Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Collateral damage in the robot invasion

In the 20th century, changes in technology reduced employment in agriculture from 40% of the workforce to 2%. In the 21st century, it appears that robots are having a similar effect in manufacturing and distribution.

While robots have been used in the manufacture of automobiles and other products for several decades, there were many tasks best handled by humans. But, the latest generation of robots have much improved vision and touch capabilities, and can complete multiple tasks, so they can perform a much wider spectrum of manual jobs.

These range from riveting the bodies of jetliners to packing lettuce for shipping. In warehouses, robots can find and sort packages and boxes in seconds, much faster than a human being.

Costs of this equipment is coming down rapidly, making them much cheaper than human labour over the lifetimes of the machines. In fact, Rethink Robotics is now designing inexpensive, easy-to-use robots for small businesses.

While all this adds to efficiency and productivity, the downside is the potential for massive reduction in the requirement for low-skilled and semi-skilled workers. Where people are retained, many will be directed and tracked by computers. This is already happening.

In an era of austerity, will the necessary safety nets and retraining be ready to aid the huge numbers of workers who will be dislocated by these changes?

For a peek at the current state of robotics, here's a look at a BMW factory:

[Written with information from The New York Times]


  1. Amazing video. So much potential for good if we (humankind) can adjust to this new world.

  2. I fear it will be a difficult transition for those on the lower rungs of the social ladder.