One of the problems that a great many really smart individuals have is that lack of connection to everyday realities. Now that may sound harsh but for those who have spent most of the years living in academic circles most of these academics lack any real job skills. I would love to see some of the individuals try to get a job as a carpenter. First they would have to accept low wages and second they would have to do hard physical work. Not all framing is done with a framing nailer and that means that you need to use a 16oz or 20oz framing hammer to hit home those 8 and 6 penny framing nails of 3 1/2 inches long. I have done a bit of framing work just erecting my own sheds (400 sq ft) and I didn’t have the air driven framing nailers. My arms got tired enough after a few hours of swing that hammer. Of course there will be new technology that will produce an output of wealth for everyone. Gosh, I would love to have one of those framing robots for my next project, an addition to the house. Except that robots do not deal with exceptions all that well. Maybe it’s the programmer’s fault for not understanding how houses are built.
Well, now that the second generation of the digital revolution is coming to an end, the next big advancement will be on us soon. Our children and ourselves will need to learn how to correctly interface with those digital bots or what we might call very intelligent artificial intelligence machines. An AI bot can not only flip hamburgers but can also do the engineering to design parts of an oil refinery or an aircraft wing. And then the AI bots on the factory floor will take the designs fed into them and start the manufacture of such parts and perhaps assemble the entire enterprise. We won’t need to use rivets on the aircraft wing, the whole assembly will be printed by exceptionally large 3-D printers. But what happens when there is a need to modify that wing or repair stress cracks? Simply scrap it and make a new one with the modifications needed. And what happens to all those airframe mechanics who worked for years to gain their FAA certifications in airframe manufacture and repair? Only a few might remain but the rest can learn computer programming or something.
Did you ever watch some of those old WWII which showed the assembly lines for building the bombers? That B-17 was a very large aircraft in its day but compared to the commercial aircraft of today it looks puny. Did you remember seeing how many people were involved on that floor of the plant. There were thousands of workers and the number of operations were in the very high hundreds. Building one of those bombers or even one of the much smaller fighters is a very complex operation. It’s not just a rivet here and a bolt there. The electrical wiring was very complex as were the manufacture of the engines. Rolls of sheet aluminum were used to cut precise panels that would be fitted as the skin or decks of the planes. Thicker sheets were used to construct the actual airframe skeleton to which the panels were attached. It would take almost two generations of engineers to make advances that allowed more automation in the subassemblies. But putting the large pieces together still required humans on the floor.
My father was an aeronautical engineer, that old term that came out of the thirties and lasted into the seventies when Aerospace became the prefix. The last company he worked for was Vertol before Boeing bought it. He said that the number of helicopters the plant made was two a month and that was in the late seventies. That number is still two a month whether due to the demand from the military or just because the unions could control production. But I saw on the company website that they use only two thirds of the people they once used in the assembly of those aircraft. Computers figured more prominently in the assembly. Back in my father’s time one used slide rules to do the calculations now done by computer. And the Pert charts were drawn up on drafting tables, any changes could be done by hand. Now all of that is in the computer and its displays. All the blueprints are done by CAD. I doubt that there is an engineering graduate who could use a drafting table today to draw up a blueprint. My father said that by having to draw the parts on paper meant that he had to visualize in his mind that three dimensional part and then place it on paper. The CAD programs do all that for you which means that as an engineer a part of your mental facilities are not being used.
That is the problem with technology. It’s great when it can add to your muscle power like using a backhoe or air hammer. But when it takes away a part of your ability to think, to conceive, and to visualize, what is the good of it? When our new digital technologies make us into passive observers we lose that ability to think beyond the moment. I would argue that new invention comes not from the routine of life but from its exception. If one looks at war and back to the past, say the Civil War, we see that the routine of battle was to send standard formations of men from opposing armies across fields or hills with a single shot rifle and a bayonet. The only exceptions were terrain, tactics, and the great will to win. But the idea of using weapons that could fire repeating rounds changed the routine of battle. The Gatling Gun could easily replace a company of men on the field or give you that extra company of men advantage. It signaled the end of mass formations of infantry walking, running, or otherwise charging the enemy line. Most battles and wars, for that matter, are won by rates of attrition. Sometimes the enemy may be caught off guard or in a compromising position, but most battles tend to grind it out. Men die and usually those units with the higher casualty rates lose. Causalities must be replaced and trained and go through that baptism of fire. The machine gun and automatic weapons made wasting one’s men a grave penalty to winning and losing. But war is not a video game where a programmer can assign strength and weakness by the number. Battlegrounds vary by terrain and it is the terrain that the individual infantryman sees what advantage he can use to live and fight. As great a technology as robotics is, it cannot duplicate the type of human movement that replaces the human soldier.
So far I have focused on technology as a design process. But that is just the problem. These really smart men and women who tell us all about what technology is going to do for us have not considered the economics of its consequence. Did you ever think as to how technological advance comes about? Is it just to make our lives a little easier because we are lazy? When he first plow was invented in Egypt many thousands of years ago it did make rowing food easier. It was used in the production of cereals. A long and straight furrow produced most grain per acre than ten men with hoes. And when pulled by oxen more acreage could be brought under production. It was a technology that improved the economic condition of a society. True, if it too ten men with hoes to till an acre one could till two or even three acres with two men and two oxen. The other eight men could be used elsewhere such as building a pyramid. Producing more food at a lower cost meant two hings. The land could support a larger population and individuals could afford more food. At first prices declined and then rose as the demand from a larger population rose. This is economic growth. But when technology increases productivity, that it allows the output to rise and the price to fall using the same number of workers the business is stagnant. The only growth is output and use. When that same technology allows the reduction of workers, then the business grows through an increase in profit (profit is the cost of doing business in the future). What matters is the trade off of population and output. When a technology causes too many workers to lose their jobs that output may grow but its price may decline to the point of unprofitability, that is not enough people have jobs and income to support that product’s sales.
Those vague promises that technology will give that cornucopia of plenty is nothing but fool’s gold. Technology always comes at a price. Before the advent of automobile transportation eighty percent of the oats grown in the UK went for food for horses. The technology of the self powered vehicle meant that fewer horses were needed, fewer grooms to look after those horses, and few farm hands that operated the machinery that grew and harvested those oats. Technology causes dislocations in the economy. But judging from all the books written about the next level of happiness brought by technology I can tell that these propellerheads haven’t a clue. Why should they, it’s not their jobs on the line.