Art Carden  

Today's Necessary Skills, Tomorrow's Hobbies: From the Comments

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Last week, I asked which essential skills will someday be obsolete. From the comments, it looks like there's a clear consensus on cooking. I expect my kids' generation will cook the way my generation sews: as a hobby. I wouldn't be terribly surprised if, within a couple of decades, people aren't "remodeling" their kitchens by having them removed.

The effect may not be huge, but we will therefore live in a cleaner and less wasteful world. How much energy is consumed running fridges that are half-empty? What else could be done with the labor and materials that went to produce stoves, ovens, microwaves, and dishwashers that are only used a few times a day or a few times a week? How much spoiled food gets thrown out every day? What else could we do with the resources that are currently devoted to food distribution, retail, and home storage?

Reader Fazal Majid notes that writing rather than typing might produce better recall and nominates the ability to speak multiple languages:

There is some research showing taking notes on paper yields better recall than taking them on a computer, so don't write off handwriting just yet.

If translation software progresses (a big if), it is conceivable the ability to speak multiple languages may become less of an asset.

I would love to be able to speak multiple languages, and I'm sure my life would be richer if I could; however, given the availability of high-quality English translations I'm not sure just how much better my life would be if I could read Les Miserables in French or The Brothers Karamazov in Russian.

Reader Peter H makes this important point about cooking:

Re: cooking as a skill to become obsoleted.

I think that cooking at home will become a less necessary skill, but unlike knitting or blacksmithing, which are now pure hobbies, will still be a professional skill for quite some time to come.

For a number of reasons, particularly the extreme heterogeneity of vegetables and the fact that freshly prepared meats and vegetables are delicious, same-day preparation from raw ingredients will remain the norm of food prep for a long time to come. That may be outsourced from the home to professional cooks in a restaurant, but it will still be done by human cooks. Standardizing the inputs enough to automate the cooking process will lead to inferior quality outputs.

I can see this, but if this robot can in fact make 360 gourmet burgers per hour, I'm not sure whether this will be the case or not. We're probably a long way from producing Robot Gordon Ramsay, but it looks like the days of human chefs at mid-range steakhouses are probably numbered. Are we looking at a future of Ruth's Chris steaks at Steak-n-Shake prices?

As I write this, my six-year-old is in the dining room playing with Legos and toy trains (just FYI, the world at the intersection of Jabba's palace and Sodor is a pretty interesting place). With the diffusion of ride-sharing services and the development of self-driving cars, I wouldn't be shocked if he never actually drives a car. I'm honestly a little excited when I think about what people will do with all the freed-up time and energy they would otherwise spend figuring out how to drive. It reminds me of this quote from Ellis Wyatt in Atlas Shrugged:

What's wealth but the means of expanding one's life? There's two ways one can do it: either by producing more or by producing it faster. And that's what I'm doing: I'm manufacturing time... I'm producing everything I need, I'm working to improve my methods, and every hour I save is an hour added to my life. (Source: Wikiquote)

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CATEGORIES: Growth: Consequences

COMMENTS (21 to date)
Sol writes:

I'm looking at my 5yo's table full of Legos with one of the obscure new Sodor trains in the middle as I type, and I dearly hope you're right about self-driving cars being common ten years from now.

But it's not eliminating the time spent learning to drive that's interesting, it's getting rid of the time spent driving! For a lot of people that will mean an hour or more a day that can be spent on something more interesting. Even if it's just watching TV or wirelessly surfing the internet, freeing 5% or more of your waking hours to do something more to your liking is a huge win.

Art Carden writes:

@Sol: You're absolutely right; I should've clarified that. I look forward to a day and age when I no longer have to drive or worry about vehicle maintenance.

Brent writes:

A future without humans driving would really change Asia - particularly China - though. It would have to be up there with Jesus rising on the third day...

Jameson writes:

Regarding languages, let's be honest, speaking multiple languages is already not a big asset. English has quickly become an international standard, so that for native English speakers, even a second language is not all that useful. Considering the effort that it usually takes to learn, I'd say the opportunity cost is already very high for most people.

tom writes:

I have to strongly disagree with the commenter on cooking- people have been able to outsource their meals through restaurants, takeout, or frozen and prepared meals in your grocery store. The problem with restaurants is that they are far more time consuming than cooking at home.If it takes you 1/2 an hour from the time you leave your house to the time food is put in front of you for a family of 4 that is 2 hours of time, with another hour on the back end driving home. Even complicated home cooked meals don't take 2-3 hours of actual time, they take 30-60 mins of prep and then 1-2 hours of cooking which frees the cook for the most part. The larger your family gets the move time consuming eating out is.

Take out/delivery is a better option, but it loses the fresh to the table aspect, which is why pizza and chinese is so popular- their enjoyability fits into that time frame well. Freshly cooked vegetables and a lot of other main dishes not so much.

One of the under appreciated aspects of eating at home is the flexibility allowed both variety and time wise. With a stovetop/oven/crockpot you can cook almost anything (even deep fried foods with a Wok), and you can plan it for almost any time of day.

Steve writes:

Pharmacists to dispense drugs will become obsolete. If we have digital medical records with all of the drugs we are taking, then any potential interactions will be recognized when our doctor makes the prescription. Once the correct prescription is written, then dispensing the drugs can easily come from a robot as from a human.

Peter H writes:

That burger making machine is quite interesting, though it doesn't look like they've got it working yet (their website hasn't been updated in 2 years and there are no videos of it).

The barrier to a cooking machine is largely that it will require either an insane amount of capital investment or a lot of labor maintaining the machine, to the point where the labor savings aren't there.

There are two sorts of cooking machine one can envision. One is a general cooking machine with access to a sizable pantry of raw ingredients and the means to do a number of standard cooking techniques (grill, griddle, boil, fry, sautee, chop to various sizes, puree, etc.) This is robo-Gordon-Ramsay and we're a pretty far way away from this.

The other, like that burger machine, makes one dish with minor variations. The burger machine can't make me a pasta dish. Looking at the menu of Ruth's Chris, I see the following broad categories, each of which requires its own machine:

6 salads (and probably still needing a person to pretty up the plates - customers demand pretty food).

1 soup (easy for a machine - but also doesn't replace much labor)

2 fried appetizers and 2 fried sides (not too hard for a machine)

1 pasta dish (not hard for a machine)

2 cold seafood dishes (very hard for a machine, these are all about presentation)

7 steaks + a lamb chop (medium difficulty for a machine, steakhouse customers can be picky about doneness, which for whole cuts is a skill)

~7 roasted vegetable or potato dishes (not too bad for a machine, but some require finicky prep like stuffed mushrooms)

~6 sauteed vegetable dishes or sides (pretty tricky for a machine, vegetables vary a lot)

3 sauteed meat entrees (including a stuffed chicken breast which is probably quite tricky to mechanize)

5 desserts (not too hard all around)

By my count, replacing the kitchen staff for a Ruth's Chris takes about 9 machines (I didn't count the soup ladler) and still requires a couple people to pretty up the plates, put sides with entrees from different machines.

Each of those machines is extremely complex, will require a lot of internal cleaning of all sorts of nasty residues, and if it fails on a busy Saturday night is a disaster. Plus you'll need a kitchen area three or four times the size of what they have now.

Automation ,ay make sense soon(ish) for businesses that sell one product (e.g. just burritos or just burgers). But replacing full menu restaurants is a long time off. You really need robo-Ramsay for it to be viable. And even fast food restaurants have surprisingly large menus when you really list everything out. It's hard to bring customers who have diverse tastes in when you only offer one product.

tom writes:

Peter brings up some good points. One of which he doesn't explicitly say though is the versatility of humans in restaurants. A line cook can be a dishwasher or busser in a pinch, or shift to a different part of the line. Automation is very tricky- when one machine breaks frequently the whole line is impacted. When this happens in a car factory its expensive, but not a huge deal as those cars would probably sit on the lot for days at the very least. A delay of a day or two in someone getting their customized car is a big deal, but 99% of their interaction with the product will be over the next 10 years. If the product is good when they want to buy again or recommend that delay wont be much of an issue. If your food is delayed by a half hour in a restaurant that might be 30-40% of your experience there, and you might not try that place again for a year or more, and they miss out on maybe a dozen visits.

tom writes:


The reason pharmacists exist is 90%+ regulation by the federal government.

Philo writes:

In retirement I have taken up the study of a couple of foreign languages. It is strictly a hobby. The cost of acquiring competence in another language *far* exceeds the practical value for one who already speaks English; one must simply enjoy the mental effort. And the mental effort is considerable, since it is incredibly hard for an adult (especially an elderly one) to attain anything like fluency in a foreign language. Jaka szkoda! Жаль!

Scott writes:

Changing a light bulb

Once LEDs last longer than the average person owns a home it probably will make sense to have someone come in and change all the lightbulbs at once. It eliminates the need for most people to own and store a ladder and avoids possible falls.

As light bulbs and the hardware become digital they can be programed and the light tuned. Another reason to hire a professional to install them.

Hazel Meade writes:

I don't think people will completely get rid of kitchens, but many may downgrade to just a fridge and a microwave.

You need some place to store canned goods, frozen dinners, and other ready-to-eat foods and drinks. Not to mention leftovers.

But a person could easily get by without a stove or oven just by eating frozen dinners, canned goods, take-out, and restaurants/fast-food.

Maybe a toaster oven for things you want to be crispy.

JKB writes:

I would say that whether this comes to pass depends on the reliability of society. We have a fairly reliable power grid (becoming less so with "green" energy), fairly reliable transportation and fairly reliable information infrastructure. But it doesn't take much to dump all that for a significant period of time, see hurricanes, terrorist attacks, tornadoes, etc.

Being unable to cook, and not having food on hand, means sitting around hungry for 3 or 4 days at least, depending on the size and location of the disaster. Even if everything runs, the grid for automated cars can fail or enter conditions it can't handle. I remember a story of icing in DC. The metro operator called and asked for manual control since the automated system wasn't handling the ice well. He was denied. He then begged, he was denied. He was then killed when his train slammed into the back of another because the automated controls couldn't judge the ice to adjust braking.

This is why digital money will fail. Kick the plug out of the wall and the economy stops. No credit or bank cards are taken in a disaster are. Cash is king. Well, until maybe FEMA gets there and has a week or two to set up some over priced government check and cash operation.

Life gets real grim, real fast when the system fails for more than an hour. It won't take to many failures to get people to stop trusting the system and the government. The question will be, whether there will be a long period of "peace" like happened in Europe before WWI, to age out the population who know the horrors and leave the young and dumb who will at first think being off-line is high adventure.

Keep in mind even with Katrina, Sandy, even Hugo and Camille, we haven't had a significant, widespread disaster in the US for over 100 years.

I am skeptical as to how widespread the abandonment of immediate need skills, such as cooking, will be. Although they may become more rudimentary. Sewing, blacksmithing, foreign languages are not needed for short term survival. Also, clothing and forged/machined implements are asynchronous items that may be produced for the market JIT but have a long use life and can be stockpiled.

Marie Inshaw writes:

I disagree with cooking. First, I'm about to lose my kitchen temporarily for an update, so in the meanwhile I'm not looking forward to not having a kitchen because eating out is costly and screws with my waistline. Most microwavable meals have crazy levels of sodium to make them not taste like crap. Automation might work for people for whom food is fuel. They will be fine with the meat and vegetables that are homogeneous and uniform. They will be fine with the human equivalent of kibble, the same stuff, with all the vitamins you need, in a bowl, day after day.
People who want heirloom, wildcrafted, organic, non-gmo foods, which aren't uniform will need some human overseeing the effort. And that's another thing, fads and trends. How quickly can you change the machinery over to deal with the "[insert whatever]-free" based diet? Or the person seated at table 5 who can't have dairy or gluten.
I'm in an industry that I was told 20 years ago would be gone. It has changed but it isn't gone.

Hazel Meade writes:

Also, you may see kitchens get larger in high end mcMansions in the suburbs, but smaller in urban condos. Much easier to get cheap, fast, take-out if you live in a dense urban area.

Peter H writes:

Further to what I was saying above, and to Tom's comments, I think the growth area will be in machinery to compliment professional cooks in restaurants, but not replace them. A lot of chains already do this, preparing soups, sauce bases, cake mixes, dips, and more in offsite facilities where the process is highly automated.

Even at the highest end restaurants, a lot of meat cookery is being mechanized in the form of sous vide machines, which very gradually bring meat up to perfect temperature in a water bath. But a chef still takes the meat out of the bag and sears it to get the nice crust that diners want, but with the perfectly cooked interior that was previously nearly impossible to get without extreme effort.

Unlike driving, where the marginal payoff at a particular point is huge, food prep has a relatively continuous payoff curve. Self driving is a massive upgrade from just lane guidance and adaptive cruise control. But a sous vide machine makes your food better and easier, and replaces a little bit of labor.

Plus, by complimenting humans instead of replacing them, there's far more robustness. If the sous vide machine breaks, you can still have the chef pull some overtime and cook the meat on the grill.

Last, food is something of a velben good. People have a revealed near-infinite preference for better quality food. And a big part of that quality is frankly artistic. As people get wealthier, I expect gourmet food, prepared by humans who are inclined to that craft/artform, to become even more popular. The cab driver who loses his job to the self driving Uber car of the future may find himself preparing his mother's recipe for dumplings for a fancy restaurant crowd, newly able to afford his services now that their transportation costs have plummeted.

AbsoluteZero writes:

How many people who read this post, and this blog in general, know more than one language well, as in, at native or near-native level? How many have learned a new language from scratch, to near-native level, as an adult? And what do people think are the real "practical" value of knowing languages?

Art is not sure how much better his life would be if he could read Les Miserables in French or The Brothers Karamazov in Russian. My answer is he probably cannot imagine, literally, for the simple reason that the imagining is still done in his own language.

Many people think about it in a mostly binary fashion. You either don't know Russian, or you know it well enough to read The Brothers Karamazov. It is as if knowing it well, and all that that goes with it, is the reward, and all the learning before is cost. This is not how it works. The process of learning and becoming good is by itself rewarding. To know this one has to experience it first hand, learn a new language from scratch to a very high, ideally near-native, level. Or, teach a language, and observe the changes in the students. Like many things, language learning follows an S curve. There's the very painful struggle early on, when it looks completely impossible and you have no idea how you can ever get anywhere. If you get past this, you get to the part where you progress at amazing speed, and it accelerates. Then finally the part where it slows down again, and it once again becomes a painful struggle, as you try to get the final, most difficult nuances down. The entire process is extremely rewarding.

It's not just communication, in a narrow, "practical" sense. People's behavior change when you interact with them in their native language. To really see and experience this you need to be very good, as judged by native speakers. And you will know. Some people actually become more formal. They now know you understand, and they need to be careful about what they say. But this is not common. More likely they open up, in ways you wouldn't expect. You can now ask for and get things done, things that were "impossible" before. They now tell you things, things that you're not supposed to know. They take you places and show you things. They start to talk about things far outside of work, like politics, religion, even personal things. A whole new world is open to you.

And it's not just the classics. It's everything, including pop culture. It's currently popular TV shows and movies, news, magazine articles, everything on the Web. What do they consider news? And how is the same news presented? What is considered hot? What is considered attractive, and not attractive? What do they like, what do they hate? It's not just that this new world is now open to you, you will begin to experience and appreciate the same things differently. The language, and the culture behind it, becomes a part of you, and you become a part of it. You'll be able to see things their way, but you don't lose your original way.

Even internally it makes a big difference. The new language is, by itself, a source of new ideas and new perspectives on existing ideas. If you know it well enough, you can not only think in it, you will begin to dream in it, and feel it. When you see or hear something, words would pop into your head. Not only will you not know what words, you won't even know what language they will be in. When thinking about something, you can try to first think purely in one language, then purely in another. You'll find that the things you think about, and they way you think about them, are very slightly, subtly different. Language is the original "mind tool". You think, at least partly, in terms of it, and you experience the world, at least partly, through it.

Personally, as someone who grew up with two (three if we count dialects) languages, has taught one (to highschool students and adults), and learned another as an adult, all this is from personal experience. I think as time goes on, even as machine translation becomes better, and more people speak a common language, knowing languages will not only continue to be important, it will become more important as fewer people can really do it. Something can become less important as a necessary skill, but continue to be important in other ways. Also, another personal point. Knowing languages is attractive.

Jim Wilder writes:

Regarding reading literature in the original languages. You actually do miss something reading a translation but it is more pronounced in poetry (typically) than prose because it is more related to the "sound" or "music" of the language. If all you want is the meaning, translations are typically fine as most translators are focused on meaning first. Think of watching standard definition TV versus high definition - that's kind of like being able to read in the original language versus a translation.

BTW, interesting that you selected Dostoevsky as an example because his language was more colloquial than many of his Russian contemporaries and it is full of phraseology that is difficult to appreciate fully in a non-slavic language.

NZ writes:
  • Cooking: "'We are not seeing the same level of demand for larger and additional kitchens and bathrooms as we saw during the peak of the housing market, but there has been a shift away from downsizing those rooms that has taken place over the last two years,' says AIA [American Institute of Architects] Chief Economist Kermit Baker." That's from the National Association of Realtors website, article dated 2011.

    Food and dining habits are very much tied to class, and upper-middle- and upper-classes are huge on cooking, "real food", "organic", etc. Their kids are being brought up in this mindset too. Cooking would only likely become a hobby among the prole classes--but prole hobbies usually lean towards buying things or playing games, not making things.

  • Driving: It would be nice to have your car drive itself on a long daily commute or a road trip across dull terrain, but the rest of the time I suspect most people would prefer to drive themselves. (Remember, driving is fun, and having to sit next to smelly strangers is not the only reason Americans consistently reject light-rail.) Also, a lot of people prefer to do the regular maintenance on their cars themselves, though increased computerization has made this more expensive and difficult.

  • Language translation: if your first language is English and you don't live in a rural part of a non-English-speaking country, then learning a second language is not practically useful and in the future may become just a hobby. Translation, however, is not being automated but crowd-sourced. I don't know if several thousand people contributing to a translation algorithm once in a while requires more or less labor than one small team of people working on it full-time.

  • All this automation making everyone richer: automation can save you time, money, or both, but I suspect it is not the deciding factor in major differences in living standards. Holding all else constant, thanks to breakthroughs in automation between now and twenty years from now maybe I have one or two more hours at the end of the day in which to read or spend time with my family, but I don't go from earning close to the median income to earning so much more that I can eat out every night, take a cab everywhere, or lease an android butler.
NZ writes:

PS. I'm a human factors engineer for a software company. A big part of my job is developing pattern languages--basically, a spreadsheet that lists tools we can provide for users (dropdown menus, modal popups, slider controls, etc.) down one side and the benefits they provide, and the context in which they provide them, across the top. The pattern language gets updated and further articulated while we're working on projects and reviewing designs with users and client representatives, based on tests and reviews and so forth.

The point of creating pattern languages is to automate the design process so that the programmers can get the requirements from the client and then just look up what to implement, maybe checking in with the human factors engineer periodically just to make sure there are no glaring mistakes.

This frees up the human factors engineer to think about the harder, more interesting problems.

Automation doesn't eliminate a job, it simply concentrates it down to its most interesting parts.

Take driving for example: to a large extent, driving is already automated. Most drivers don't have to shift gears anymore (automatic transmission). On the highway, most don't have to think about maintaining their speed (cruise control). Instead, drivers can focus on steering, which is the most interesting engaging part of driving. By the way, if you ask someone who drives stick why he drives stick, he'll tell you that he likes having control and that it's more fun.

With the example of cooking, automation already exists in the form of the stove and the oven. Think of these as automated versions of how we used to cook our food: open fires. A robot cook would not eliminate the need for a human one, but rather free up that human cook in the same way the stove and oven have: to get more creative, to dynamically respond to varying qualities in the ingredients, etc.

Patrick Barron writes:

Stores like Costco are producing more factory prepared foods which require minimal prep in one's home. There is little wastage from discarding ingredients of which few are required when making the dish. Most require simple heating in a microwave or boiling a pouch in water. Of course, all Costco members love their five dollar whole rotisserie chicken.

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