Over Optimizing - Embedded.com

Over Optimizing

One of the hot new technologies that may shape the next few years is that of RFID — Radio Frequency Identification. Cheap smart tags can be implanted in products and people; a scanner then uniquely identifies the goody or the body. I recently wrote about my fears of the loss of privacy this technology may bring. But privacy issues may be the smallest of the threats this and similar technologies will bring.

Advocates believe the cost of these devices will fall to the low tens-of-cents, at which point they become a viable alternative to bar codes. At that point many or even most consumer products will have an embedded RFID device. This will change inventory management: just turn on the electromagnetic field and an entire store will become alive with products identifying themselves to the master database.

It will also eliminate checkout lines. Load your grocery cart with the usual two-week mound of supplies. You won't place the products on a belt for manual scanning; instead, just push the entire cart out the front door on the way to your car. In a second a portal-mounted scanner identifies every box of cereal, each can of soup, and the store debits your account.

Products sold by weight (veggies for instance) will no doubt be plastic wrapped with an embedded RFID device. Today, the butcher wraps custom cuts of meat in plastic with a scale-generated bar code; surely this will morph to an embedded RFID tag.

Long checkout lines will vanish, as will the hassle of putting things onto the belt. No waiting for the exasperating person in front of you to dig through her purse looking for a wallet, slowly write out a check, and then apparently balance the account as people in line seethe.

It offers some pretty awesome benefits for the stores, as well. Checkout people will be history, saving lots of money. No doubt the magic of competition means prices will decline for us consumers as well. The entire model of capitalism says this evolution is both inevitable and “good.”

But think of the lost jobs.

Randy lives a few boats down from me. Drafted right out of high school he was sent to Vietnam, wounded, and returned older than the rest of his contemporaries. Early marriage and the surprisingly quick arrival of children kept him busy feeding the family. Lack of money made college an impossible dream; his few skills kept him employed but always on the margins of the middle-class.

He's 54 now — too old to go back to college and too feeble from a bout with colon cancer to make huge life changes. The kids have all left home, and so has the wife. He gets by. Needing little and having no car and few responsibilities now, he still must take care of himself. He's a minimum wage grocery checker at the Safeway.

What happens to the millions of Randys as our amazing technologies eliminate their jobs? The forces of economics means we embedded developers will be paid to optimize systems and processes to minimize costs. Fierce competition eliminates compassionate concerns. When we replace a person with a computer, our business is more likely to survive. It's the pitiless calculus of capitalism.

I fear the world will split into two camps: the more or less unemployable and those, like us, possessed of tremendous educations and blessed with high IQs who have the decent jobs.

Some suggest job training will turn the underprivileged into information workers. Sure — education will save some, but not all and I suspect not most. We do not all share equal intelligence and abilities.

Perhaps this sounds like I'm advocating socialism. No, I think capitalism has brought us unimaginable benefits. Surely something, though, will have to change, as the trend is disturbing. I don't think we can, or should, return to a simpler life, but we must think deeply and compassionately about what is coming.

I worry for the future my kids will inherit. And once in a while I wake at night, guilty that we embedded developers are the inventors of job-displacing products.

What do you think? Should we worry about the implications of our optimized products that dislocate people?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. He founded two companies specializing in embedded systems. Contact him at . His website is .

Reader Feedback:

Jack makes a good point – we're losing whole classes of work that people used to support families on; jobs we built this economy on. People who work for low wages in call centers and today's no-service retail and “service” sectors don't buy houses and new cars.

If all these “displaced” workers could be retrained in technical fields then we, as engineers, would certainly see our salaries fall.

I think many so-called “productivity” gains are illusions. Sure, XYZ Company is more “productive” with their state-of-the-art call center but just how productive are you sitting on hold for 30 minutes? How productive are you poking around on some company's mostly-worthless tech-support web site looking for an answer a well-trained and well-compensated human could provide in a couple of minutes?

How much productivity gain do we really have as more and more lower-income families come to rely on increasing tax-subsidies (EITC and so on) that we have to pay? If kids are lucky enough to have two parents, how much productivity gain do we realize when we have to subsidize their daycare and pour more and more money into schools that are being stuck with what used to be parental responsibilities?

I noticed that one of the choices on the related “poll” was “sell insurance”. Don't bother – that's one of those jobs soon to be replaced by technology (web sites and 800 numbers). A quick call to your agent will become a thing of the past: “…all operators are busy but your call is important to us…”

Ask not for whom the bell tolls… the bell tolls for thee.

Robert T
Software Engineer

Sigh…too many displaced workers. Possibly.

But the devices make life SO MUCH easier…sigh. Imagine not waiting at the supermarket! Wouldn't that be nice?

I think the key is ethical usage of the devices, just like genetic engineers are not allowed to do whatever they want. A sobering example is when Monsanto sold genetically alerted seeds to farmers in a peace-loving country. When the bad seeds didn't sprout the following year, the poor farmers faced starvation. The thugs at Monsanto wanted them to pay up but instead a hundred of those poor farmers committed suicide upon the grim realities imposed by the foreign (American) company.They paid with their lives just to make a statement.

I don't think most people are willing to go that far.The embedded engineers, with their high IQs may actually NEED to police themselves and show compassion. Disobediencecan come in all forms. Teens will roam if they can't work those jobs until college. Then some won't go to college. A teen cannot be asked to do high level work – they're teenagers! Recession may become the new American way of life or worse – depressions. The Great Depression came after the industrial revolution which was followed by WWI.

If the change is too rapid, it could take down our economy. Using wars to ramp up the economy is longer viable since we are a global society. We need to stop overpopulation, give the world an ultimatum to stop the same and their stupid tribal warfare, or face an “economic” war of a new sort. Embedded devices that invade privacy *really* turn people “off” so the population reduction might actually happen. But it could still get ugly if we're too fast.

In this country alone, taxes would need to go down when the cost of living goes down which would drive salaries down. With less moolah to work with the government couldn't afford those wars anyways…just like the Soviets couldn't afford a war with America. Look what happened to them, too many smart drunks thinking about money and vodka. Its true, just ask 'em.

To Charles Manning: With regard to “Randy”. Charles, you should know better than to suggest that Randy, who has health problems, do intensive work like installingstuff. There are a lot other younger guys who will do that and you know it. You suck – c'mon, “Randy” is gonna be a senior citizen soon. I suppose you'll tell the factory to relocate to Randy's little town to give the old sucker a job, eh?

What I mean to say is you CAN wake up and make the generalizations here – this is real life, not some video game you're probably playing, Charles (that goes for the likes of you too)!

Jed Burns

I think this line of questioningleads to a more terrifying reality.What about the thousands ofembedded developrs that developweapons that kill people somewhereelse on the planet? If nothingelse, Randy can still look fora job. What about the millionsof people that live under theconstant fear of weapons developd byembedded developrs? … realityis unfortunately not very kind.


Since the dawn of mankind technology has changed people's lives for better or worse. It isn't just computer/electtonic technology that puts people out of jobs.

Many years ago (and still now in many places) there was/is a job description called “shepherd”. The shepherd walked atound with the flock keeping the sheep from wandering off or getting eaten by wolves. Then someone invented fencing. No more job opening for shepherds.New job openings called “fencing contractor”.

Pre cheap motorized public transport, people walked a lot and wore out there shoes. There were people called “cobblers” who retreaded & fixed shoes. With the advent of cheap mass public transport, shoes stopped wearing out as fast and demand for cobblers dtopped off. Cobblers fell victim to technology. New job openings “bus driver”, “bus conductor”, “transport planner” etc.

Before electtonics there were people called “calculators”. These people were skilled at doing calculations. Guess they lost their jobs to electtonic calculators and spreadsheets. New job opening “programmer” etc.

Same for lamp-lighters, milk-men, tinkers, …

The human has succeeded thtough the ages due to it being a highly adaptable species. Not only do humans cause change, but they are able to cope with change.

Now look at Randy. OK, the immediate ptospects for Randy are not good if he limits his scope to “minimum wage checkout operator at Safeway”. But consider:

* There will maybe be some new jobs in the RFID factory.
* There will be new jobs installing/maintaining RFID scanners.
* The time people save avoiding checkout queues will possibly mean people spend more time going to book stores or buying coffee at Starbucks [places where you're buying more than just the ptoduct – you're really buying the service – and RFID is unlikely to replace service in a hurry]. Thus, maybe there are more retail jobs opening up for Randy in these niches. Maybe Randy gets his break and gets to talk to people and realize his potential further than minimum wage checkout operator.

Ok, that's maybe a bit simplistic and fanciful, but no more so than myopic assertions that technology kills jobs.

Charles Manning

I completely agree. We should abolish all technologies that have displaced workers. Look at all the jobs that were displaced by agricultural technologies, not to mention all the family farms that were put out of business. Let's require all agriculture to be done by hand. Look at all the people that were displaced by textile technologies. Let's require all clothing and clothing materials to be made by hand. Look at all the people that were displaced by printing and now information technologies. Let's require all printing and distribution of information to be done manually. Oops, I guess that means I must stop this message.

Long live the Luddites!

Hatold L. Dewar
Software/Systems Engineer
Seatobotics Corporation

Jack sounds like the ancient toman noblemen who opposed the widespread implementation of windmills and watermills because they would put the slaves out of work. Technical innovations to boost worker ptoductivity, like RFID's, are essential to maintain our standard of living as we are faced with massive worker shortages as the baby-boom generation leaves the workforce and retires.

Jon Koniecki

JACK REPLIES: Interesting point; the dearth of workers to support all of us baby-boomers in our dotage. Maybe that's the answer. Sure hope we couple the challenge with some long-range thought and planning, though – rather than responding to the chaos at the last moment, no doubt ineffectively.

I think that our country went thtough similar problems in the 60's, 70's, 80's, etc. In the sixties the worry was that industrial automation was going to eliminate thousands of jobs – which it did over the course of many years. However, thousands of jobs were also created at the same time – albeit in other fields.

The application of computer conttols in the 70's and 80's put many machinists out of work – a CNC machine could turn out hundreds of identical parts compared to what a single machinist could do. Many of those people wound up learning how to ptogram the new machines and developd new skills to keep them employed.

We see more of this today because the pace of technology keeps increasing. It's almost like a positive feedback loop – i'm going fast but I want to go even faster.

I don't know if there is any answer, other than re-training. Some of the burden has to be on the people themselves. They have to see what's going on in their industry and be prepared for changes coming. I don't think this pertains only to 'blue collar' workers either. As I've gone along in my career, many 'white collar' jobs have passed by the people who filled them. Not a lot of call for experts in vacuum tube technology (or discrete transistor) design these days. Today we want designers skilled in digital/micto/analog design and maybe thtow in a little software too.

Just today we were discussing the merits of VHDL and schematic capture. As an obsolete bird, I still like to look at gates on paper for some things. Human beings are graphical computers by nature – we deal with pictures much better than lines of code. Yet almost everyone today will say the VHDL is the way to go.

So I will have to learn VHDL to suffer the consequences. One of evolutions' lessons is that the organism that fails to adapt to its environment dies off eventually. Our species has been successful somewhat because we are generalists rather than specialists. Our brains allow us to adapt to changing conditions. In some cases, we modify our environment to suit our needs, rather than adapting to the environment. Maybe we need to keep this in mind in our career paths too. Modify your environment – take a class in something in your field but that you're not familiar with. Adapt by trying to learn new skills. These are good survival skills no matter how they're applied.

Tom Mazowiesky
Director, Product Development
Global Payment Technologies, Inc.

Jack, I applaud your sensitivity to an issue that can be unpleasant and difficult to deal with. Engineers often bring “improvements” and a “better quality of life” but often at a high cost. I believe that we as engineers and as a society need to remember the incredible value of people and try to build products that truly make a positive difference in their lives.

Randy Harmon

This is a thoughtful article. Ibelieve it is dangerous not toconsider the human consequencesof new technology. It does notmean that you do not developthat technology, but it may meanyou do it in a different way. Ihave always disliked working withengineers that completely removed themselves from the consequencesof their work; bury their headsin the sand so as not to deal with complexissues such as these.

Susan McCord

Yes, I think you have a good point there. With computerization, of course that will benefit the society as a whole. But at the same time, some unfortunate citizens will be stepped aside by the technology. In my country, the government has taken early steps by encouraging people to learn technology at an early age. But that does not solve the problem for the elderly, who are too late to learn. To me, as engineers, we should develop more products that will ease their late life at a much cheaper cost.

Shamsul Bahry
Software Development Engineer
Motorola Multimedia sdn bhd

For the first time in a long time, I feel sad about technology…I was just doing research you see.

Maybe you could make suggestions…to give us “not so high” IQ's hope…because the reality is…only you guys can deal with this issue…the rest of us will never see it coming…that is…until it's too late.

Thanks for the wake up call. I'll be watching for your suggestions on how to prevent or at least lessen the “doom”. Wish you the best.

Lisa Docena
Digital Content Creator

While I do agree with many of your observations, I certainly don't agree that someone at age 54 is “too old to go back to college”. I'm closing in on 50 myself (48), and I am in the process of completing my bachelors degree. My coursework, up until now, has been completed at a number of local colleges and universities, yet I will actually graduate from a “virtual” college. I made this choice because of the flexibility allowed by most schools of this type. In addition, there is a wide range of programs –degrees, certificates, etc.–, access is relatively good –via the internet or conventional mail–, and I've found the costs to be reasonable or, in some cases, down right cheap.

Harry J.
Software Engineer

Normally, I would not respond to columns, but I feel I must on this one.

You have raised some interesting questions, but I feel you aover-simplifying the issue. Sure, new technologies eliminate jobs (bothhigh and low skilled), but creates new ones to replace those. For example,in my line of business, I create software to allow ever more low-skilledpeople to operate the machines we build. Before, it took someone who couldunderstand and write CNC code, now if you can measure the thickness of thematerial you are cutting, the software takes care of the rest…..and we'reworking on the measuring part… We are actually eliminating jobs thatrequired years of tech school and experience, for what I hope are moreproductive uses of their time and talents.

“Anyone need to have your horse shoed today?”

Tom Pesek
Electrical Engineer (and embedded programmer with a screwdriver)

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