Good Robots, Bad Robots, and Us

Loving Them and Fearing Them

Robots are getting better and better, and easier and easier to manage. Recently Tom Friedman described robots that are easy to use and flexible, that help workers instead of replacing them.

“Our robot is low-cost, easily programmable, not fixed and not dangerous,” said the founder of Rethink, a company producing the new robots. As a result, he added, “Companies will become even more competitive, and we will be able to keep more jobs here.”

Friedman reported on his visit to a factory to see the new robot in action: it “was brought in to handle overflow, while the same single worker still operated the machine. ‘We want the robot to be the extension of the worker, not the replacement of the worker,’ said [the company’s] director of technology.” (See, “I Made the Robot Do It.”)

That’s the “good” robot. But just a few days earlier, the Times reported on the other side. The Chairman of Foxconn in China, the giant maker of electronic equipment, spoke about his desire to use robots to replace his armies of employees: “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.” A robot that renders a worker obsolete is a “bad” robot.

The full story is somewhat more complex. As even Friedman pointed out: “Actually, the robots will eliminate jobs, just as the PC did, but they be will lower-skilled ones. And the robots will also create new jobs or enlarge existing ones, but they will be jobs that require more skills.” And the army of new robots needed to replace Foxconn’s “animals” will also require skilled workers to build and program them.

So what is really at stake here is the unskilled worker. Just as steam engines replaced laborers, and mechanical looms replaced weavers, robots are replacing the average worker, those who’s thoughts and movements can be imitated by machines. The work that remains to be done by humans is less physically stressful, so there are fewer injuries on the job. But then a different kind of stress comes into play. As the Times put it in its report: “Because a computer sets the pace, the stress is now more psychological,” and that too will require high-level coping skills. (See, “Skilled Work, Without the Worker”)

“We’re on the cusp of completely changing manufacturing and distribution,” said Gary Bradski, a machine-vision scientist who is a founder of Industrial Perception. “I think it’s not as singular an event, but it will ultimately have as big an impact as the Internet.” Machines are faster, more accurate, tireless and uncomplaining.

But this leaves us with two questions. The first: Who will profit from this greater efficiency? The industrial revolution displaced millions, but in the long run the increased efficiency of mass production created millions of jobs and improved the standard of living across the board. This, on the other hand, looks likely to increase the growing divide between the rich and poor, those who own the new machines and have the skills to use them — and those who don’t.

And the second: what will happen to those without the more sophisticated skills the new jobs require? Will our enthusiasm for the good robots obscure the human cost? If working with computers produces stress, what about the stress of being rendered obsolete?