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Making things by means of hand labor is becoming decidedly uncompetitive.
In the near future, manufacturing may be controlled by very few people. This is a likely consequence of the high cost of automation equipment, relative to typical wages. If buying useful robots or other forms of automation did not represent a serious financial risk to the typical worker, manufacturing would happen in homes, in garages, and in small shops. If designs remain artificially expensive, and if robots that are made by robots remain scarce, automation will continue to be effectively hoarded by the largest manufacturers. Making robots and other automation equipment in the most cost-effective ways available is essential to the future of small business.
Much can be done to reduce the cost of automation. Closed-loop devices may use nonlinear angle sensors (which can be very low in cost), and the precision of robotic motion does not require precision in the making of the structural parts of a robot. A robot can get its ultra-accurate navigational positioning from merely repeatable sensors and computing. Electronics and computing continues to get more affordable. It is not necessary to machine, grind, and polish mechanical parts for precision in a closed-loop device. For a more complete explanation, see appendix A.
Of course, assembly workers will not be the only people affected by automation. The current threat to assembly workers will extend to machinist, welders, miners, packagers, and fabricators of every type, together with many people in the service industries.
If these areas of work are opened up to small investments by less costly automation, new companies will be created, the productivity of the working population will increase, and many more people will prosper.
I am dismayed by the way information about automation is disseminated. Stories on T.V. about progress in automation are mostly about stunts and futuristic capabilities. They show us robots that cost more than a big house. There seem to be no stories about how to profit from automation on a small scale. This does not invite entrepreneurship. Universities seem preoccupied with the frontier of robotics, while 1970s technology would suffice for a great many applications. Hollywood continues to demonize robots and spread fears about their abuse. It is time to get practical. Perhaps the extreme centralization of automation is intentional.
People need to apply their knowledge about making things without insisting on working exclusively with their hands. If you are not retired, staying away from computers is very unwise. Knowing how the work should be done is of value - especially when combined with learning about modern tools.
If you are a programmer, there are serous opportunities in programming robots. Programmers need to enable non-programmers to transfer behavioral information to machines so that a machine, not a person, performs hand-labor tasks. No person should repeat a hand-labor task thousands of times.
There are automation technologies waiting in the wings which will augment and even go beyond robotics to further enhance the average productivity of workers. One example is Growth Mechanics.
Growth Mechanics explores a property that, so far, is only well known in life forms. They often grow from a small particle into a large structure. This aspect of living things can be abstracted from all the others (such as reproduction, inheritance, healing, consciousness and death). When imitated, this one feature of life forms leads to a technology that will construct particles or small objects capable of growing to become things that are much larger. The importance of such a technology to productivity would be extremely difficult to overestimate. It would allow us, for example, to design a pocket-size object that could be thrown into the sea or into a swamp to produce a large boat, or house, or almost anything else. It would need to obtain its materials of construction and the requisite energy from the environment. Taking this hint from nature will make a big difference.
It is not necessary to imitate the way
that life forms grow. Although there certainly is a biotech path to this result, there are others as well.
Separated from the context of living cells and DNA, the mechanical, structural, kinetic and programming insights that we need in order to make objects grow in this way are known. We have miniaturized moving parts on a chip and we have programmed the movements of such parts. In a sea of compounds, it is not hard to imagine tiny chemical factories, or the expansion of solid substrates. Much, much more needs to be done, but the chemical-mechanical-electronic engineering path (as opposed to the biological - genetic path) is fairly clear.
Such knowhow will provide us with great economic benefits. Profitable applications will be found in all of the construction and manufacturing industries. In this case, nature is pointing to yet another form of automation; and every time we make a leap in automation, life can get better for everybody. All we needed to do is prevent extreme centralization.
Those who worry about automation technology are attending to the wrong problem. It is the nature of humanity to become ever more productive.
Finding ways in which individuals can benefit from automation in their careers is essential to avoiding massively excessive concentrations of money and power in the coming decades. Avoiding that extreme outcome is in the interest of both the rich and the poor, but some kinds of governments are not so sure. Extreme centralization of the means of production is favored by the socialistic policies. In that event, free markets become illegal markets. This leads to underground economic activity, inevitably accompanied by ganges. At that point, lawful free markets become less likely that the advent of a criminal oligarchy.
I have little doubt that humanity will eventually learn this lesson, but perhaps only after very many more decades of confusion and strife.