A Philosopher's Blog

Telework of the Future

Posted in Business, Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on April 3, 2015

While people have been engaged in telework for quite some time, ever-improving technology will expand the range of jobs allowing for this long-distance labor. This, naturally enough, raises a variety of interesting issues.

Some forms of telework are, by today’s standards, rather mundane and mostly (non-controversial. For example, teachers running online classes from home is a standard form of education these days. Other forms are rather more controversial, such as remote assassination conducted via armed drones.

One promising (and problematic) area of teleworking is telemedicine. Currently, most telemedicine is fairly primitive and mainly involves medical personal interacting with patients via video conferencing software (“take two aspirin and skype me in the morning”). Given that surgical robots are now commonly employed, it is simply a matter of time before doctors and nurses routinely operate “doc drones” to perform various medical procedures.

There are many positive aspects to such telemedicine. One is that such doc drones will allow medical personal to safely operate in dangerous areas. To use the obvious example, a doctor could use a drone to treat patients infected with Ebola while running no risk of infection. To use another example, a doctor could use a drone to treat a patient during a battle without risking being shot or blown up.

A second positive aspect is that a doc drone could be deployed in remote areas and places that have little or no local medical personal. For example, areas in the United States that are currently underserved could be served by such doc drones.

A third positive aspect is that if doc drones became cheap enough, normal citizens could have their own doc drone (most likely with limited capabilities relative to hospital grade drones). This would allow for very rapid medical treatment. This would be especially useful given the aging populations in countries such as the United States.

There are, however, some potential downsides to the use of doc drones. One is that the use of doc drones would allow companies to offshore and outsource medical jobs, just as companies have sent programing, manufacturing and technical support jobs overseas. This would allow medical businesses to employ lower paid foreign medical workers in place of higher paid local medical personal. Such businesses could also handle worker complaints about pay or treatment simply by contracting new employees in countries that worse off and hence have medical personal who are even more desperate.  While this would be good for the bottom line, this would be problematic for local medical personal.

It could be contended that this would be good since it would lower the cost of medical care and would also provide medical personal in foreign countries with financial opportunities. In reply, there is the obvious concern about the quality of care (one might wonder if medical care is something that should go to the lowest bidder) and the fact that medical personal would have had better opportunities doing medicine in person. Naturally, those running the medical companies will want to ensure that the foreign medical personal stay in their countries—this could be easily handled by getting Congress to pass tough immigration laws, thus ensuring a ready supply of cheap medical labor.

Another promising area of telework is controlling military drones. The United States currently operates military drones, but given the government’s love of contracting out services it is just a matter of time before battle drones are routinely controlled by private military contractors (or mercenaries, as they used to be called).

The main advantage of using military drones is that the human operators are out of harm’s way. An operator can also quickly shift operations as needed which can reduce deployment times. Employing private contractors also yields numerous advantages, such as being able to operate outside the limits imposed by the laws and rules governing the military. There can also be the usual economic advantages—imagine corporations outsourcing military operations and reaping significant savings from being able to keep wages and benefits for the telesoldiers very low. There is, of course, the concern that employing what amounts to foreign mercenaries might result in some serious moral and practical problems, but perhaps one should just think of the potential profits and let the taxpayers worry about paying for any problems.

There are various other areas in which teleworking would be quite appealing. Such areas would need to be those that require the skills and abilities of a human (that is, they cannot simply be automated), yet can be done via remote control. It would also have to be the case that the cost of teleworking would be cheaper than simply hiring a local human being to do the work. Areas such as table waiting, food preparation, and retail will most likely not see teleworker replacing the low-paid local workers. However, areas with relatively high pay could be worth the cost of converting to telework.

One obvious example is education. While the pay for American professors is relatively low and most professors are now badly paid adjuncts, there are still people outside the United States who would be happy to work for even less. Running an online class, holding virtual office hours and grading work require rather low-cost technology. The education worker would require just a PC and an internet connection. The university would just need access to a server running the appropriate learning management software (such as Blackboard). With translation software, the education worker would not even need to know English to teach American students.

Obviously enough, since administrators would be making the decisions about whose jobs get outsourced, they would not outsource their own jobs. They would remain employed. In fact, with the savings from replacing local faculty they could give themselves raises and hire more administrators. This would progress until the golden age is reached: campuses populated solely by administrators.

Construction, maintenance, repair and other such work might be worth converting to telework. However, this would require that the machines that would be remotely operated would be cheap enough to justify hiring a low paid foreign worker over a local worker. However, a work drone could be operated round the clock by shifts of operators (aside from downtime for repairs and maintenance) and there would be no vacations, worker’s compensation or other such costs. After all, the population of the entire world would be the work force and any workers that started pushing for better pay, vacations or other benefits could be replaced by others who would be willing to work for less. If such people become difficult to find, a foreign intervention or two could set things right and create an available population of people desperate for telework.

Large scale telework would also seem to lower the value of labor—after all, the competition among workers would be worldwide. A person living in Maine who applied for a telejob would be up against people from all around the world, ranging from Argentina to Zimbabwe. While this will be great for the job creators, it will probably be less great for the job fillers.

While this dystopian (from the perspective of the 99%) view of telework seems plausible, it is also worth considering that telework might be beneficial to the laboring masses. After all, it would open up opportunities around the world and telework would require fairly stable areas with adequate resources such as power and the internet (so companies would have an interest in building such infrastructure). As such, telework could make things better for some of the masses. Telework would also be fairly safe, although it could require very long hours and impose considerable stress.

Of course, there are still steps beyond telework and one possible ultimate end might be full automation of all jobs.

 

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23 Responses

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  1. ronster12012 said, on April 3, 2015 at 8:19 am

    Michael

    I read some ‘expert’ say the other day that in the next ten years somewhere between 40-60% of all jobs will be automated. Presumably that won’t include university administrators….oh well.

    If that is the case then how can societies continue to function, with a 40-60% unemployment rate?

    • WTP said, on April 3, 2015 at 8:44 am

      The automation of jobs does not directly correlate to unemployment. The workers eliminated by the invention of the steam shovel did not sit back and accept their fate. Of course no one was paying them to sit around and accept their fate either, but that’s a whole other aspect.

      • ronster12012 said, on April 3, 2015 at 10:10 am

        WTP

        I am only reporting what an ‘expert’ said, and that was that the next wave of automation was upon us now, will be much bigger than all automation up till now, and in the next years 40-60% of *all* jobs will be automated.

        Here’s one http://hardware.slashdot.org/story/13/09/14/1225248/45-of-us-jobs-vulnerable-to-automation
        but there are plenty more out there with varying figures as this is early days.

        I take these reports as food for thought.

        I understand your point about steamshovels, blacksmiths and horsefeed suppliers and the mass production of the motor car was another popular example…………….but they were a displacement of jobs not an elimination of jobs. Automation is not about displacing jobs, rather, its goal is the elimination of them. That is the whole point of it.

        OK, you may say that new, unimagined opportunities are just waiting in the wings and that human wants are infinite etc. I hope so. But if the aim is to eliminate jobs in a wholesale fashion then how does society continue to function? How would the US and industrialized world function if it all looked like Detroit?

        cheers

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 3, 2015 at 10:58 am

          You raise a good point. Historically, as WTP noted, jobs eliminated by technology have been replaced by new jobs. So, while the steam shovel replaced diggers, it created jobs like steam shovel operator, steam shovel manufacturer, and steam shovel mechanic. But, as you point out, the predicted automation is very large and the claim is that jobs will be eliminated. Presumably, some jobs would also be created to enable and support automation that cannot be automated. But, these jobs might be far less than the jobs eliminated.

          It might be, as those who praise the automated future claim, that vast new economies will be created to absorb those displaced by automation. Perhaps administrative positions. Some sci-fi writers have speculated that humans will be paid to “supervise” robots or be on hand in case the automation fails.

          But, as you say, if there was a massive loss of jobs, that could be an economic and social disaster. Who would be buying what the automated systems made or provided? Would such a mass of unemployed people be content to live on handouts? Who would provide these handouts?

          People do always think we will solve the big problem, as we have done in the past. But, it is always worth considering that there will be a big problem we cannot solve.

          • WTP said, on April 3, 2015 at 11:25 am

            Mike, as I’ve pointed out time and time again, you do not understand basic fundamental economics. And yet you continue to expound upon such as if you do.

            So, while the steam shovel replaced diggers, it created jobs like steam shovel operator, steam shovel manufacturer, and steam shovel mechanic.

            Such is not the point. The number of jobs created as you describe did not come anywhere near close to replacing the jobs “eliminated” by the steam shovel. The steam shovel enabled the projects on which it was used (buildings, roads, mining, etc. etc. etc.) to be completed more quickly and at a much lower cost. This resulted in a much more rapid production of wealth. Wealth that can then be used to create bigger and better things. The implications are much bigger than you allow yourself to comprehend. I suspect you refuse to comprehend these things as you are afraid to think differently from those around you. You let your politics define your thinking. Thus the rampant sophistry or, as TJ says, polemics.

            You are locked in a 19th century mentality of static/steady-state wealth. We’ve been over this and over this and over this for at least five years now and you refuse to understand what wealth is, where it comes from, how it is created, and the costs and responsibilities of maintaining it. You have at times payed lip service to understanding just a tiny, tiny aspect of this yet it is obvious you are not interested in understanding as it never sinks in. your later writings are rife with misconceptions of these aspects of wealth.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 3, 2015 at 10:49 am

      That is a good question.

      There is an ancient anecdote, which might not be true, about Hero of Alexandria. He designed what seems to be the first steam engine and proposed that it be used to replace human slave labor. In response, it was asked “what do we do with all the slaves, Hero?” This same problem has arisen with every advance.

      But, as you note, the new automation could be far more extreme. In utopian science fiction, this automation frees people to have better lives. In dystopian science fiction, the 1% get richer while the masses dwell in poverty in the megacities.

      What is most likely to happen is that some of the displaced will move to new service jobs, while unemployment will rise. There is the idea that people must labor, so it seems unlikely we will get the sci-fi ideal of a society in which automation allows people to pursue what they wish to pursue in regards to their lives. The usual bogeyman used is the lazy poor who want to just get money for nothing and not work (unlike people who just live off investments, who are noble job creators). 40-60% unemployment would be likely to result in a revolution, perhaps with the 1% put against the wall.

  2. WTP said, on April 3, 2015 at 10:32 am

    How would the US and industrialized world function if it all looked like Detroit?

    Detroit looks like Detroit due to attempts to artificially inflate wages relative to productivity and then when the inevitable automation replaced some workers attempts to preserve those unnecessary “jobs” eliminated the remaining jobs. Or the ones in Detroit anyway…see concluding sentence. Without the absurd requirements placed on American manufacturing by labor and by extension, government, the jobs would still be there. There is no Detroit in Japan nor Germany nor South Korea. In fact much of Detroit didn’t disappear, it just moved to Tennessee, Mexico, Alabama, etc.

    Robots are mighty expensive to create. There’s a lot of cost sunk into them. Even reproducing them is moderately expensive in most cases. If labor was paid what it was worth and not the insanely overvalued rate that is demanded, labor would be much cheaper than capital (robots) and thus there would be jobs in that sector.

    • ronster12012 said, on April 3, 2015 at 11:20 am

      WTP

      ………………………………..

      “Robots are mighty expensive to create. There’s a lot of cost sunk into them. Even reproducing them is moderately expensive in most cases. ”
      ……………………………….

      They won’t be expensive when robots make them.

      ………………………………..

      “If labor was paid what it was worth and not the insanely overvalued rate that is demanded, labor would be much cheaper than capital (robots) and thus there would be jobs in that sector.”

      ………………………………………..

      I don’t think labour can compete with robots regardless of capital costs……which is why they exist now. The same applied throughout all previous automation. The difference now is that they may be taken from their highly restricted places in manufacturing and unleashed on society.

      What I am getting at is how will society function if 40-60% of *all* jobs are eliminated……and stay eliminated.
      OK, you say just cut off the dole and people will get off their arses and get work. Maybe. What was the unemployment rate in the Great Depression? 25-30%? How would that and worse…….and as a permanent feature, change society? In other words, how would the great depression affect society if it became permanent?

      cheers

      • WTP said, on April 3, 2015 at 11:26 am

        See my reply above to Mike. There are other jobs and purposes for human beings in this world besides manufacturing stuff. It’s a 19th century mentality. The world is a much bigger, more complex, and more adaptable place than you seem to understand it to be.

        • ronster12012 said, on April 3, 2015 at 12:12 pm

          WTP

          ……………………………………………………
          “There are other jobs and purposes for human beings in this world besides manufacturing stuff. It’s a 19th century mentality.
          …………………………………………………….

          As manufacturing employment is a fairly small part of current industrialized economies(10-15%) and the predicted jobs capable of being automated are 40-60% your point doesn’t hold. It is not about 19th century ideas of manufacturing,

          How would your society have looked if the Great Depression and its unemployment rate had lasted 20,30,40 years or more? Would people be worrying about ‘other jobs and purposes for humans’ or any job or even just food?

          I think we will see more discussion on this if/when many management and professional jobs start getting hit hard.

          …………………………………………………………………….
          “The world is a much bigger, more complex, and more adaptable place than you seem to understand it to be.”
          …………………………………………………………………….

          That may be so, but all sorts of economic and social disasters have happened throughout history too and no society is immune to it, even ones far less indebted than yours and mine. Things don’t always end well and we in the anglo west have been very lucky (partly because our leaders have been very ruthless). We will find out soon enough if we are living on borrowed time or not.

          cheers

          • WTP said, on April 3, 2015 at 12:26 pm

            As manufacturing employment is a fairly small part of current industrialized economies(10-15%) and the predicted jobs capable of being automated are 40-60% your point doesn’t hold. It is not about 19th century ideas of manufacturing,
            Or perhaps it is the predictions that don’t hold. My point is not limited to manufacturing, it is just the most prominent aspect of automation that we are discussing. Let me clarify further, There are other jobs and purposes for human beings in this world besides manufacturing stuff, moving stuff around, cleaning stuff, etc. etc. etc. Most jobs that exist today were unimaginable to people of 100 years ago, many even 50 years ago. Just 40 years ago a real, respected, admired, expert in the computing industry said “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home”. See the predictions of many more experts here:
            http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Incorrect_predictions

            all sorts of economic and social disasters have happened throughout history

            And the effects are much worse on economies that implement a considerable amount of the central planning mentality. Unplanned, free economies respond to such challenges much more effectively and rapidly. You are mistaking the disease for the cure.

            • ronster12012 said, on April 4, 2015 at 10:39 am

              WTP

              It could be that the predictions are wrong but we won’t know till after the fact. Neither of us actually know though you seem more certain than I am.

              Thanks for that amusing failed predictions link. There are some beauties there…

              cheers

  3. ajmacdonaldjr said, on April 3, 2015 at 12:49 pm

  4. nailheadtom said, on April 4, 2015 at 9:33 am

    The concern over employment and jobs is, from an historical perspective, mystifying. Employment as we know it in the last two centuries is a new concept, never seen before in human history. As there have been dramatic changes in the structure of society, why would anyone think that there would cease to be changes in the near future? Certainly an individual that loses his job at the widget factory is more concerned with next month’s mortgage payment than he is with the bigger picture of the development of human relationships but his individual problems have meaning only to himself and those around him.

    While no one can predict the future in detail, some trends seem to be leading to inevitable results. For instance, human ingenuity in health care appears to have subverted natural selection and evolution. It is no longer of any consequence for a person to have less than “normal” vision. Humans with poor vision are just as likely to reproduce as people with good vision and their descendants are more and more likely to have less acute vision. The genetic factors that produce diseases like diabetes, coronary heart problems, hypertension, etc. aren’t being eliminated from the gene pool because these afflictions can be treated and their carriers can live long, productive lives. They produce others like themselves. Future generations are more likely to be concerned with genetic failures than they are with gainful employment. As they live longer lives through medical advances, those lives will increasingly be tied to things like heart transplants, kidney dialysis, insulin shots and handicapped parking spaces.

    In bygone times, humans that couldn’t cut the mustard, not only in physical but mental terms, were less likely to procreate. Today a person mentally on the far left side of the Bell curve can not only survive but perhaps even prosper in a way. And produce more intellectually impoverished. Oswald Spengler made note of this but he couldn’t foresee the incredible advances in modern medicine. He would predict, however, that the genetically superior barbarians will eventually displace their weaker, increasingly less intelligent cousins, even though they have robots and drones.

    • ronster12012 said, on April 4, 2015 at 10:14 am

      Tom

      …………………………………………………………
      “The concern over employment and jobs is, from an historical perspective, mystifying. Employment as we know it in the last two centuries is a new concept, never seen before in human history. As there have been dramatic changes in the structure of society, why would anyone think that there would cease to be changes in the near future? ”
      ………………………………………………………….

      Mystifying perhaps from an historical perspective but our societies are built around certain norms. Take away those norms and all bets are off.
      My point was not about ‘just changes’, rather how would society function with 40-60% of all jobs automated. Some here think it’s no biggie, we just roll on regardless. I am not so sure. What do you do with large numbers of permanently unemployed??

      ………………………………………………………………….

      “Certainly an individual that loses his job at the widget factory is more concerned with next month’s mortgage payment than he is with the bigger picture of the development of human relationships but his individual problems have meaning only to himself and those around him. ”
      ……………………………………………………………………

      But multiply that individual job loss X tens of millions and what do you have? Who pays the mortgages on houses worth a quarter of what they did when most had a job. What does that do to the banking system, tax base and government revenue then government obligations and so it goes on in a death spiral. Or perhaps I am being too pessimistic and it will all work out fine………………

      cheers

      • nailheadtom said, on April 4, 2015 at 10:46 am

        A government/banking death spiral would be a good thing.

        • ronster12012 said, on April 4, 2015 at 11:05 am

          Tom

          I agree but the elitist bastards running the show say never let a good crisis go to waste….

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 4, 2015 at 6:45 pm

          How so? We saw who got hurt the most when the banks death spiraled. Places like Yemen, Iraq, and Somalia show us what the death spiral of a government looks like. It would be bad. Very bad. Hobbes pretty much nailed it-the state of war would make life nasty, brutish and short.

          • nailheadtom said, on April 5, 2015 at 9:20 am

            Banks are a recent invention. Central banks even newer yet. Since the US Federal Reserve was established in 1913 there’s been the Great Depression of the thirties and numerous other general financial foul-ups. They don’t seem to have a handle on the situation even now.

            I don’t know if you’ve spent much time in Iraq, Yemen or Somalia, the latter being the poster-child for nation-state advocates. Maybe you’ve been exposed to the horror of the lack of a Department of Education and Department of the Interior. Visiting the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota or the Bois Fort Reservation in Minnesota would easily make you appreciate the advantages the native Americans now enjoy that they never dreamed of prior to losing their property and lives to the European invaders. Of course, the nasty, brutish and short thing doesn’t apply to teen-age girls walking to school on the morning of August 6, 1945 in Hiroshima, Japan. Only a big government/nation state has the ability to marshal the resources to create and deliver a device that can antiseptically kill thousands in an instant. Even the most vicious Latin American drug gangs (themselves a product of the all-powerful nation-state) don’t have the wherewithal to murder the civilian population of whole cities.

            Nation/state apologists like Hobbes have had their views expounded by talented but unthinking artists like William Golding, whose “Lord of the Flies”, a fanciful and generally ridiculous metaphor that equates the absence of a nation/state with a lack of civilization and has been required reading for millions of state-educated adolescents and the subject of more than one movie. It’s a successful propaganda campaign that has embedded the necessity of state control in the minds of a huge majority of the population of not just the US, but much of the world. If the human species is so barbaric that it can’t survive without the supervision of a supposed elite with an efficiency in mass murder then what’s the point?

          • wtp said, on April 5, 2015 at 1:51 pm

            And another thing, you have no more understanding of what actually happened in the recent financial crisis than my dog has regarding where the food in his bowl comes from. Please stop commenting as if you do. You’re just a tiny part of the mantra of ignorance in matters economic, but that doesnt excuse your spreading ignorance not to mention your refusal to acknowledge your ignorance.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 4, 2015 at 6:43 pm

      Have you read the classic sci-fi story “The Marching Morons”? The author envisions a future in which the few smart people left have to work constantly to keep civilization going because most people are, well, morons. In the story, a man from the past comes up with the solution (he bases it on Hitler’s final solution).


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