

And the journalists at Wall Street Journal have been leading on this story for some time now. Their latest piece, which is a good summary of what has been happening recently with the blood testing company is here:  At Theranos, Many Strategies and Snags – WSJ.

Everything I see leads me to believe this will be a debacle. It’s hard to tell, since Theranos consistently defends themselves against the many charges against them. Perhaps they will come out successful in the end. I think we’ll find out soon enough.

Janet Yellen, Forecasting Ace

I didn’t expect a positive review of Janet Yellen in the wsj, but this piece, linked to below, is really positive. Here’s a sample:

Steering central bank policy depends more than anything on assessing where the economy is heading. Yet, central bankers, surprisingly, are seldom picked for their forecasting acumen. More often they are former public servants, bankers or academics.

Then there is Janet Yellen.

Her forecasts as a Fed official have been strikingly accurate, as the release of 2009 transcripts to the Fed’s deliberations make clear. If she worked on Wall Street, she’d be a “hot hand.” This does not mean as chairwoman she is necessarily right; but it does suggest her forecasts deserve the benefit of the doubt.

via Janet Yellen, Forecasting Ace – Real Time Economics – WSJ. A really good piece.

In the future, people will not make manufacture things. The question is: what is next?

As this article in the Wall Street Journal shows, advances in Robots May Revolutionize China’s Electronics Manufacturing. Here is some key parts of the article (underlining is mine):

A new worker’s revolution is rising in China and it doesn’t involve humans. With soaring wages and an aging population, electronics factory managers say the day is approaching when robotic workers will replace people on the Chinese factory floor. A new wave of industrial robots is in development, ranging from high-end humanoid machines with vision, touch and even learning capabilities, to low-cost robots vying to undercut China’s minimum wage.

Over the next five years these technologies will transform China’s factories, executives say, and also fill a growing labor shortage as the country’s youth become increasingly unwilling to perform manual labor. How the transformation plays out will also go a long way in deciding how much of the electronics supply chain remains in China.

Now, I would argue that while wages are relatively higher in China, the idea of them soaring is very relative too. I’d also argue that even if the wages were stagnant, it would not matter, for the robots will become cheaper and more productive year after year. The question isn’t how will robots manufacture every thing, it’s a question of when will they manufacture every thing.

From there, the next question is: what will people do? Who will buy these products? There is a hint of an answer from the realm of software development. As more lower levels of software development were taken over by other software (e.g. assemblers, compilers, IDEs), software developers focus on higher level versions of software and bigger and more complex problems. This could also be the future of manufacturing. People who work in manufacturing will not make the things: they will design the things (e.g., robots and instructions for robots) that make the things and work on more complex ways to make things (e.g., how to take parts made in China, Kenya, and Canada and have them all come together in the same place and as little time as possible).

(Photo is of a concept robot from Delta Electronics).