March 8, 2013

The robot revolution in a changing workplace

Does using robots lead to more jobs or job losses? The numbers support either thesis.

By CECILIA KANG The Washington Post

At MIT, a management robot is learning to run a factory and give orders to artificial co-workers, and a BakeBot robot is reading recipes, whipping together butter, sugar and flour and putting the cookie mix in the oven. At the University of California at Berkeley, a robot can do laundry and then neatly fold T-shirts and towels.

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Scott Eckert, chief executive of the Boston-based Rethink Robotics, defends his industry against critics who decry robots as jobs-killers. Without his robots, Eckert says, many small businesses might look overseas for manufacturing.

Photos for The Washington Post by Jessica Rinaldi

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Rethink Robotics designed the Baxter robot to work alongside real people. Its cartoon face changes expressions to warn people what it is doing.

A wave of new robots, affordable and capable of accomplishing advanced human tasks, is being aimed at jobs that are high in the work force hierarchy.

Consequences of this leap in technology are looming for the American worker -- and perhaps their managers, too. Back in the 1980s, when automated spray-painting and welding machines took hold in factories, some on the assembly line quickly discovered they had become obsolete.

Today's robots can do far more than their primitive, single-task ancestors. And there is a broad debate among economists, labor experts and companies over whether the trend will add good-paying jobs to the economy by helping firms run more efficiently or simply leave human workers out in the cold.

"We've reached a tipping point in robotics," said Daniela Rus, director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The possibility is to run a factory, she added, "all while you are sleeping."

U.S. firms have already begun deploying some of these newer robots. General Electric has developed spiderlike robots to climb and maintain tall wind turbines. Kiva Systems, a company bought by, has orange ottoman-shaped robots that sweep across warehouse floors, pull products off shelves and deliver them for packaging. Some hospitals have begun employing robots that can move room to room to dispense medicines to patients or deliver the advice of a doctor who is not on site.

Many companies see such automation as the key to cutting costs and staying competitive. Sales of industrial robots rose 38 percent between 2010 and 2012 and are poised to bring in record revenue this year, according to industry analyst Dan Kara.

"There will certainly be winners and losers," said Ryan Calo, a professor of law at the University of Washington who focuses on robotics and public policy. "We're talking about robots now because they are so versatile and affordable, and that will have profound effects on manufacturing, the entire supply chain and jobs."

Already on the market is Baxter, a robot developed by a former director of MIT's lab. It launched in September and is being used by plastics and metal manufacturing firms. With red plastic arms and a cartoon face, it can do the job of two or more workers, simultaneously unpacking pipe fittings from a conveyer belt while it weighs and places mirrors into boxes. When a human blocks its path, Baxter stops, its eyes widen, and then it courteously gets out of the way.

The cost: $22,000.

The adoption of this technology is taking place even as many Americans, particularly those who are seeking blue-collar work, are struggling to find jobs that pay a middle-class wage. Many of them have seen little improvement in their lives even four years after the Great Recession ended.

Andy McAfee, a fellow at MIT's Sloan School of Management, notes that companies are getting more productive without hiring more workers. Since the end of 2001, the nation's gross domestic product has risen about 20 percent. Meanwhile, the number of hours worked has gone up by only 2.8 percent and the total number of U.S. jobs has increased just 1.9 percent.

"Those latter two numbers are pretty close to zero. Is it so hard to believe that a realistic future combination of fast automation and relatively slow GDP growth could cause them to turn negative?" asked a recent blog post by McAfee, who co-wrote "Race Against the Machine," a book about how Internet technology is altering labor markets.

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