Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Skilled Work, Without the Worker

New York Times (08/18/12) John Markoff

A new wave of robots is replacing workers around the world in the manufacturing and distribution industries as many factories that utilize robots are becoming more efficient than those that rely on hundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers. The falling costs and growing sophistication of robots have sparked a debate between economists and technologists over how quickly jobs will be lost. "The pace and scale of this encroachment into human skills is relatively recent and has profound economic implications," say Massachusetts Institute of Technology economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. Distribution also is being changed by advanced robotics. Robots can move at the speed of the fastest human sprinters, storing, retrieving, and packing goods for shipment much more efficiently than their human counterparts. Meanwhile, improvement in vision and touch technologies is putting a wide range of manual jobs in jeopardy. For many applications, robots are already more cost-effective than humans, according to robot manufacturers. However, they note that although blue-collar jobs will be lost, more efficient manufacturing will create skilled jobs in designing, operating, and servicing the assembly lines. The next generation of robots for manufacturing will be even more flexible and easier to train.