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- March 31, 2014 at 7:41 pm #346442
“OUR ROBOTS PUT people to work,” says the rejected slogan still on the whiteboard in Rodney Brooks’s office. It was meant to convey the belief that led Mr Brooks to start Rethink Robotics: that robots in small manufacturing businesses can create new jobs, or at least bring old ones back from China, thus helping to launch an American manufacturing renaissance. But the message could also be read another way: robot overlords forcing human helots into back-breaking labour. Better left unsaid.
Small and medium-sized companies are between 20 and 200 times less likely to use robots than large ones in similar sectors, according to a study carried out by Metra Martech, a consultancy, for the IFR. They could thus become an important market if someone were to offer them the right robots, which would open up new sectors of the economy to the productivity gains that can come with automation. Such robots would still do routine tasks but would be able to switch from one set of tasks to another as required, perhaps every few weeks, perhaps a couple of times a day. They would therefore be heavily dependent on their human fellow workers to set them up and get them going.
Rethink reckons it has the right robot for the job in Baxter, a two-armed quasi-humanoid (it cannot move itself) that can be easily adapted to a number of packaging and assembly tasks. It embodies a lot of innovative technology. The joints of its arms use a relatively new gizmo called a series elastic actuator which gives the robot’s software control over the amount of force that they exert at any given time, rather than just their location in space (an innovation pioneered by Mr Pratt, now running robotics at DARPA). This makes Baxter very safe to be around; if it meets unexpected resistance from, say, the head of a human worker, it will stop before any harm is done.
Baxter also has a splendidly intuitive programming interface. By grasping Baxter’s wrists, an operator can easily take it through new movements; the robot’s “face”—a screen with animated eyes which show what Baxter is “paying attention to”, among other things—helps gauge the success of the programming. Mike Fair of Rethink says it took him just a couple of hours to teach Baxter to make a cup of coffee using a kitchen coffee-maker, and he did not have to touch a computer keyboard. That all this cleverness could be put into a machine that sells for just $25,000 has amazed many of Mr Brooks’s former colleagues in academia.
However, Baxter has not taken the market by storm, perhaps in part because it started off rather imprecise in its movements (a software upgrade, Mr Brooks says, has improved precision a lot). Being designed for a market that almost by definition barely knows it wants such a thing has not made life any easier. Rethink laid off some workers last December and is trying harder to sell Baxter to robotics researchers. One former colleague of Mr Brooks’s sees this as a potentially dangerous splitting of the company’s attention: if Baxter is to succeed as a practical robot, the company should concentrate on the robot’s industrial users.
More broadly, though, the idea that robots are no longer the preserve of manufacturers with capital budgets in the tens of millions of dollars is taking root, alongside the idea that such robots offer industrial countries a way of keeping, or winning back, jobs that would otherwise be carried out in places where labour is a lot cheaper. Universal Robots, which has less nifty technology than Rethink but perhaps a more down-to-earth approach to the market, is taken seriously in Denmark in part because Danish workers are among the most expensive in the world and will keep their jobs, or find new ones, only by becoming ever more productive. Integrating ever more user-friendly robots into the human teams on the factory and workshop floor could offer such productivity gains, especially when the strengths of the robots are used to the full—for example, when robot precision is used to guide work carried out by human hands.
Is this time different?
Robot-makers see their wares as a way of creating employment, both by allowing companies to make existing products more efficiently and by enabling them to manufacture new things that could not be made in any other way, such as ever more precisely engineered electronics and cars, not to mention films like “Gravity”. Others fear that their net effect will be to destroy a lot of jobs, and indeed that they may already be doing so. Nick Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford, has seen a big change of heart about such technological unemployment in his discipline recently. The received wisdom used to be that although new technologies put some workers out of jobs, the extra wealth they generated increased consumption and thus created jobs elsewhere. Now many economists are taking the short- to medium-term risk to jobs far more seriously, and some think the potential scale of change may be huge. Mr Thrun draws a parallel with employment in agriculture, which accounted for almost all jobs in the pre-modern era but has since shrunk to just 2% of the workforce. The advent of robots will have a similar effect, he predicts, but over a much shorter period. Even so, he is sure that human ingenuity will generate new jobs, just as it created vast new industries to counteract the decline in agricultural employment.
Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, both at MIT, also have high hopes for the long-term effect of robots and similar technologies. But in a recent book, “The Second Machine Age”, they argue that technological dislocation may create great problems for moderately skilled workers in the coming decades. They reckon that innovation has speeded up a lot in the past few years and will continue at this pace, for three reasons: the exponential growth in computing power; the progressive digitisation of things that people work with, from maps to legal texts to spreadsheets; and the opportunities for innovators to combine an ever-growing stock of things, ideas and processes into ever more new products and services.
Between them, these trends might continue to “hollow out” labour markets in developed countries and, soon enough, developing ones, as more and more jobs requiring medium levels of skill are automated away. This helps explain, the authors argue, why the benefits of economic growth increasingly accrue to a small group of highly paid people, citing in evidence the lack of growth in America’s median wage and the decline in workforce participation. A paper by Jeffrey Sachs and Lawrence Kotlikoff highlights the worrying possibility that this shift could be self-perpetuating: if automation absorbs jobs previously reserved for young people, who have not yet had time to build up skills, it will stop them from acquiring those skills, and its destructive effects will reverberate down the years.
There is some cause for scepticism. If new technology is eating jobs, one might expect it to show up more clearly in productivity figures, which are not changing much—though it is possible that those figures fail to pick up the benefits of, say, the easier availability of a much wider range of entertainment through the internet. The rise in the number of women in the workforce and the effects of globalisation have also had an effect on the working prospects of American men.
That said, even if it turned out that technology was not the problem, the fact that people worry about technology and that they project their technological worries onto robots means that robots would be blamed. In truth, a noticeable robot presence in a workplace may be a good indicator that human employment, too, is flourishing there; it shows that the process is worth investing in. Even in a heavily robotised modern car factory such as the one which builds Tesla’s electric cars—perhaps the most advanced such workplace in the world—there are still a lot of human workers to be seen.
“Invisible” robots, such as Aethon’s Tugs, look like more pernicious job eaters, ready to take over much of the work that hospital porters do today. Mr Thrun offers Kiva’s warehouse robots as an example of a similar labour-replacing system. And software will take over a lot of the tasks carried out by humans sitting in front of screens. In a recent study of the susceptibility of jobs to computerisation carried out by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne at Oxford University, many of the job categories at greatest risk involved hardly any manual labour at all.
Given the doornail dumbness of machines, how can they take over so many moderately skilled jobs? One of the answers is that if you have enough doornails and enough data, there are ways of simulating smartness that are proving good enough to solve an ever greater range of problems, and that problems restricted to the world of data are much more tractable than those that require manipulating things in the real world.
Andrew Ng of Stanford is a pioneer and advocate of this sort of “machine learning”, a product of the trends towards ever cheaper computing power and ever more widespread digitisation that Mr Brynjolfsson and Mr McAfee describe. Working with Google, Mr Ng came up with a system that, using 16,000 processors to look at a significant fraction of a video on YouTube, came to “recognise” cats with no prior knowledge that there was such a thing. Google uses related approaches to tackle a number of more practical problems, such as machine translation and voice recognition. It would be surprising if it did not apply the same sort of thinking to its new acquisitions in robotics, whether they are used in manufacturing, in services or for that matter in agriculture or construction.
To work, perchance to play
Managing changing tasks in a changing world means that many workplaces will still need humans, but as workplaces become more efficient the number of people employed will shrink in the long run. William Nordhaus, a Yale economist, has shown that even though the world has become much better lit in an ever-widening variety of ways over the past few centuries, the number of people who provide the ever better lighting has declined. There is, in the end, only so much light that people can consume. Many other human needs, too, can probably be satisfied with less labour in the future, though that will take time.
Whether this job attrition will be too quick to allow for the creation of new jobs in other sectors of the economy (if, indeed, there are sectors that can continue to grow without limit) is impossible to say, not least because it depends on how well society as a whole adapts through continuing education and other investments. It is even conceivable that the fruits of greater productivity will be distributed so as to allow people to work less and spend more time doing other things. After all, the humour in the double meaning of the message that “Our robots put people to work” depends on understanding that people do not necessarily want to work, if they have better things to do.
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