Sunday, April 24, 2011

Zero Labor

Back in January I wrote of the difference between "silicon valley" and Detroit and compared two different visions of a resurgent US economy -- one in which we "get back" the manufacturing jobs we have lost and the other where we recognize that the real driver of 21st century economies is innovation. This morning I saw two articles from Seth Godin (care of my friend Brett Bullington via Facebook) that made me want to revisit this conversation.

In the first, The realization is Now Seth writes:
...we're realizing that the industrial revolution is fading. The 80 year long run that brought ever-increasing productivity (and along with it, well-paying jobs for an ever-expanding middle class) is ending.
In part 2 Seth talks about how The opportunity is here:
The exchange of information creates ever more value, while commodity products are ever cheaper. It takes fewer employees to generate more value, make more noise and impact more people.
This is of little consolation to someone hoping to have a good job using their muscles to create value. But we can understand what is happening to the industrial economy by examining what has happened in the agricultural economy over the past 100 years. In these graphs (from this site) the decline of employment in agriculture in the US can be seen in the context of the simultaneous increase in farm productivity:
At the same time that employment was plummeting, farm productivity was exploding, resulting in enormous growth in output from US farms.

The underlying transition was a technological one -- from the physical labor of man and beast to the technical "labor" of tractors and chemicals (fertilizers, insecticides, etc). And fortunately for the health of the human species these advances continue and are being replicated throughout the world -- without this productivity improvement we would not have the means to support our global population of 7 billion people.

The same productivity enhancements that have transformed agriculture have also, for the past 100 years, been transforming manufacturing. Machines are increasingly more sophisticated and are informed by computation, not just mechanization. While the trend in the last few decades of the 20th century was to move manufacturing to economies with low labor costs, the trend in the next few decades will be to eliminate labor altogether.

An example of the sophistication of computation applied to tasks traditionally requiring human labor can be seen in this IEEE Sprectrum video on warehouse automation:

Kiva's robotic warehouse pushes human labor to the edges, and isolates their contribution to just that portion which requires the most intellect -- visually confirming that the selected objects are correct and match the customer's order.

In this same way we will increasingly see manufacturing coming BACK to the US, but with ZERO LABOR as the core model for making things profitably. We have exhausted the "cheap labor force" model - mechanization, automation, computation, and robotics are the chain that progresses manufacturing productivity into the next few decades. And where does that leave human beings in the new economy? Back to Seth Godin:
Right before your eyes, a fundamentally different economy, with different players and different ways to add value is being built. What used to be an essential asset (for a person or for a company) is worth far less, while new attributes are both scarce and valuable.
What are these new attributes? "Art and novelty and innovation." Seth writes. That is going to require education, engaged thinkers, and a new set of disciplines (and structures) for our society. This is the world we need to be investing in and the US can be a leader once again if we seize the opportunity provided to us by the computation economy.