The Robot Economy -Finding a Niche


My March 13, 2017 post, entitled “The Robot Economy,” looked at how humans might prepare for the day when robots do all the work people used to do. It seems likely that people will still need some income if they are to enjoy the advances afforded by modern technology. Strategies I identified in that post included owning a working robot to hire out for income, or even owning stock in the companies that build robots and pay good dividends.

Other strategies have surfaced, which I collectively call Finding a Niche. These strategies revolve around people taking the initiative to either create their own jobs, or finding gigs within the evolving labor market. Entrepreneurs, inventor/investors, and freelancers are people who create jobs. People who pursue gigs include moonlighters (part-timers), entertainers, personal service providers, casual laborers, public speakers, and handy-people. One of the best contemporary examples of a worker with a gig is an Uber driver. Uber lets people work whenever they can/want to – simply by signing on as available to pick-up passengers.

For many young people with little or no accumulated wealth, these strategies are far more viable than buying an expensive robot. There’s no reason why entrepreneurs, freelances, part-timers, personal service providers and others can’t make a comfortable living for themselves. Some will even get rich, although many won’t simply because the percentages are against them. There will be more opportunities in the future, but there will also be more people pursuing them.

One idea I think is especially promising is for people who come across business opportunities while engaged in their hobbies. Recognize that in the future many people will have more time for hobbies. What constitutes a hobby is virtually limitless; it comes down to pretty much any legal pastime people wish to engage in. The business idea comes when a person needs something for his hobby and discovers no one makes it. Could he make it himself and sell it for a profit? Or there’s the hobbyist who fashions her own unique tool to make her projects go smoothly, then realizes, “Could other people use this tool, too?” Making such products to sell online could be a successful business because, while the demand is evident (i.e. the tool worked for her), the demand would not be big enough to attract major manufacturers. As another alternative, for years people have established their own businesses by buying select hobbyist’s supplies in bulk – far more than needed by any of their potential customers – and then repackaging them in to smaller quantities to sale to individuals. Sometimes called cottage industries, these businesses are now far more common than ever.

Unfortunately, this glance into the future hasn’t surfaced anything terribly new or insightful. There will be those who “follow the money” and there will be those who “pursue their passion.” If money is a person’s passion, then the solution is for them to go into business. For all the rest, the whole issue of future employment comes down to the three basic questions that it always comes down to: 1) what is my passion, 2) what do I want to do, and 3) what am I good at doing? Many people spend their whole lives trying to answer these questions. Sometimes when they find the answers, they face challenges reconciling them. Nothing suggests it will be any different in the future.

The Robot Economy

The prevailing worldview is that robots will eventually do most of the physical work in America. There is clear evidence to support this view. The fact is that the US has greater manufacturing output now than ever, while there are fewer workers in manufacturing now than before. Advances in manufacturing technology – specifically automation – are what made this possible.

Some people believe that the best way to prepare for this future robot economy is to save their money and buy a highly capable robot – when such robots become available. The idea is that they can hire out their robot to whoever needs work done for which the robot is suited. This way people can participate in the robot economy by making money off their robot. After all, people will need some sort of income since everyone will be out of a job in the robot economy.

Naturally, the smarter and more capable a robot is, the wider the variety of work it will be able to perform. No one would want to own a robot that is suited to just a few tasks since those tasks, just like human manufacturing jobs, may be taken over by highly specialized machines. Herein lies the conundrum regarding the capabilities of these robots. Highly specialized machines take on whatever appearance and configuration they need in order to perform a task with the best speed, accuracy, and efficiency possible. Yet, it would seem difficult to build a robot to do such a job while also being sufficiently capable to do many other specialized tasks. In other words, how is a general purpose robot able to compete with highly specialized machines?

One approach to reducing this challenge is the use of modularity and re-configurability in robot design. For example, the “brain” part of the robot could be in one module while the moving parts could be in several other different modules, depending on the nature of the motion needed for certain tasks. A module with wheels could be used for rolling, while one with “legs” could be used for walking, or one with “arms” and another with “hands” could be combined to pick up and assemble parts.

The down side of this modularity approach is that robot owners would then need to decide which modules they should buy or possibly rent. A solution to this might be to buy a large collection of modules, but this would likely be too costly for all but the wealthiest people.

My thinking is that maybe owning a robot is not really the best way to participate in the robot economy. Instead, what if one owned stock in the companies that built robots? That makes the decisions a lot easier. One would have to live off the dividends but they should be significant. Even if robots start making other robots, which will surely happen, these companies will remain at the helm.