Thursday, October 28, 2010

Do robots take away jobs or just change the mix of workers?

All of us are thinking about jobs and the economy, and those of us that are techno-centric are also concerned about the discussion as to whether robots take away jobs -- or not. It's an argument that's been going on since the invention of robots. Hollywood has vilified robots while Asians think of them reverently. Nevertheless, the question is valid and disruptive. Disruptive in the sense that jobs are lost when a superior technology emerges - think workhorses when cars started to be mass-marketed. Our present digital era is a disruptive one.

Distributing the workload increases skill levels - think Microsoft Word versus stand-alone word processors, or travel agents when e-tickets and online airline websites surfaced.

Jeanne Dietsch, CEO of MobileRobots, said in her blog earlier this year:
Did people lose jobs to computers? Yes, a number of secretaries had to upgrade their skills, and executives who refused to learn to type had a tough time of it, just to cite two examples. But these jobs were replaced by tens of thousands of high-paying software engineering positions, plus computer installers, computer operators, data storage firms and more.
A very thoughtful and well researched paper about jobs and automation appeared in Good Magazine's "Automation Insurance: Robots Are Replacing Middle Class Jobs:
MIT economist David Autor
MIT economist David Autor published a report that looked at the shifting employment landscape in America. He came to this scary conclusion: Our workforce is splitting in two. The number of high-skill, high-income jobs (think lawyers or research scientists or managers) is growing. So is the number of low-skill, low-income jobs (think food preparation or security guards). Those jobs in the middle? They’re disappearing. Autor calls it “the polarization of job opportunities.” 
Princeton economist Paul Krugman is out there telling Congress to spend more money to create jobs. The former secretary of labor Robert Reich is arguing for tax breaks for the bottom brackets so people can buy stuff again. Here’s the thing, though: The erosion of the middle class is a phenomenon that’s bigger than the Great Recession. Middle-range jobs have been getting scarcer since the late 1970s, and wages for the ones that are still around have remained stagnant. 
In his report, Autor says that a leading explanation for the disappearance of the middle class is “ongoing automation and off-shoring of middle-skilled ‘routine’ tasks that were formerly performed primarily by workers with moderate education (a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree).” Routine tasks, he explains, are ones that “can be carried out successfully by either a computer executing a program or, alternatively, by a comparatively less-educated worker in a developing country.”

The culprit, in other words, is technology. The hard truth—and you don’t see it addressed in news reports—is that the middle class is disappearing in large part because technology is rendering middle-class skills obsolete. 
People say America doesn’t make anything anymore, but that’s not true. With the exception of a few short lapses, manufacturing output has been on the rise since the 1980s. What is true is that industrial robots have been carrying ever more of the manufacturing burden on their steely shoulders since they appeared in the 1950s. Today, a Japanese company called Fanuc, Ltd., has industrial robots making other industrial robots in a “lights out” factory. (That’s the somewhat unsettling term for a fully automated production facility where you don’t need lights because you don’t need humans.)
Research findings like this are just part of the current dialogue about whether robots are truly taking away jobs or just redistributing the workforce and increasing productivity.

Omitted from Autor's report, however, was that part of the dialogue which deals with investments in education and research and development. Because of intense focus (some might say greedy) on quarterly profits and production efficiencies to meet those quarterly quotas, we've had a decade where R & D has either been reduced or off-shored. Further, because of wars and other reasons, there's been less investment in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education - budget cuts - although the Obama Administration has been showing signs of renewed interest in this area in the last few months.

John Dulchinos, CEO, Adept
Earlier this year John Dulchinos, the CEO of Adept, during an interview with GetRobo's Noriko Kageki, made a dramatic observation:
Did you know that there are a billion cell phones per year being made globally of which 200-300 million are sold in the U.S. but not a single one is built in the US? Ten years ago that was not the case. 
If the industry can’t remain competitive, then there are no jobs. And robots are automating tasks no longer done by hand.  But in almost all cases those people are redeployed into other applications in the plant and allow the plant to grow and get even more efficient.
Foxconn workers
Sad but true. Even iPhones (and iPads, Macs and iPods) are manufactured in China. As many as 400,000 of the workers at Foxconn produce Apple products. (Foxconn has been in the news because that's the place where there were so many suicides and suicide attempts.) Thus the question is whether companies can compete from nearby manufacturing facilities or must they, in order to produce a low-cost product, resort to off-shoring. Many think that robotics and government investments in STEM education and vocational retraining can help the economy rather than enlarge the disparity described by Autor.

British pottery manufacturer Wade Ceramics is one such proponent of stay-at-home automation, and says Wade can now make some of its products for the same costs as firms in China – thanks to a £3 million investment in robotic equipment. Managing Director Paul Farmer, in a recent article in The Sentinel, said:
We haven't lost permanent staff because we have been busy in other parts of the business... We have lost some agency workers, but we have kept the permanent workforce stable. We are growing and in fact we are starting to recruit again... At the moment we're looking for engineers and machine operators.

Wage levels in China are going up and I believe the minimum-order quantities there are huge. This [robotic] technology and our flexibility means we can really exploit that.
Mr Farmer believes automation is becoming more important as traditional skills become harder to find.
There isn't any young blood coming through and we are all having to fight each other for the skills out there.
Wade Ceramics is representative of a very real situation: a shifting, reduced or diminishing workforce due to a variety of causes.  The effect is that Wade is having difficulty finding skilled labor to man its factories.  The same situation is appearing in certain areas around the world, Japan in particular. And robotics is playing a role in remedying the situation.  It seems to me that robotics and automation are inevitable and it's incumbent on governments to upwardly retrain and educate the workforce accordingly.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Autism, Robotics and Apple's iPad

Regular use of iPad on left -- unintended use for autistic kids on right
Here's an unintended consequence of the iPad that is having wonderful results with disabled kids, particularly those with spectrum disorders and communication problems.

There was a poignant story in the SF Chronicle that appears to be the most informative thus far on the subject.
Even the WSJ had an online story that included a quote from Steve Jobs on the subject:
"We take no credit for this, and that's not our intention," Mr. Jobs said, adding that the emails he gets from parents resonate with him. "Our intention is to say something is going on here," and researchers should "take a look at this."
I think the groundswell of uses and apps is touching and important.  Many of those apps are referenced in the SF Chronicle article. Perhaps it will speed up the robotic projects for the low end (hard cases) of the spectrum - projects which are wanting for funding to execute meaningful testing.

Here's a quote from a Los Angeles psychologist that works daily with autistic kids within the school system:
Lots of my kids are using iPads -- especially my kids with limited expressive language or who struggle with retrieval challenges. Because the iPad is not static -- it can be accessed from every angle -- it facilitates greater usage.
The ease of use and low cost of the iPad make it suitable for all these apps.  Before the iPad, parents and school systems had to beg MediCare and other providers for $8,000 or so for a product and software that was similar but with less flexibility, speed, intuitive use and range of software apps as that provided by the iPad.

Some very poignant and informative videos are available on youTube:
A few good resources describing these new iPad apps can be found here:
Have these iPad apps provided the lift therapists and educators need to help them help their disabled kids or is there still a need for robots? A very strong "YES" say the psychologists, educators and therapists that I've discussed this with.  The number of cases is so large and the range of disabilities so extensive that many different treatment methodologies are needed.  Robots have the patience and discipline that difficult cases require.  One notable robotic project that works in this arena is Kaspar.

Kaspar is a small likable robot developed at the University of Hertfordshire where Drs. Kerstin Dautenhahn and Ben Olsen have demonstrated this relatively inexpensive and very portable robot designed specifically to interact with low-spectrum level autistic children.

Dautenhahn and Olsen have had some successes with their robot and they showed me videos of children interacting with the robot and then sharing their excitement with their teacher or parent - a social response not typical of children with this disorder. They had many similar successful anecdotal stories and recently lent one of their Kaspar robots to another University for a more extensive study of 29 autistic children.  The results will be available soon and their hope is that the results will confirm what they have observed: that there is long-lasting social improvement by utilizing the robot as part of the overall therapy with the child.

Dautenhahn and Olsen, when I visited last month, were frustrated that they were unable to raise enough money to run a larger study of their own to prove the benefits of Kaspar's type of robotic interaction.  I was moved by their plight and have suggested the story to some of my reporter friends hoping that a favorable article would give them some attention and perhaps interest a donor or two to help them achieve their goals.  Got bucks?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Bionic Prosthetics Finally Reaching The Market

Exo-assisted soldier lifts and loads heavy munitions
Exoskeletons to meet the needs of the military have narrowed to two major vendors: Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. Ratheon's new XOS2 robotic suit is lighter, faster and stronger than its predecessor and uses 50% less power.  Nevertheless it is extremely bulky and cumbersome.

Legs-only version of HULC
Lockheed Martin's HULC, licensed from Berkeley Bionics, is a completely untethered, hydraulic-powered exoskeleton that enables users to carry loads of up to 200 pounds for extended periods of time and over all terrains.  HULC is presently undergoing testing at the Army's Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Florida.

Cyberdyne's HAL
Meanwhile, Japan's Cyberdyne non-military HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) looks better, weighs less, operates longer on battery power.  It was recently chosen for an ABT-funded EU project in Denmark for a rehabilitation center at Odense University Hospital for clinical trials regarding worker augmentation, a use of interest to many.

Just last February, at an FDA Workshop in Washington, DC, I was demoralized to learn that wounded soldiers were still being fitted with old-fashioned hook appliances (CBS News) instead of the ones that I had been reading about in the science and tech journals.  

Dean Kamen shows off "Luke"
prosthetic under development at DEKA Labs
Shortly thereafter, Dean Kamen plugged DEKA's not-yet-ready arm and hand prosthetic (named "Luke") on The Colbert Report.  I asked an acquaintance from the VA about the situation and he commented that the DARPA/DEKA product was too heavy and not-yet ready for prime time.

When I asked him about TouchBionics, a British firm that had already done all the trials and had received the appropriate EU approvals for their bionic limbs, hands and fingers, he said that they had good products and that the VA would pay for them if they were asked to do so by the patient and his or her doctors.  Was that happening, I asked?  Were wounded Americans getting British products? No, was his answer... because nobody told them they could.

Today, one of the trickle-down products from all this government-sponsored activity has arrived and it is impressive: eLEGS from Berkeley Bionics, Lockheed Martin's partner with the military's HULC product. eLEGS provides a complete replacement of a natural human gait using the exoskeleton developed for the military. And the exoskeleton suit has been scaled down to reasonable proportions.

Check out this eLEGs video:

eLEGS was unveiled at a press conference yesterday in San Francisco by Berkeley Bionics’ CEO, Eythor Bender, who explained that the company’s mission is to provide people with unprecedented mobility options.
Many of the 6 million Americans who live with some form of paralysis today were highly active and at the top of their game when they sustained their injury. As they research their options for increased mobility, they discover that wheelchairs are pretty much it. This has been the only alternative – their only hope – for nearly 500 years,” he said. “We want to enhance their independence and freedom of movement,” he added, “and with eLEGS, they can stand up and walk for the first time since their injury.

eLEGS is not yet available to the general public. Clinical trials will commence early next year at select rehabilitation clinics in the United States. A limited release of eLEGS is scheduled during the second half of 2011 at several of the most respected rehabilitation facilities around the country. At that time, eligible patients will have the opportunity to enroll in a medically-supervised eLEGS gait training program, working with their physical therapist. Therapists will undergo training in order to become eLEGS-certified prior to assisting patients.
Many technological breakthroughs are creating a roadmap that is sure to offer disabled people new prosthetic devices to help them help themselves to a more normal existence in the very near future. Hands, arms, feet, legs, ankles, fingers... many are reaching the FDA in the form of clinical trials such as those described above for eLEGS. And there are advances that include wiring existing nerve endings in such a way as to give the wearer true sensation of feeling and touch.

The following projects are worthwhile and offer near-term possibilities for the disabled:
  • SmartHand, an EU-funded bio-adaptive hand prothesis
  • Modular Prosthetic Limb (MPL), a DARPA funded project at Johns Hopkins University, is designed to respond to user's thoughts
  • PowerFoot One from iWalk, funded by MIT, the VA and the US Army's Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center
  • REX Bionics' exoskeleton is a product similar to eLEGS in that it helps wheelchair users attain vertical mobility
  • Finally, an exoskeleton power assist suit (PAS)  from the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology is oriented to elder Japanese to help them lift and squat while farming their gardens and vegetable plots
All of the projects mentioned are focused on healthcare.  There are many other robotic hand, arm and gripper projects of equal merit which aren't oriented to the healthcare marketplace but will be reviewed in a future article.