Special, year-long series examines new-age robots and their ever-increasing impact on us all.
By Tom Green
April 14, 2012
An exclusive, year-long Robotics Business Review series “Robots Among Us” tracks the evolution of robots into an ever broader participation with humans. From farming to deep-sea mining to automated transit systems to robot teachers, surgeons and household guardians, to autonomous aircraft, automobiles, freight trains and restaurant wait staff, we’ll report on how these new-age mechanical assistants are slipping into our lives and why—and what they are up to next.
The robots are coming, the robots are coming!
When the benefits of household robots grace the cover of an AARP publication (47 million readers), you better believe that lots of folks are finally getting very serious, very quickly about these strange machines that are seemingly everywhere in our lives these days. Then, when National Public Radio’s program Marketplace airs a week-long series titled, “Robots Ate My Job,” there’s more than one working person who feels that their job is coming to a robot menu much sooner than later.
Last year, when 2,200 GM workers together with 800 new robots returned to work at GM’s Lordstown Assemby Facility after a layoff, no one batted an eyelash about robots making up nearly one-third of the workforce. Robots, under cover of factory walls, have been making cars at Lordstown since 1969.
Times have changed. Today, Google’s robot automobile is cruising Nevada’s highways; robots are teaching English in India; there’s many a granny being shadowed around her home by a telepresence robot; and robot surgeons are in ORs removing prostate glands and replacing knee joints. Robots today are high profile, in-your-face and intimate with many forms of human activity and as such are getting noticed. And, by the way, robots are getting more dexterous and smarter as well. They can do much more than weld cars together. They are bypassing factories in favor of society at large and human-robot interaction is getting more commonplace.
Automation as grim reaper or catalyst for progress?
In 1957, over 200,000 people went to work each day in Manhattan with the job designation of elevator operator. Within a decade nearly all lost their jobs to robot-like machines that today tirelessly transport millions of riders millions of miles up and down buildings everywhere around the world around the clock. None earn wages, take coffee breaks or plan vacations. And virtually no one, while riding in these ubiquitous people movers, ever thinks that someone is out of work because of them. Technology and time have relegated elevator operators to join buggy whip wrappers and slide rule crafters to the ranks of the permanently unemployed.
Jobs have shelf life
Time and distance and the obviousness of the new technology often make the comparison between job loss and progress easy, e.g. Morse code and telegraph vs. the pony express. Although there are some jobs for human elevator operators still around, no one seriously checks the classified ads hoping to find one. No one pines away wishing to hand milk a cow for a living or pursue a career of packing Yodels. Automation has seen to that; automation puts a “use by date” on most every job.
If you take automation, embue it with some intelligence and build in a little autonomous mobility, voila, you’ve built a robot, which is then much more capable of delivering automation anywhere to anything, and thereby shortening the shelf life of most any job one can imagine. Whose job is next?
According to World Robotics from the International Federation of Robotics there are some 8.6 million robots in the world. Obviously more than a few jobs have already been lost to these automatons. On the other hand, robots have also created more than a few new jobs on their own, like the robots currently doing research on Mars, for instance. Because of these Martian explorers, humans have been employed to download and analyze what’s been found on the Red planet. We may one day soon see employment adverts that read: Only Robots Need Apply, or Human Wanted to Assist Robot. Don’t laugh. Humans—at a safe distance—assist robots at dangerous foundry jobs; Panasonic’s automated—robots only—Himeji LCD panel plant produces 810,000 flat panels a month.
What can we expect and when?
Jeremy Rifkin, writing way back in 1997, lands squarely on the side of automation, shouting bluntly in “New Technology and the End of Jobs,” and using bold sub-headings that cry out: “No more farmers. No more factory workers. The last service workers…In all three key employment sectors,” he forecasts, “agriculture, manufacturing, and services, machines are quickly replacing human labor and promise an economy of near automated production by the mid-decades of the twenty-first century.” Is Rifkin’s forecast at play today? Are we now presently experiencing an economic recovery without an accompanying employment recovery, as many economists have suggested as of late? If so, it’s a first in the economic history of the United States. But why is that? Automation, robots, maximal human productivity? All three?
Stay with us at Robotics Business Review throughout 2012 to see what develops during our year-long, members-only series, Robots Among Us. And keep watch for our RBR50—world leaders in robotics—to see how each is leading its own new-age robots into this onrushing brave new world.
Until then: Quo vadis, robot?
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See video: Special correspondent David Brancaccio from Marketplace sets the stage for people, jobs, robots and progress.
Watch out HR: Robot job interview