I, For One, Welcome Our New Robot Overlords

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A quiet revolution has been going on in our factories. Quiet because it has been picking up pace for the last five years largely below the radar of the man on the street. Like the revolution in computing power, Moore’s Law of near exponential growth in power and reduction in size applies to this factory revolution while we’re mostly not even aware of the pace of change.

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I am talking, of course, about robotics. Several articles recently explored a number of developments that illustrate how the use of robots is changing and they offer a glimpse of what is to come. Notably, an FT article debunks the widely held view that Asia is the sweatshop of the world, that it’s manufacturing sector is exclusively based on, indeed, could not survive without access to cheap labor.

ASIMO vs. Xianxingzhe
The FT leads by showing via a global map of robots sales and use that just three countries purchased more robots in 2013 and have a larger stock of working robots in manufacturing than the rest of the world put together. Bizarrely China bought 36,560, one in five industrial robots sold globally in 2013, overtaking Japan for the first time to become the largest robot buyer in the world as the Chinese moved decisively to counter rising wages and a deteriorating worker demographic.

By comparison Japan bought 26,015 robots in 2013, with the US in third place with 23,679. Robot sales to China have increased 36%, on average, every year from 2008 to 2013, according to the International Federation of Robotics data, an industry group based in Germany. Further growth potential is huge: in 2012, China had just 23 robots for every 10,000 people employed in the manufacturing industry, compared with 396 in South Korea.

Beyond Autobots

The automotive industry has driven robot use globally and accounts for 60% of robot purchases in China but a recent development is expected to herald wider use in other industries. According to the IFR, the automotive industry represented around 70,000 of the overall 179,000 robot sales in 2013, a record year of sales.

The electronics industry is the next biggest robot user with over 35,000 robot sales. The food industry bought just over 6,200 last year. Traditionally, robots have been used for heavy lifting and hazardous tasks such as welding, finding Sarah Connor and spraying. Performing these tasks allows a robot’s  human companions to stay protected from these dangerous activities. However, rapid advances in processing, sensors and software combined with a steady reduction in costs has allowed the adoption of robotics in a much wider range of industries.

Agriculture and large-scale construction are cited by one article as two areas undergoing rapid mechanization but cheap ubiquitous computing power will bring robots to many more areas in the next ten years. As the FT notes, by the time our 10-year-olds have degrees in computing (and, hence, robots), computers will be a hundred times cheaper and smarter than they are today.

R2, Take the Wheel

We have already seen the loss of middle-tier jobs to automation. Have you seen a typist or bank teller recently? It’s even touched semi-skilled manufacturing jobs such as automotive line work.

Where will the application of robots impact jobs next? Robots are capable of roles that require continual adaptation and learning now, not just the repetitive roles of the production line. A few years ago the idea of driverless cars seemed like science fiction, the safety aspects alone seemed to be insurmountable, but Google has proven it can be done.

Public acceptance is the biggest remaining barrier. It is easier to see how manual jobs could be replaced by robots, traditionally that’s where we have expected to see the biggest impact, but we may be surprised by the rapidly accelerating role they play in areas like medicine. Disruptive as the process will certainly be, it will be less so if we embrace the changes and try to find ways to accommodate the fallout for workers’ jobs and incomes.

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