A very dense article on Quartz on how robots are eating the last of America’s—and the world’s—traditional manufacturing jobs. Lots of small sentences with deep implications. To start with one of the conclusions, robots are good news for developed countries as they will allow them to “re-shore” manufacturing capacities.
Already, China is losing jobs to countries with even lower wages. But eventually, “you run out of places to chase the [cheap] labor,” says Rodney Brooks, chief technology officer of Rethink Robotics. While he believes that this means that eventually, rich countries will be forced to “re-shore” manufacturing capacity that they have sent overseas, it applies equally to developing countries: At some point, an aging population and ever-cheaper robots means that China’s factories will look a lot more like those in Japan, Germany and the US.
Other interesting bits: an increasing number of workers’s jobs are to enable machines to work:
“Maddie,” is an unskilled laborer, or a “Level 1,” whose job it is to place parts into a machine that performs a particular operation on them without any adjustment from a human. […] Maddie’s job, like that of all Level 1′s, is “machine tending.” She merely enables a machine to work.
Beside manufacturing, some intellectual jobs are also being replaced by softwares and robots:
In 1979, the four middle-skill occupations—sales, office and administrative workers, production workers, and operators—accounted for 57.3 percent of employment. In 2007, this number was 48.6 percent, and in 2009, it was 45.7 percent. […] what’s happened to manufacturing is also happening to what economist Andrew McAfee calls routine cognitive workers, everyone from office secretaries who have been displaced by productivity software to librarians who lost their jobs to Google Search
Robots have the potential to bring jobs back to developed countries, but we are not talking about that many jobs…
While Baxter might bring manufacturing back to the US, “it’s not clear it will bring a lot of manufacturing jobs back to the US.” Even if robots could help bring jobs back to rich countries like the US, manufacturing is already so automated that the number of jobs that could be gained in that process would be “modest.”
There are two distinct ways in which you can read this article:
- Glass half full: we lost manufacturing jobs to China anyway. At least robots will bring *some* back home. Robots will free us from repetitive, dull tasks and allow workers to concentrate only on more value adding jobs (unless workers are only “machine tending”).
- Glass half empty: robots will steal an increasing number of jobs, first in manufacturing, then routine cognitive jobs, then the more complex knowledge based jobs. See for example: UBS fires trader, replaces him with computer algorithm.
I’m an optimist, I believe in the glass half full view. But as with most radical changes, the problem is not the direction we are taking, it is the transition to get there. In the short term, unemployment will rise as jobs are transitioned to machines, while workers are not trained to take on the more qualified and creative tasks that are left.