Saturday, April 13, 2013

The final word about robots and jobs

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report


At the Xconomy Forum held in Palo Alto earlier this week, the focal topic was "Robots Remake the Workplace." It was expected that the jobs issue would permeate the event... do robots take away jobs? Instead, what was evident to all in the room was that all the speakers were in the new Service Robotics sector of the industry and they were all creating new jobs.

A few simple facts emerged:

  1. It's true: industrial robots do take away jobs, often in big numbers. Generally, these are jobs that humans don't want to do or shouldn't be doing. After a short time, the displaced workers are replaced in higher level tasks (and perhaps re-distributed downstream or elsewhere). This process has and will continue to be happening.
  2. On the other hand, Service Robotics create jobs that didn't exist before, often in respectable numbers, numbers that today - as Service Robotics grow - may very well equal or exceed jobs lost by the use of industrial robots. And these new jobs could grow to much greater numbers as the industry continues to flourish. These are jobs that people want and that pay well.
  3. There is a political component not presently being adequately addressed as automation transform the workplace by replacing humans with machines that have encapsulated their skills and can perform those skills flawlessly. Retraining and upgrading the general educational system to enable the higher tech skills needed for these new jobs needs a shot of reality instead of spin.
  4. Under the rubric that success breeds success, each recent successful robotics venture was less focused on the metrics of labor cost reduction than on enabling growth limited by hard-to-find labor.

Curt Carlson, President & CEO, SRI
As we move quickly toward what Curt Carlson, CEO of SRI International, said is a "zero inventory, zero delay, and 100% personalized" world, it will likely be true that fewer people will be working in manufacturing.

Carlson's catchy phrase encapsulates both the complexity and simplicity of the process - and the momentum for it to happen. The process will likely be driven by (1) lower costs of sensors, CPUs and hardware and (2) more capable AI, and the drivers propelling it forward will be the aging population and global competitiveness.

Thus jobs were not the main topic at the Xconomy Forum; the issue was an aside. The main topic was really the progress and inroads robotics are adding to the global automation and business solutions process.

The jobs issue did lend itself to the two best jokes of the day:

  1. Ten years from now all the robots will be out on strike saying, "Those damn 3D printers are taking away our jobs!"
  2. Let's reconvene this debate 10 years from now when we have all this time on our hands [after our jobs have been replaced by robots].