robots and employment

Robots and Employment



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One of the hallmarks of the twenty-first century is that we are all having more and more interactions with machines, and fewer with human beings.

If you’ve lost your white-collar job to downsizing or to a worker in India or China, you’re most likely a victim of what economists have called “technological unemployment”.

There’s a lot of it going around, with more come.

At the vanguard of this new wave of automation is the field of robotics. Everyone has a different idea of what a robot is and what they look like. But the broad, universal definition is a machine that can perform the job of a human.

They can be mobile or stationary, hardware or software — and they are marching out of the realm of science fiction and into the mainstream.

The age of robots has been anticipated since the beginning of the last century. Fritz Lang fantasized about it in his 1927 film, Metropolis. In the 1940s and 50s, robots were often portrayed as household help.

And by the time the Star Wars trilogy arrived, robots with their computerized brains and nerve systems, had been fully integrated into our imagination.

Now, they’re finally here.

But instead of serving us, we find them competing for our jobs. And according to MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, one of the reasons for the jobless recovery.

Andrew McAfee, Professor, MIT: “Our economy is bigger than it was before the start of the great recession, corporate profits are back, business investment in hardware and software is back — higher than it’s ever been.

What’s not back is the jobs.”

Journalist: “And you think technology and increased automation is a factor of that?”

Erik Brynjolfsson, Professor, MIT: “Absolutely.”

The percentage of Americans with jobs is at a 20-year low. Just a few years ago, if you travelled by air, you would have interacted with a human ticket agent.

Today, those jobs are being replaced by robotic kiosks. Bank tellers have given way to ATMs. Sales clerks are surrendering to e-commerce, and switchboard operators and secretaries to voice recognition technology.

Erik Brynjolfsson, Professor, MIT: “There are lots of examples of routine, middle-skilled jobs that involve relatively structured tasks, and those are the jobs are being eliminated the fastest. Those kinds of jobs are easier for our friends in the artificial intelligence community to design robots to handle them.

They could be software robots, they could be physical robots.”

Journalist: “What is there out there that people would be surprised to learn about in the robotics area, let’s say?”

Andrew McAfee: “There are heavily automated warehouses where there are either very few or no people around. That absolutely took me by surprise.”

It’s on display at this huge distribution center in Devons, Massachusetts, where roughly 100 employees work alongside 69 robots that do all the heavy lifting and navigate a warehouse maze the size of two football fields, moving 10,000 pieces of merchandise a day, from storage shelf to shipping point faster and more efficiently than human workers ever could.

Bruce Welty, CEO, Quiet Logistics: “We think it’s part of the new American economy.”

Bruce Welty is CEO of Quiet Logistics, which fills orders and ships merchandise for retailers in the apparel industry.

This entire operation was designed around the small, orange robots, made by a company outside Boston called Kiva, and can now be found in warehouses all over the country.

Journalist: “Now this is the order that she’s filling, right, on this screen?
Bruch Welty, CEO, Quiet Logistics: “Yes. In a typical warehouse, she’d have to walk from location to location, with a number tote. And that’s the innovation here: the product comes to her.”
Journalist: “And all of this is pre-programmed? Nobody has to sit there and tell these robots where to go?”
Bruce Wealthy: “No, no. It’s all done with algorithms. It’s a lot of mathematics, a lot of science that went into this.”

Customer orders are transmitted from a computer to Wi-Fi antennas that direct the robots to the merchandise, guiding them across an electronic checkerboard with barcodes embedded in the floor panels.

Once the robot arrives at its destination, it picks up an entire shelf of merchandise, and delivers it to the packing station. It then speeds off to its next assignment.

Bruce Welty: “They know if they need to get from point A to point B, and they’re not carrying anything, they can go underneath the grid. We call that tunneling, so they’re very smart.”
Journalist: “You’d think they’d run into each other.”
Bruce Welty: “Yeah, you’d think that, but it never happens.”
Journalist: “If you had to replace the robots with people, how many people would you have to hire?”
Bruce Welty: “Probably one-and-a-half people for every robot.”
Journalist: “So it saves you a lot of money?”
Bruce Welty: “Yes.”

And it’s not just going on in warehouses: El Camino Hospital in California’s Silicon Valley has a fleet of robots called “tugs” that ferry meals to patients, medicines to doctors and nurses, blood samples to the lab and dirty linen to the laundry.

A hospital spokesman told us the tugs are supposed to supplement nurses and hospital staff — not replace them. But he also believes that robots and humans working together is the beginning of a new era.

Robots are now wielding scalpels for surgeons; assisting in the most delicate operations, allowing them to see and snip their way through prostate surgeries with minimal damage. And they’ve begun filing prescriptions in hospital dispensaries and local pharmacies.

Economic evolution has been going on for centuries, and society has always successfully adapted to technological changes, creating more jobs in the process.

But Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT think this time may be different.

Erik Brynjolfsson: “Technology is always creating jobs; it’s always destroying jobs — but right now the pace is accelerating: it’s faster we think than ever before in history.

So as a consequence, we are not creating jobs at the same pace that we need to.”

Andrew McAfee: “And we ain’t seen nothing yet.”

The changes are coming so quickly, it’s been difficult for workers to retrain themselves and for entrepreneurs to figure out where the next opportunities may be.

The catalyst is something called computer learning or artificial intelligence: the ability to feed massive amounts of data into supercomputers and program them to teach themselves and improve their performance.

It’s how Apple was able to create Siri, the iPhone robot . . . and Google, it’s self-driving car.

Erik Brynjolfsson: “We’ve been amazed at how rapidly this has been happening. IBM’s deep QA system plays Jeopardy. We had a contest here that played against our best MIT students, the best Harvard students we could put it up against. And not surprisingly, Watson won.

And it’s being used in real practical applications now on Wall Street and in call centers. In Siri, many people are using that every day.”

Andrew McAfee: “The fact that computers can now understand and respond to human speech, the fact that they can actually generate prose of decent quality. They can drive cars. They can win at Jeopardy.

We’re seeing technology demonstrate skills that’s never ever done before.”

And it’s putting new categories of jobs in the sites of automation, the 60% of the workforce that makes its living gathering and analyzing information. This piece of software called e-Discovery is now used by law firms in the discovery portion of legal proceedings, a job that used to require hundreds of people sifting through boxes and boxes of documents.

We now have robots gathering intelligence and fighting wars, and robot computers trading stocks on Wall Street.

It’s all part of a massive high-tech industry that’s contributed enormous productivity and wealth to the American economy.
But surprisingly little in the way of employment.

Andrew McAfee: “We absolutely are creating new jobs, new companies in entirely new industries. These days, when Erik and I go out to Silicon Valley and look around, the scale of the pace of creating is astonishing.

What these companies are not doing though, is hiring a ton of people to help them with their work.

Journalist: “Because they don’t have them; because they can’t find them?”

Andrew McAfee: “They can’t find everyone they need, but they don’t need that many people to work in these incredibly large and influential companies.

To make that concrete, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google are now all public companies. Combined they have close to a trillion dollars in market capitalization. Together, the four of them employ fewer than 150,000 people, and that’s less than the number of new entrants into the American workforce every month.”

And it’s roughly half the number of people that work for General Electric.

Ironically, one of the few bright spots is a modest rise in US manufacturing, an early casualty of automation that is making a comeback because of it.

This Tesla factory in California turns out battery-powered cars using state-of-the-art robots that can change tools and perform a multitude of different tasks, negating some of the advantages of moving jobs offshore.

Annual investment by US manufacturers in new technology has increased almost 30 percent since the recession ended, and research institutions and robotics companies funded by venture capital are constantly searching for innovations, like the Roomba vacuum cleaner.

That was the brainchild of Rodney Brookes, a pioneer who ran the artificial intelligence lab at MIT before launching iRobot, one of the most successful robotics companies in the US.

This is his latest progeny, a friendly, affordable chap named Baxter.

Rodney Brookes: “It’s meant to go in a factory where they don’t have robots at the moment, and ordinary workers can train it to do simple tasks such.”

Journalist: “Such as?”
Rodney Brookes: “Well, as a simple one is just for instance picking stuff up off a conveyor belt, so it’s going to go down and find the object and grab it and bring it over and put it to another spot.”

Baxter costs $22,000 and can be trained to do a new task by a co-worker in a matter of minutes. It can also be upgraded like an iPad with new software as new applications have developed.

Brookes and investors in his new startup, Rethink Robotics, see a potential market worth tens of billions of dollars, and believe that Baxter could help small US manufacturers level the playing field against low-cost foreign competitors.

Rodney Brookes: “If you’re using robots to compete with the simple task that a low paid worker does in a foreign country, you can bring it back here and do that task here.”

Journalist: “Baxter costs 22 grand.”

Rodney Brookes: “Yep.”

Journalist: “How long does he last?”

Rodney Brookes: “Last three years. So you can think of that as sixty-five hundred (6,500) hours.”

Journalist: “I think it works out to about $3.40 an hour. Three dollars and forty cents: that’s probably the wages of the Chinese worker.”

Rodney Brookes: “Just about right there now.”

Journalist: “So here, you could buy one of these robots; it would be like a Chinese worker?”

Rodney Brookes: “In a manner of speaking.”

That strategy has already had some success at Adept Technology, the largest manufacturer of industrial robots in the country, with a wide and varied product line. John Dulchinos is the CEO.

John Dulchinos, CEO Adept Technology: “So this is our flagship product: this is our Cobra robot. This is the class of robot that is used to automate Phillips electric shavers.”

The robots at the Dutch company’s factory in the Netherlands proved to be so efficient and economical, that Philips decided to move its main shaver assembly line out of China and back to Holland.

Erik Brynjolfsson, Professor, MIT: “I think that those workers in China, in India are more in the bull’s-eye of this automation tidal wave that we’re talking about than the American workers.”

But even if offshore manufacturing returns to the US, most of the jobs will go to robots.

Andrew McAfee: “When I see what computers and robots can do right now, I project that forward four to three more generations, I think we are going to find ourselves in a world where the work as we currently think about it is largely done by machines.”

Journalist: “And what are the people going to do?”

Andrew McAfee: “That’s the $64,000 question. Science fiction is actually my best guide because I think we are in that timeframe. We’re going to be in a very weird, very different place.”

It brings to mind Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the rebellious computer robot Hal. Technologically speaking, we are just about there.

Everyone agrees that it is impossible now to short-circuit technology. It has a life of its own and the world is all in for better or for worse.

We wanted to leave you on this positive note:

Erik Brynjolfsson, Professor, MIT: “One thing that Andy and I agree on is that we’re not worried about robots becoming self-aware and challenging our authority. That part of science fiction I think is not very likely to happen.”


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1. People are dealing more with technical devices than with other people. True or false?

2. Are robots only machines with mechanical arms, legs and a head?

3. The economy has been improving and adding lots of new jobs. Is this right or wrong? Why haven’t lots of new jobs been created?

4. What are some examples of robots or automation replacing human workers?

5. Do companies prefer robots to do certain tasks more than humans? Why do they often prefer robots?

6. Robots can only do routine, repetitive, unskilled tasks. Is this correct or incorrect? What are some examples?

7. Do millions of people work for giant tech companies like Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon?

8. Are there any positive developments regarding automation and jobs in the US?

9. What do the experts predict will happen in the future?


A. Has your company or organization undergone robotization, automation or computerization?

B. Are there certain positions in your industry that can be automated?

C. How do you and your friends and colleagues feel about automation and robots?

D. What will happen in the future?

E. What should replaced workers do? What should employees do? Should the government do anything?

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