February 20, 2013


How robots are eating the last of America's--and the world's--traditional manufacturing jobs (Christopher Mims, February 15, 2013, Quartz)
Baxter, the affordable, humanoid industrial robot recently unveiled by Rethink Robotics, is so easy to program that I once did it one-handed and drunk. We were at a party at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and he was standing in the corner, looking lonely. No, really--Baxter has expressive eyes projected on a touchscreen where you'd expect it to have a face, virtually guaranteeing that you'll anthropomorphize it.

Drink in hand, I walked over and, with only the vaguest sense of how to get it to respond to my touch, grabbed it by the wrist. I guided its "hand" over to a box full of small objects. Its caliper-like fingers closed on a widget. Then I moved its hand, which offered almost no resistance at all, to another position on the table. It dropped the object.

After that, it dutifully repeated the procedure I had taught it, again and again, emptying the box. In a display of the sort of capabilities that used to be almost impossible in robotics but are now routine, its machine vision allowed it to cope with the differences in position and shape of each of the widgets. Baxter was untroubled by the poor lighting, loud music or my clumsiness. In less time than it takes to update my calendar, I had, in essence, trained Baxter to pack a box for shipping, or to transfer goods from one conveyor belt to another--two tasks that are common in manufacturing and distribution centers.

Since the end of the second world war, the proportion of people in the US who are working in manufacturing has declined steadily, from nearly 40% during the war to less than 10% today:

Many have blamed this decline on outsourcing--the movement of factories to countries where labor is cheaper. And there's no doubt that outsourcing has led to fewer factory jobs in the US and other rich countries.

And yet the US, like almost every other rich country on the planet, manufactures more stuff than it ever did. Manufacturers have replaced workers with machines--trading labor for capital. This means the manufacturing workers who remain are many times more productive than their forebears 50 years ago.

Baxter and robots like it represent an inflection point in the long trend of top-of-the-line manufacturing: The point at which the old system, in which unskilled laborers still have a place in factories, is retired forever. 

Posted by at February 20, 2013 10:40 AM

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