Is Robert Gordon underestimating the progress of automation?

In his recent NBER working paper, Robert Gordon wrote:

This lack of multitasking ability is dismissed by the robot enthusiasts – just wait, it is coming. Soon our robots will not only be able to win at Jeopardy but also will be able to check in your bags at the sky cap station at the airport, thus displacing the skycaps. But the physical tasks that humans can do are unlikely to be replaced in the next several decades by robots. Surely multiple-function robots will be developed, but it will be a long and gradual process before robots outside of the manufacturing and wholesaling sectors become a significant factor in replacing human jobs in the service or construction sectors.

So how is it with those skycaps?  I queried Air Genius Gary Leff and he wrote this back to me:

There are still people picking up/loading bags onto the planes, but —

American Airlines has tested self-tagging of bags in Boston, Austin, and Orlando

Qantas has permanent bag tags that work with RFID readers at the airport, you check in online and drop your bag at the bag drop and leave.  This works for their Australian domestic flights.  (I do have a “Q Bag Tag”)

British Airways is trialing an end to paper tags, they began with Microsoft employees in Seattle this past fall

Brussels Airlines on intra-European flights departing Brussels

BWI is working on their baggage systems to accommodate self-checking of bags

And that required no more than a few minutes thought from Gary.


I flew Qantas domestic several times last December.

There were literally no check-in counters. The kiosk where I checked in printed my checked bag sticker. I carried it to a conveyer belt where it was scanned, confirmed and sent away.

It was the most efficient airport checkin I have ever seen, and I travel a lot.

Total time from first touching the kiosk to getting past security was about 5 minutes. Granted it might have taken a bit longer if the airport had been busier, but even then you'd be talking 10 minutes at worst.

The kiosks have been pretty great. I haven't been in an airport where it was completely automated, but having the kiosks meant that they could just check your bags as opposed to having to do that and print your tickets at the same time.

How is a skycap's duty anywhere close to a multifunction robot? A bag tagging machine seems closer to grocery self checkout, something we already do. The rest of baggage handling / routing is highly automated anyways.

I think Gordon is absolutely right in his observation: the biggest inroads robots have made is in structured / specialized / dangerous settings (assembly lines, warehouses, docks, welding, nuclear reactors etc.) Jobs with varied tasks during a workday (farm worker, construction, plumber, flight mechanic) have not seen as much robotization.

Not so much robotics as automation in general. Farms are run with a fraction of the workers as previous. I'm sure that trend will continue.

In residential construction, the current model of a swarm of people throwing together a wooden frame with a maximum 50-year useful life and a ramshackle collection of systems which are always in some degree of breakdown seems ripe for innovation.

Agreed. Automation yes. But what the robots visionaries got wrong is that the gains didn't come out of multifunction HAL-like robots but specialized, automated, high throughput machines all controlled & co-ordinated by human masters.

Economists write, engineers have fun and develop technology

Reading the abstract I'd just say: old age bias. Old people is more likely than young ones to describe situation where systems and things are falling apart. 50 year future technology forecast, oh my.......

I second Axa. You have to ask the expert, not just some economist who believes low prices and increased output of commodities is the cureall. I work with technology and already I have experience with inventions such as: quantum computers that in theory can solve entire chess tree simultaneously; insect drones that run on nuclear pellets and can crawl half way around the world; and, my favorite, which nobody outside biotech believes: apoptosis (cell death) and how to delay the same. Re the last one already they have chick embryos that are over fifty years old alive, but the real secret is to go from in vitro to in vivo, say an injection that will keep you from aging. Some recent research points the way, but the good stuff is not yet published. But trust me when I say essentially some boffin has discovered, still in rudimentary form akin to travel by balloon vs travel by airplane, how to make humans immortal, or at least live to a very old age. Average is over indeed.

We're probably past the point where an individual can even assess the progress of technology. The combination of ever more acute specialization, new fields of research and accelerating pace of change are just too much to digest.

We will just find ourselves in a rising sea of technology, like a tide creeping up the beach. Not immediately evident, but relentless and significant nonetheless.

You just described the singularity :)

I haven't been back to O'Hare in recent years, but curbside check-in at O'Hare was an interesting job in the 1990s. Chicago skycaps routinely made six figures from tips. They were all male, all black. They typically came from prosperous, respectable families. Their fathers were usually either influential (e.g., aldermen) or trustworthy (firemen) or skycaps themselves. And the skycaps were good at what they did.

How did one get that job? Sounds ripe for corruption / nepotism.

If the nepotism is thorough-going enough, it protects the customer from corruption.

That seemed to be the result: a fair degree of espirit de corps.

I suspect that skycaps being all black men is somehow related over the generations to a century ago when Pullman car porters on trains were all black men. That was a profession with high standards, good pay, and a lot of pride. Pullman porters played a sizable role in the civil rights struggle by distributing urban black newspapers to small black communities across the country.

The more work that can be automated, the more prosperous some of us will be. Technological progress and wealth creation is unstoppable. Now couldn't be a better time to be above average. According to Charles Murray, we're coming apart and I look forward to this.

What's replacing the skycap here Not robots.

LOL. Same with the "automated checkout."

It isn't robots. It's carry-on luggage, possibly driven partly by airline luggage checking charges, that put skycaps on the skids. It started with luggage with wheels. Robert Gordon possibly lives in an alternative universe.

I largely agree with the point being made, but baggage check-in is a terrible example. That could have been automated twenty years ago. We've had ATM's for forty years now and that's all that is required to replace the baggage check-in people. Robots are not needed. Is there a huge savings to be had? Nope. It is not even a rounding error for airlines. That's what the non-business owners never get. I'm not wasting my time chasing fractions of pennies no matter how many times you chant the word "marginal" at me.

A few pennies and and there add up to a substantial amount of money for a company that does billions a year in revenue. That can make the difference between a stock rising on earnings report or falling 10%

Once you harvest those gains they are baked into future expectations forever. Business keeps some low hanging fruit around as a cookie jar reserve.

Like I said, spouting econ text book jargon is not persuasive to the guy signing the front of the checks. When replacing some of the baggage people with robots *really* shows up on the financial, then you get action. In the cost structure of an airline, that's unlikely to happen. Like I said, it is a terrible example. Airlines and airports are not real businesses.

Airlines are not real businesses?! WTF do you mean? Why not?

Regulated to the point that the business is more about regulatory compliance than satisfying customer demand. In the same way that banks aren't "real" businesses any more.

It's one of those things everyone should experience. A US airport, and all of the businesses within, operate by a different set of rules from the world outside the airport. It's like a college campus run by malevolent lunatics rather than benign lunatics.

this is all a fine example of people being stuck on "automation" instead of "restructured process"

what changes in banking when large parts of the population get comfortable with computers and machines? humanoid robots that look like bank tellers? no, rather special robots which like your dishwasher or laserprinter do a smallish set of things well AND some part of the work is transfered to the customer.

which is followed by ever wider use of direct deposit and automated payments so that a large part of the human transaction volume of banking goes away.

same story for skycaps - make the traveler do the work, or use a carry on.

or do the damn meeting by web phone and skip the trip entirely

there will be huge waves of change, but they will be like replacing rivets with laid up carbon fiber, not building robots that run rivet guns.

Swiss Rail has a service where they will pick up your checked airline baggage and deliver it to almost any railroad station in the country within a few hours.

I had a horrible experience with it in Basil last summer because my bags did not arrive until 4:00 PM rather than the 12:00 noon time I was expecting.

It may not be that much of a technological innovation, but it can sure make traveling to Switzerland much easier.

You arrange it by snail or e-mail ahead of time and receive a big green tag to put on your bag at the US departure airport.

That's a huge improvement. The last time I was in Switzerland I had to lug skis through a bunch of train transfers. It was an awful experience.

Switzerland was otherwise lovely. I should have just rented a car.

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