Humankind versus machine

Humankind versus machine

Humankind versus machine

Columbia University announced in 2016 that the School of Engineering had created a 3D printer for food. The announcement received little, if any, attention in the mainstream, despite the benefits of the device:

3D food printing offers revolutionary new options for convenience and customization, from controlling nutrition to managing dietary needs to saving energy and transport costs to creating new and novel food items. Lipson [engineering professor and team leader] sees it as the “output device” for data-driven nutrition and personal health, akin to precision medicine, with huge potential for a profound impact.

The new food 3D printer story carried center-spread in the Alumni Magazine for Spring 2017 with an article titled “All the food that’s fit to print,” accompanied with photos of the engineering team at work and the enticing comestibles they produced. Despite the focus of the engineering team on their product’s potential in the household appliances market, it is more probable that the printer’s first use will be in commercial food services, especially fast food.

There are practical concerns that are likely to trigger the transition from people to printers in fast food, such as the current Hepatis A outbreak in the states of Ohio and Kentucky – the health departments recorded the first case in June 2018 and it is still ongoing, with multiple deaths, the last two formally confirmed on 1 November 2018. The contagion began in a contaminated fast food restaurant, and the health department has traced almost all subsequent cases to restaurants. From the current assessment, it appears that food service workers, infected with the disease, were and are spreading it to consumers, who also become carriers, through various breakdowns in hygienic protocol. Understandably, the outbreak has placed a tremendous, unexpected strain on state resources as health inspectors have struggled and failed to contain the illness and medical facilities are having to increase treatment and testing. It is this type of human fallibility that will fuel the transition from human to machine workers in the food industry; a 3D printer is much less likely to become a modern-day Typhoid Mary.   

The converse of the 3D food printer’s benefits is the specter of loss of employment. The machine developed following an episode in which the professor’s students put chocolate in a regular 3D printer in a futile effort to create fun-shaped snacks. Naturally, the printer was destroyed but the experiment caused the researchers to begin developing the current machine. From a static perspective, there is nothing amusing about a pack of hungry students stumbling upon a new idea for an invention. For the conservative, the 3D food printer is an example of bright people thoughtlessly creating something that will bring misery, i.e. unemployment, on less fortunate individuals.

As the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, said in his speech at the Conservative Conference 2018, concerning the socio-economic aspect of increased automation and digitization,

But I understand that my enthusiasm for driverless cars may not be so readily shared by someone who earns their living as a cab driver … and that 3D printing may look more of a threat than an opportunity to someone who works for a parcel delivery firm.

Hammond had earlier in the speech alluded to the introduction of mass 3D printing meaning that people would be able to print household items without having to either order them on the internet or go to a store.

The Chancellor’s speech touched on a common misconception of the role of specific technologies, such as driverless cars and 3D printers. The idea is that these devices hurt people irrevocably. While historically, “irrevocably” is simply not the case – the Luddite arguments never fit reality – there is the element of downward pressure.

Returning to the example of the food 3D printer, the machine will replace the (possibly disease-ridden) human burger flipper but will in turn require human maintenance and care. Heating units burn out – yes, the version unveiled by Columbia can heat food as it prints it; nozzles and spigots become clogged; little shiny knobs break off; other people do stupid things while working the devices. First and finally, humans will have roles in the assembly process.

The situation will create both downward and upward pressure. Working in fast food will require more training, not in cookery, but in engineering and mechanics; this will be upward pressure for the average food service worker and has the potential to end fast food as a low-skill sector, transitioning it to a skilled, craftsman field. Conversely, there could conceivably be downward pressure on the lower rungs of the engineering and information technology ladders, since the printers require internet connections, in addition to maintenance.

A congressional study published in November 2017 of employment for engineers and computer technicians found that the US is suffering from a contradictory dearth and surplus of people in these fields. There are too few genuinely qualified, skilled people at the top of the field, and too many with inadequate qualifications or achievement records. As the study’s author noted, while there is very low unemployment in the applied sciences fields, there is very high turnover as employers have a tendency to provide work on temporary contracts in a quest to find “skills match.” Consequently, there is a large body of engineers and IT workers who, though paid on average well-above the rest of the population, are without consistent or stable employment due to inadequate training and inability to compete. For these 3D printed fast food would provide appropriate employment, albeit, in a case of “downward pressure,” below that expected for engineers and IT people.

Another theme in Philip Hammond’s speech was the necessity of being prepared for tech to devalue white-collar jobs, especially those jobs on the low-skill/entry-level qualifications end, and the imperative of having a plan that will address the outrage when this reality occurs. The real question is this: Is it better to be a person with a Bachelors in Engineering, with all the entailed social respect and accompanying cubicle, who bounces from contract to contract, unable to compete effectively with others in the field, or is it better to be someone with a Bachelors in Engineering who maintains the high-tech machines in a fast food joint, driving between restaurant locations in a work van, but with a steady income in a job which utilizes his skills. The job devaluation debate can be distilled to this choice. That it is a choice is important to remember in a time of aggressive work-related populist identity politics. It is not a time of “man against the machine:” It is a time of man against himself.








Mary Lucia Darst

Mary Lucia Darst
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