Robotic Employment Trend

Brian Hicks

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted April 29, 2013

I watched the movie I, Robot last week—the one where Will Smith is in a futuristic society, and humans and robots live in seemingly perfect harmony with one another, working side by side. All was right in the world, but then of course, chaos ensues: the robots threaten humanity, people die, and it’s up to a few good men and a beautiful lady to make the world right again.

That’s Hollywood for you. But what about the real world?

We’re not walking hand in hand and singing Kumbaya like in the movies, but robots are springing up and being employed in more industries every day. This is especially the case in places like China, Taiwan, Japan, and the U.S., where service robots are taking the place of humans in certain job functions.

robot noodle chefsThese robots are smart, affordable, and safe for humans to work right alongside; we certainly don’t have to worry about any hostile takeover. They can perform tasks that are often considered tedious, menial, boring, and downright tiresome.

Advances in technology seem to grow by leaps and bounds every year, so having something to do work for us is just the next step in the evolution of modern technology.

Take a look at the food industry, where you’ll see maybe the best use of modern day robots. A robot can make hamburgers, sushi rolls and noodles—even a whole pizza—in a matter of minutes.

A Chinese robot that makes its own noodles starts with the dough, strips it down, tosses the strips directly into boiling water, and voilà! You’ve got your freshly cooked pasta noodles. And it all takes place right before diners’ eyes in an entertaining spectacle.

A human would take much longer to complete the same process, and it would cost more, too. In your typical Chinese restaurant, a cook doing the same job would make 40,000 yuan ($6,400) per year, according to MISH’s Trend Analysis, where the robot can meticulously get the job done at just 10,000 yuan ($1,600). This is a big reason why some 3,000 restaurants in China are employing these robots to make their noodles.

Robot Outsourcing

Not only is technology growing exponentially with time, but the means to an end (or in this case, a robot) is becoming increasingly cost effective.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock indicates 6 factors in his Trend Analysis that lead to robot outsourcing:

  1. “The Fed (central banks in general) have made the cost of capital so cheap that it encourages employers to replace workers with cheaper alternatives.
  2. “The Fed (central banks in general) can enhance trends, but cannot change them. Thus, I am not stating the Fed is the cause of “Robotic Outsourcing”. Rather, I am stating that cheap money has accelerated that trend.
  3. “Minimum wage laws, protectionism, unions in general, and inane government policies also encourage “Robotic Outsourcing”. 
  4. “Long-term, everyone benefits from productivity improvements and associated cheaper prices. 
  5. “Unfortunately, Keynesian clowns as well as the clowns at the Fed (central banks in general) see cheaper prices as the enemy. 
  6. “In their effort to prevent falling prices, the Fed has lowered the cost of money so much that it is a no-brainer to replace human workers with technology at an increasing pace.”

And he’s right! These factors directly correlate to employers seeking out more cost effective alternatives in business. Some of them are bound to happen, like advances in technology, but driving down the cost of money, raising minimum wage—these are deterrents for any successful business.

Pros and Cons

If you look back a hundred years or so, you’ll see that a similar trend swept through the U.S. in agriculture; almost every single part of the workforce (70 percent) was tied to agriculture in one way, shape, or form.

But as technology transformed, the need for human labor decreased. Now, only 2 percent of employment is part of that industry.

And agriculture is flourishing more than ever. Job responsibilities and human involvement may have shifted, but as changes were made, new opportunities and different jobs were created.

Plus, robots look really cool. It’s mesmerizing how some of these robots function—each movement to serve its specific purpose, leading to its next function, and so on, until it has completed its task and immediately starts all over again.

That’s why many of the restaurants turning to robots are using them not only to be more efficient and save money but also to draw in customers who enjoy watching the robot in action.

Experts who are building these industrial robots claim their presence will actually boost the economy. Sure, some jobs may be lost forever, but new ones will pop up.

And in other instances, the robot won’t replace workers but simply act as a tool to aid in a worker’s performance.

In a 2011 study, performed by the International Federation of Robotics, according to MIT Technology Review, employment rates rose as the use of the industrial robot grew. This study was performed in places like the U.S., Brazil, South Korea, Germany, and China.

Besides that one study, there is still little research to show robots’ true effect on the economy and job markets at a large scale.

The major criticisms these robots receive is that they make people lazy, and they’re going to take away jobs people need. All of this would have a disruptive effect on the economy as whole.

But one thing humans prove time and time again is that we can adapt and are resilient to change. There’s nothing wrong with a little help.

And it’s just not natural for a human being to sit in one place all day, doing the same repetitive motions day after day, hour after hour. That’s what robots are for.

Robots Today

There are many robotics companies coming up with all sorts of fascinating and resourceful robots to be used in different industries.

Aethon, for example, makes a wheeled robot that is used in hospitals. It is programmed to dispense medicines, deliver food, and take out the garbage—simple tasks that are often repetitive and considered simple job functions. Having a robot perform these duties would allow humans to focus on providing better care and direct attention to those in need.

Redwood Robotics is another company that works exclusively with robot arms—making them cheaper and maximizing performance.

iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT)—not to be confused with the movie—and Rethink Robotics are constructing robots suited to work along with humans on a daily basis. Instead of taking jobs away, they will reinvent the way things are done and bring a spark to a regular work day, make things run smoother, and reinvigorate the economy, much in the way computers did 30 years ago.

iRobot calls its robot the RP-VITA. It rolls around the hospital grounds and is controlled by an iPad. It allows doctors and patients to communicate from anywhere in the world. This way, when someone is in desperate need to speak with, or seek out, a specialist, the resources are at his or her fingertips.

Robots aren’t going anywhere. They’re going to get bigger and better, and maybe one day they’ll even be life like, like the ones in I, Robot.

But they’re not here to take over the world. They’re for the betterment of mankind, to help us realize our full potential. I, for one, don’t see anything wrong with that.


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