Voices of Digital Communities

When Robots are the Competition, Humans Have to Raise Their Game

“If you think that’s bad, wait until the next generation of robots.”

by / September 4, 2012


You.  Yeah, you.

Are you looking for a sure thing?  A can’t-lose opportunity?  How about an opportunity to invest in an industry that is growing like wildfire? It was worth $5.7 billion worldwide in 2010, when it shipped twice as many units as it had the year before.  Bring this industry into your city or region and it could kick-start a new era of growth.

Or it just might just wipe out more jobs than you can afford to lose.     

Robotics is the industry, and it was brought to my attention by my son-in-law, who is a software engineer working for Google. I was talking to him about ICF’s annual theme, innovation and employment, and the concern that the pace of innovation today risks destroying old jobs faster than we can equip people for the new jobs it creates.  His first words were “if you think that’s bad, wait until the next generation of robots.” 

My first reaction was, “oh, please.”  Since the first industrial robots were installed on assembly lines, there has been hand-wringing about the day that robots would throw us all out of work.  They did destroy jobs for some of us.  Assembly-line workers whose employable skills were welding automobile frames or screwing one thing onto another thing have seen a sharp drop in job opportunities over the past three decades.  But that’s over, right?  The damage has been done. 

Maybe not.  According to an article by John Markoff in the August 18 New York Times, robotics is going through a revolution of increased sophistication and falling costs that presages a breakout into a whole new world.  Older robots were insensitive to their surroundings.  They could be used only in situations, such as a manufacturing line, where everything is predictable and no pesky humans were around to get injured by a swinging arm.  They also required hours upon hours of skilled programming of every step.  If you wanted them to do the same task 100 million times and never get it wrong, they were ideal.  But only a certain amount of our economy requires fits that description. 

But today, “rapid improvement in vision and touch technologies is putting a wide array of manual jobs within the ability of robots,” writes Markoff.  “For example, Boeing’s wide-body commercial jets are now riveted automatically by giant machines that move rapidly and precisely over the skin of the planes…At Earthbound Farms in California, four newly installed robot arms with customized suction cups swiftly place clamshell containers of organic lettuce into shipping boxes.  The robots move far faster than the people they replaced.  Each robot replaces two to five workers.” 

In a garage in Palo Alto, “a robot armed with electronic ‘eyes’ and a small scope and suction cups repeatedly picks up boxes and drops them onto a conveyor belt.  It is doing what low-wage workers do every day around the world…The robot uses a technology pioneered in Microsoft’s Kinect motion sensing system for its Xbox video game system.”  A similar system installed in a warehouse in Arizona led to the elimination of 20 percent of the workforce.

How this revolution looks to you depends entirely on whether you live in High-Skilled Land, Middle-Skilled Land or Low-Skilled Land.  (See my last post.)  There’s nothing we can do to stop it or slow it down, and that’s a good thing. We need it to continue if our quality of life is to continue improving. 

Thomas Friedman made this point in a recent editorial (“I Made the Robot Do It”).  “Forget about ‘outsourcing.’  In today’s hyperconnected world, there is no “in” and no “out.”  There’s only ‘good, better and best,’ and if you don’t assemble the best team…your competitor will…Robots will eliminate jobs, just as the PC did, but they will be lower-skilled ones.  And the robots will also create new jobs or enlarge existing ones, but they will be jobs that require more skills.” 

But it does mean that the next generation of innovation – the main driver of economic progress both for the world and your community – will bring more stresses, not less.  Business growth will continue to produce employment growth – but it is not a given.  And every single citizen will need to know more and be able to do more next year than they can this year. 

Welcome to the future.

Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.