Friday, June 24, 2016

Just in time for Friday: fish sticks

One of our regular fish-on-Friday dinners growing up was fish sticks. The other regulars included pan-fried haddock, corn chowder, and creamed tuna. Stop gagging. They were all delish. Including those fishy, chemically fish sticks, tanged up by swizzling each bite around in the Ken’s Steakhouse Italian dressing that doused the salad that accompanied the Friday fish sticks. The other part of this meal was frozen French fries. Sure, they were thawed, cooked even, but I have to say that the frozen French fries of my childhood were just terrible – soggy and blah. We would fight for the handful of slivery fries that were actually crisp. Good luck!

Anyway, I have to confess that, although I haven’t had them in years, I occasionally crave fish sticks. While I occasionally crave them, I don’t often think of them. But I was put in a fish stick state of mind when I saw an article the other day on Bloomberg that wasn’t particularly about fish sticks. Rather, it was about advanced fish-slicing machinery that uses algorithms to figure out how to fillet a fish. What does the fish slicing is:

…the Flexicut, a machine built by the meat processer Marel that uses X-rays, water jets, and software to cut fish quickly and precisely.

Marel, which sells about $1 billion of meat-slicing gear a year, has just started rolling out the Flexicut to fish factories. (Source: Bloomberg)

These fish cutters work a lot faster than a fish cutter of the human persuasion. The MS 2730 “can process up to 25 fish/min and now offers automatic back and belly trimming.” There isn’t going to be a steel-driving John Henry beating the steam-hammer with this baby. The machine is definitely going to win. (And, of course, John Henry’s victory was pyrrhic, as he died right after he “won.”)

Marel makes a lot of nifty fish processing gear, including machines designed for deheading and gutting, desliming and rinsing, pinboning, and skinning.

And what Marel equipment is doing is replacing a lot of people who have been doing the deheading, the gutting, the desliming and rinsing, and pinboning and skinning by hand. Just some of the rotten, low-end jobs that are going to be going away as more and more processes are automated.

The woman interviewed for the article stated that, while the fish-processing jobs would be replaced, there would be exciting new technology jobs emerging. True, of course, in the macro sense, but it’s unlikely that many folks who were deheading and gutting are, all of a sudden, going to turn into techies designing deheading and gutting algorithms. And you need more fish cutters than you do deheading algorithm designers.

No use to rage against the machine. A lot of jobs are going to be dodo’d over the coming decades. Many of them are lousy. (Working in a cannery? Plucking chickens? Making sausage?) But the only thing worse than a lousy job is no lousy job.

I’m not arguing to save these jobs. I’m just suggesting that we might want to start thinking about what people at the wrong end of the skill continuum are going to do when their jobs are automated. (And they will be automated, with or without the minimum wage being raised.)

We can’t hold back this tide, any more than we could hold back the tide of globalization. (Does anyone really believe that all the factory jobs that went to China are coming back here? Hell, they’re moving to even cheaper places than China.) But what we can do is try to do a bit of planning, and put programs in place to provide a safety net and training for whatever’s coming next (probably not algorithm design) for those being displaced. We didn’t do an especially good job of this with globalization. We just let the Rust Belt rust. We “got” that, at the macro level, this was good for the world, overall. We enjoyed the low-cost flat screens. And we ignored the guys who used to make washing machines until their meth labs started blowing up. Let’s not do the same for the fish cutters of the world.

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