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Automation on the Job


There are few thoughts came to my mind regarding automation.

1. Fishing

A truly grim side of automation hides not so much in worries of having army of unemployed individuals (although, it is also a topic that requires a very close attention) but in certain processes, now automated, that were principally unchanged since those days when humans were hunters-gatherers. Consider fishing, particularly cod fishing in Northern Atlantic. For millenia it was humans with lines and hooks in boats and it was a very labour intensive process. Once process was automated (giant trawlers working 24/7), cod stocks collapsed so horrendously that even drastic measures like Canadian Moratorium of 1992 don't make much of a difference. Cod (and now tuna and plenty of others) just don't have time to multiply for they are automatically and systematically caught in tremendous quantities. Automation applied without much of a thought about future sustainability can result in disasters like that.

2. Automated Medicine

Regarding automated medicine I would say automation there has its very certain ceiling. Let me try to explain why. Somebody I know is a very clever girl who once upon a time decided to install a faucet in the bathroom by following very detailed and brightly illustrated descriptions on some website. Everything was going on smoothly until it was discovered that a significant portion of the pipe in the bathroom was completely rotten. Website did no specify what should be done in that case. So she faced few options:

a. Continue following the instruction ignoring the rotten pipe

b. Research more on the topic to get more insight on the issue

c. Phone a plumber to finish the job

Option a: she may have be running into the risk of doing something irreversibly wrong

Option b: she may have spent time, potentially a lot of it, to get a proper answer

So she decided to call a plumber.

Now think of the example above as of some pipe inside of the human body. Clearly, opting for options a and b can be very risky because:

Damage to a human body is something not comparable to the damage to the bathroom pipe;

Researching more on the topic may be very dangerous for the human in question may be needing attention ASAP.

Therefore, contacting a professional should be considered as the best option.

Example above is somewhat extreme. If somebody has a runny nose, it should not be a big deal to peruse a bunch of web pages or try a new approach to healing it. But this is why I was talking about the ceiling - at the certain severity of the issue, contacting medical doctor will be the only sensible option. There can be some liability concerns for the website runners to be taken into consideration as well.

3. Web Services

There is a portion in the article that "many web sites have published interface specifications". I assume author meant web services. Accessing the wealth of the web services can be seen as something like automation of the automation. It is a very powerful thing in principle and in majority of concrete cases as well. But, as with derivatives in calculus, power comes with the cost of complexity. Many very useful in business applications web services have such a incredible mass of methods and properties and such a brief and sometimes outdated documentation, the job of learning them to apply in your application can be considered as a separate task. That separate task takes time and somewhat reduces the gain of automation. I understand that improving on documentation is just a matter of time since web services as a technology is in its infancy but dealing with sheer amount of the ways to employ those web services is unlikely to disappear.

posted by Anvar Amangoulov
January 4, 2009 @ 3:52 PM

We are pretty close to autonomous cars by now, special roads not required. Google "DARPA Grand Challenge" and you will see what I mean.
posted by Jason Chou
January 9, 2009 @ 10:11 PM

I was reading something not related to the topic but came across an interesting detail, which resonates with automation on the job, or rather lack of such automation.

Herbert Spencer, an English philosopher who coined the phrase "the survival of the fittest", was invited ones to Pittsburgh by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. That was the time when the concept of evolution (word also introduced by Spencer) was actively applied to social fabric of the society by Spencer and others.

What Spencer saw on the factory floors of Mr. Carnegie prompted him to say another phrase, which I find very descriptive: "Six months of residence here would justify suicide."

I understand that was the time when automation of steel production was in its infancy at best and 60 hours working week was commonplace. The point here is whenever we think of 15 hours working week (and don't get me wrong - I would love to have it!), we should put our current 40 hours in the context of automation development from 19 to 20th century. Whether our jobs boring or stressful, not too many contemporary workers would go as far as to contemplate work-related suicide after 6 months in the office (factory floor, warehouse, store etc). Speed of automation development accelerated big time since era of Carnegie's plants as article's illustration of that steel factory in North Carolina testifies. It seems to me though, that even if 15 hours week would become a norm, we will find a reason to be grumpy about work week length anyways.
posted by Anvar Amangoulov
January 12, 2009 @ 12:21 AM

It seems to me that a reasonable explanation for the workweek not decreasing is that we've reached an equilibrium point. On one hand, if you own a company and decrease the work week, some other company will outdo you by having employees who are willing to work a longer week. This creates the floor for the average workweek. On the other hand, societal pressures (e.g., overtime laws, wage laws) tend to put a ceiling on the average workweek. So regardless of the technological changes, unless one of the two factors changes, the average workweek should remain relatively constant.
posted by Chris Funkhouser
February 11, 2009 @ 1:41 PM


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