“Qu'ils mangent de la brioche” - and now we know how bilingual we really are. Will robots be taught to speak both French and English?

Rivers 100x100By Ray Rivers

April 7th, 2017



Were the 1960’s classic film ‘The Graduate’ being shot today, the one word of career advice for our Benjamin would be robotics, not plastics. It’s coming and fast. There are already a number of cars which can park and drive better than you and I. And those cars will obediently come when beckoned more consistently than my dog.  The modern day soothsayers and prognosticators are telling us that the future is here and now. And it won’t be long before we’ll all be out of work thanks to automation and artificial intelligence.

Last year one study estimated over 40% of our jobs are at risk, as automation has now moved beyond performing mundane repetitive tasks to the “cognitive, non-routine tasks and occupations, such as driving and conducting job interviews.” And if job interviews can successfully be undertaken by robots, is any management or executive job safe?

Man among robots

Is this the shift supervisor managing the robots?

Robots vary in price but some industrial ones fall into the $50,000 to $100,000 range. That compares well with the annual salary of an assembly-line worker when you include benefits. Providing the robot lasts more than a year, automation can be a good financial investment for a company. And the robot won’t talk back to you, can’t complain of workplace harassment, nor organize a union to demand higher wages.

Bombardier seems to be in the news a lot these days. It used to be a compact family run affair, and apparently still is, though big time acquisitions have transitioned it into a multifaceted corporate monster. And the truth is that non-linear thinking and multi-tasking can be best done more often by some kind of computer than a well reasoned human being. Even intuition, without that fickle human emotion or greed, can be programmed into its logical memory.


A fortune in subsidies but these aircraft do keep Canada in the high end aircraft business which is where many hoped the Avro Arrow would have put us.

That may be Bombardier’s problem – it got too big for its britches – or at least the britches of the family compact that grew this little snow-cat enterprise into the mega transport world. Things go wrong and stuff happens when you lose your focus. And that may account for the bleeding red ink and the backlog in production that has been plaguing its air carrier and rail product lines. It has got so bad that the City of Toronto is contemplating killing its long over-due orders.

So the company went cap-in-hand to the governments and banks and dug up two and half billion dollars in Quebec, in exchange for non-controlling equity trades. And the feds have responded to the company’s earlier request for another billion by awarding it around $400 million in an interest free loan. Ironically the federal money coming after the other investments is considered surplus to requirements. But, it was interest free, so they took it anyway and found a use for it.

bombardier transit

Some of these sleek looking transit vehicles are having a hard time keeping on schedule.

Basking in the glow of all this green cash the company decided it was high time to share some of the wealth among its six top executives. It boosted their annual compensation packages by a whopping 50% – to a total of $35 million – almost $6 million each. In its defence, Bombardier drew comparisons to exec comp packages at would-be competitors Boeing and Airbus. And the best way go head-to-head with the big leaguers was match them. And if you don’t have the planes to sell, try matching senior management salaries instead.

Timing is as important in public relations as any other aspect of management. So you’d think the Bombardier exec’s could have paced themselves a little before proclaiming how they were spending this new government money on themselves, acting as if they’d actually earned it from product revenue. So the fact that they were laying off almost 14,000 employees globally with about half of those cuts in Canada, never crossed their minds.

“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”, are the words attributed to the infamous French Queen Marie Antoinette, on hearing the complaint that the peasants had no bread. Clearly this was not Bombardier’s finest hour. It took the roar of an angry public for the embarrassed execs to announce they wouldn’t immediately be hauling in their new-found loot, but rather phase-in their pay raises over three years.

As if delaying their inevitable bonanza would appease those now contemplating feeding their families on federal EI payments. It would be interesting to know how many workers are being replaced by some kind of machine. And perhaps some of those now unemployed are wondering when somebody will invent a robot which can better manage an entire company, like the one they used to work for.

Management robots

Will they be given the right to vote?

Still the governments of Canada and Quebec are standing behind the company and the wisdom of their investments. The PM shrugged off the exorbitant compensation packages claiming he respects the workings of the free market. Except government subsidy is usually not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of the free market. Still economic nationalists would be hard pressed to argue against public financial support for one the most significant Canadian companies ever.

And according to Transport Minister Marc Garneau “the C-Series is an extraordinary plane”. So as this country celebrates its 150th birthday we should take a moment to recall another extraordinary plane, the AVRO Arrow of some 60 years ago. The Diefenbaker government will long be remembered for failing to support the development of this advanced jet fighter.

rivers-on-guitarRay Rivers writes weekly on both federal and provincial politics, applying his more than 25 years as a federal bureaucrat to his thinking.  Rivers was a candidate for provincial office in Burlington in 1995.  He was the founder of the Burlington citizen committee on sustainability at a time when climate warming was a hotly debated subject.     Tweet @rayzrivers

Background links:

Robots –

Automation –

Replacing Workers –    Machines Taking Jobs –

BombardierFederal Money –

Bombardier Subsidy –

Trudeau Defends Subsidy –

Bombardier Pay –

More Pay –

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2 comments to “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” – and now we know how bilingual we really are. Will robots be taught to speak both French and English?

  • Larry

    Except the C series was too late to the party. After dominating the regional jet market segment with the CRJ, they did very little to counter the Embraer Ejet, which now dominates the regional market.
    The C series is also the wrong size, as it competes directly with the smaller Boeing and Airbus products – and is too large for the North American regional jet market which restricts regional jet size based on union scope clauses.
    Pity, it would have been nice to see a Canadian product actually succeed!

  • Another excellent insight, and pointedly appropriate for us readers south of your border. The past year was a sickening tirade of “Jobs going overseas, jobs being stolen by ‘Mexicans’, jobs being killed by environmentalists” and on and on. One television series I watch is How It’s Made. I’m amazed at the automation, including robotics, so pervasive in manufacturing. And, the comfort I might once have taken in the idea that humans had to design and build those machines is quickly dissipating as machines are developed to analyze needs and build the machines to meet those needs. Yet, not one word about this was spoken during the election campaigns. It was all “Bring our jobs back”.

    I very highly recommend the current book, Homo Deus. It includes an in depth analysis of this ongoing development and the inexorable shift toward a growing population of superfluous human beings.

    Thanks for a great article, Ray.