CYCLOPS: Will technology displace American workers?

The opinions stated in this article are solely those of the author and not of The Davis Clipper.

Our future and your children’s future may be seen in a fast-food hamburger and a popular style of jeans – and I’m quite sure most of you won’t be pleased.

Honestly, I’m not a great guru when it comes to predictions.  I would have mortgaged the house that Donald Trump would not be elected to any position, other than a sewer district. I put money on the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the World Series. I figured American youth were too smart to toss money at Bitcoin. And I never saw a movie about a mute woman and a sea creature winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

However, I have been correct about displacing American workers by technology, and several reports last week brought this dark side of innovation more sharply into focus.

Start with Flippy, a $60,000 robot installed at a California burger joint.  The six-axis robotic arm is bolted to the kitchen floor and responds to digital ticket requests for double burgers.  According to a news report, Flippy flips the burger patties and removes them from the grill, using thermal vision to detect when the raw meat is placed on the grill, and then monitoring the meat throughout the cooking process.  In addition, it also cleans the grill and rotates spatulas to avoid cross-contamination from raw to cooked meat.

Flippy has yet to learn how to dress the burgers with lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese, and it still needs a human to initially place the beef patties on the grill.  On the other hand, Flippy never needs a bathroom break, is always on time for work, doesn’t require a uniform, and never once has filed a Workman’s Compensation claim.

Maybe a U.S. business icon, Levi Strauss, has heard about Flippy because it is using Flippy’s cousin – a laser – to fray cuts and holes in its trendy “worn look” blue jeans.  (Why someone would pay extra money to buy a new jean that looks like its wearer was dragged around by an angry steer is a mystery to me…but that’s another story!)

In the past, the holes and cuts for the jeans were made by garment workers brushing the fabric with sandpaper, rotary tools, and chemicals.  Now the firm has found that lasers will do the same job in only 90 seconds, whereas those darn humans took 20 minutes to hand-stress the jeans.

The newspaper industry should have foreseen Flippy and his laser buddies. After all, the news business is now more connected to three-inch cell phone screens, than manufactured printing presses.  According to the Washington Post, 80 percent of job losses in American manufacturing have been a result of technological displacement.  It hasn’t been undocumented immigrants taking away the jobs; blame the nerdy guy who spent his time in the basement on a computer and didn’t attend high school football games or prom.  One of those nerdy guys, Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, now proposes that the government place a tax on robots to help pay unemployment checks to workers displaced by technology.

One forecast is that 40 percent of all jobs would be lost due to technology in the next 15 years.  If it takes fewer humans today to assemble a car, it makes sense that robots will increasingly take over the manual labor in everything from warehouses to banks to department stores. 

Frankly, I’m a little nervous about boarding an airplane knowing that the air traffic controller has been replaced by Flippy’s younger brother. 


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