What if we could get more people out of meaningless jobs and into work that they enjoyed? What if many jobs became easier or were altogether eliminated so we had more free time or do other kinds of work? What if we could do something more innovative and creative? This has always been the promise of automation—that it would free us to do something else more valuable. Do we still believe in that promise?
Dale Dougherty is founder and executive chairman of Maker Media Inc., publisher of Make: magazine and the producer of Maker Faire.
A headline such as “Robots Will Steal Your Job” makes me think not, and that the Luddites have returned to stoke our fears about machines. Losing faith in the utility and even beauty of machines is losing faith in the kind of future we can build. We need more machines and even smarter robots that can do more for us.
Even if such machines do eliminate jobs, they also create new opportunities—or at least new problems to solve. Technological change does create winners and losers, and the worry is that automation might benefit an elite few while leaving others without a viable livelihood.
Like the Luddites who protested that automated looms would eliminate jobs for weavers, the Washington-based Columbia Typographical Union in 1904 sought to go before Congress and “enter an earnest protest against the installation of typesetting machines in the government printing office.” Linotype typesetting machines automated the placement by hand of individual characters to form a line of type, a process that had not changed much since the invention of the printing press. At a linotype machine, operators typed in the text at a keyboard and the machine composed the line of type. The International Typographical Union, perhaps the oldest trade union in America, had 121,856 members in 1964. Eventually linotype machines were replaced by phototypesetters, and typesetting became increasingly computerized. Union membership was down to 40,000 by 1985, the year the laser printer was patented and anyone at a desktop computer could do what typesetters once did. By the end of 1986, the ITU had ceased operations. Those who learned to design for laser printers soon began designing for digital media. Today, more graphic designers work with digital media than print, with job titles such as Web designer and UX designer. This is an example of the democratization of technology, where the ability to create typeset copy went from a profession to a job nearly anyone can do.
We are seeing a similar democratization of manufacturing technology. The Industrial Revolution was a transition from making things with our hands to making things with mechanical or electrical machines in factories. A new revolution in manufacturing is happening as digital fabrication technology such as 3-D printers becomes more affordable and accessible. Manufacturing was once something that could be done by specially trained groups in industry with capital, but now it is possible for almost anyone to do it, even at home.
A “maker movement’’ has grown up around these new tools and new capabilities. What’s interesting is that makers don’t just make things; they make new kinds of machines, like robots and 3-D printers.
Nick Donaldson, an independent robotics builder, created a large hexapod robot—a six-legged robot. He built this robot to perform as a stage demo for Intel for CEO Brian Krzanich’s keynote at the Intel Developer Forum. On Krzanich’s command, a door opened and out came Donaldson’s robot, “Big Mama.’’ She seemed to size up the crowd and then did a dance routine with a brood of smaller robots in sync to “Uptown Funk.” Donaldson was excited to do this work. “The chance to build something so big and cool with really nice but expensive motors was irresistible.”
Lisa Fetterman, who moved to the United States from China as a child, loves to cook. When she learned about a technique known as sous vide for long immersion of food in a temperature-controlled water bath, she realized that the existing sous vide machines were not affordable for home cooks like herself. So she and her husband began designing their own machine. With no experience or training, they built a rough prototype. She promoted the prototype, finding a community of cooks as interested in sous vide as she was. Then she raised over half a million dollars from 1,886 backers on Kickstarter to manufacture the product. Finally, she moved to China for three months to learn how to do that. That’s how her company, Nomiku, was born. Work, she told me, “was once boring but now I really don’t feel like I’m doing ‘work.’”
If we see ourselves as the makers of machines, we are invested in creating the future, rather than having it imposed on us. The big challenge is how to get more people, not just a few, to take advantage of opportunities to do work that matters to them and makes the world a better place.
Recently, a group from Israel called TOM, for Tikkun Olam Makers, organized a Bay Area Makeathon on Assistive Technology. (Tikkun olam means “fix the world” in Hebrew.) Taking place over 72 hours, the event brought together makers with digital fabrication skills with individuals who face daily challenges because of their disabilities. Danny is confined to a wheelchair and his group of makers helped to “hack his wheelchair” so he could drive it using his smartphone. The team 3-D-printed gears and used a microcontroller to drive servo motors and connect to his phone. Kim was born without limbs. She has to grasp things with her mouth. Her group of makers created a varied set of 3-D-printed "grabbers" attached to store-bought fishing poles. I asked her if the grabber would really help her. She responded: “This will allow me to do more things myself.” At this Makeathon, innovation was coupled with community service. To create a better future, we need machines that make things easier, but we also need time to care for others who are not well served today. There’s so much work to do, so much that needs fixing.
For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.