Minimum Wage, Maximum Automation

The State of California recently unveiled a plan to increase minimum wage in the state to $15/hour by 2023. Currently, America’s national minimum wage is $7.25/hour, which hasn’t increased since 2009. The concept of minimum wage is complicated, and I don’t want this post to be focused what is fair or isn’t about such an increase. I certainly don’t condone workers having to see most of their take-home pay go to rent and most of their free time eaten up by commuting. That said, I do sense aggressive increases to minimum wages will come with deeper consequences, ones that our society will now wrestle with on a daily basis and for years to come.

Increases in minimum wages will accelerate a massive shift to automation.

I see it on a weekly basis with startup pitches. Name any manual job currently booked at around $15/hour or so, and I’d bet there’s a 50% chance that task will be automated, either with pure software, enabled hardware (in the form of a robot), or some mix of both. Automation via software has been underway for a few years, but when it’s combined with hardware, the results will be astonishing. The components needed for such robots are now readily available and getting cheaper by the year. The hardware/robots can be differentiated by software and the vertically-specific applications they are designed for. The robots become a vehicle by which new technologies and services can be delivered, and of course done so at a fraction of the cost without the additional overhead (like healthcare, etc) that can saddle a balance sheet.

I know this is coming — and fast — because I myself use products on a daily basis that replace traditional human labor with automation and learning.

The way that I describe this trend in general is to imagine your local Starbucks. Say it is about 2,000 square feet total. At a busy time, you may see 8-10 workers in the store. Why? Shouldn’t I just be able to walk up, have a beacon notice my presence, and a robot makes my drink. The machines to do this already exist. It is coming.

We can expect to see the consequences of minimum wage increases (which I acknowledge are extremely complicated) take root in automation, robots, and corresponding services. Some solutions will appear like vending machines, whereas other solutions will mimic human movements and behaviors, just in different shapes and forms. The technology and builders are already here, working on these solutions — the turbulence in the bifurcation of the economy, the force-changes driven by technology, and the slow response to build enough suitable housing and transit may combine to usher in this robot-led era with greater speed. Minimum wage, maximum automation.

Haystack is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2017 Semil Shah.

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