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The Rise of Robotic Labor 308

Posted by samzenpus
from the robot-fry-cooks dept.
kkleiner wrote in with a link to a singularityhub story about the increase of automated manufacturing world-wide. The article reads: "The accelerating rise in robot labor of the past decade, and its expansion into all areas of production, have led many to worry about the future of human workers. Yet how extensive is the robotic take over of labor? Our friends at Mezzmer Eyeglasses did some impressive research and created an even more impressive infographic explaining the present and future of robots in the workplace."
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The Rise of Robotic Labor

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  • With Improved Robotic Controls III, workers are able to be more productive. There won't ever be a point where humans aren't needed (even if only to research Improved Robotic Controls IV or be loaded into transports to try and capture a nearby enemy colony.
  • Long term goals (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Dunbal (464142) * on Wednesday September 14, 2011 @04:55PM (#37403328)
    I just wonder who is going to buy all those goods and services when we are all replaced by robots.
    • by kthreadd (1558445)
      That's when the robots starts making humans.
    • by Stradenko (160417)

      If you can be replaced by a robot, get a better job. (Perhaps you might like a job designing robots?)

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by mfh (56)

      My robot posted this for me. He won't let me out of the cage.

    • by h4rr4r (612664)

      Why do you need to buy them?
      If you have all labor replaced by robots, then we no longer need capitalism. Stuff can be free or very near it. Unemployment would not be a problem, but a goal.

      • by geekoid (135745)

        Land. Who owns land?

        • by 0123456 (636235)

          Land. Who owns land?

          There's more than enough material in the solar system to build a habitat with a surface area as large as Earth for every person on Earth. We can create plenty of land for a long time before we need to think about other solar systems.

          But you're right, the idea that if we had smart robots then everything would become free and we'd all be happy little communists is laughable; while Joe Sixpack is lying on the beach drinking beer Joe Stalin's giant robot army will come marching in to kill them and steal their s

    • by prefec2 (875483)

      Those who design the robots. Our economy improves productivity every year by something between 2-5% in some countries this is even higher. When you assume an average improvement of 3% every year than after 24 years we can produce twice as much. Which implies that we have to consume twice as much. At least in Western countries with a leveled population growth. So the question is, can you use, eat, etc. twice as much in 2 years?

      • by geekoid (135745)

        Robot design is a math problem. Why won't robots do it?

      • by tsotha (720379)

        Maybe not, but you can buy a new car twice as often. Ditto for clothes and electronics.

        The appetite for consumption really isn't a problem. Also, this is a bit more complicated than consuming twice as much. I recently bought a washer/dryer combo. It was twice as expensive as the one I bought a decade ago, but it uses a tiny fraction of the water and power the old one used. An economist would say my consumption has doubled, but in some very real ways my consumption is going down.

    • by jeffmeden (135043)

      I just wonder who is going to buy all those goods and services when we are all replaced by robots.

      The question to be asking isn't what will happen when there are no more jobs... There will always be jobs: to design/build/service the robots, and no I am not kidding. The replacement of a human with a robot results in the same (at least) net production so it's no different than saying "well what will happen to all the jobless farmers when this whole ox-drawn plow thing takes off?" or any of the other society-reshaping paradigms that have taken place in history.

      The question we should be asking is how high

      • by Shotgun (30919)

        A corollary question. What will be the standard of living of those homeless people?

        Being homeless today in America sucks, but there are people that purposefully choose that as a lifestyle. Nut cases all, in my opinion, but they choose it nonetheless. They can do it, because food is cheap (made that way through industrialization) enough that they can get all they can eat through charity. Being made homeless 200yrs ago was almost a death sentence. Today, the POOR Americans have a color TV in every room.

        R

    • by 0123456 (636235)

      I just wonder who is going to buy all those goods and services when we are all replaced by robots.

      Robots.

    • by Yvanhoe (564877)
      That is supposed to be when politics begin to think about the concept of post-scarcity economics and stop thinking that science fiction is a non-serious field of literature.
      • I just watched my garbage being picked up by a giant robotic arm. It was neat!

        But that's maybe two low paying jobs per garbage truck my city doesn't have anymore.

        Not sure if this is progress after all.

    • by citizenr (871508)

      At that time having a job will be a priviledge meant only for the gifted.
      If the labour is free, products are also free (or almost free). You keep all the non gifted on social providing them with bare essentials. If you are gifted and can contribute you get special treatment.
      There was SF novel about a hacker whose job was to help people cheat exams so they could get a job. Paradoxically said hacker had to pay another 'stupid' hacker so he would pass annual IQ tests with average scores and stay unemployed/fre

    • The Zeitgeist Movement [thezeitgeistmovement.com] has some thoughts on this. Also see The Venus Project [thevenusproject.com].
    • I wonder if Victorian man worried about being replaced by tractors when menial labour was removed from having to plough the field. What about when the combine harvester was invented and suddenly millions were out of work in the harvesting industry? Would the world be a better place without those inventions?

  • by xiando (770382) on Wednesday September 14, 2011 @05:00PM (#37403386) Homepage Journal
    We are at the end of the age of cheap oil and cheap energy. The robots will go away once it becomes cheaper to hire humans than it is to make and power robots. It's really that simple.
    • Nah... There is lots of oil locked up in oil sands and shale oil to carry on for another hundred years. If costs really start going up, we'll see more nuke plants coming online. Add this to an increase in renewable energies, and energy prices will be pretty stable for the forseeable future.
      • by Shotgun (30919)

        Nah... There is lots of oil locked up in oil sands and shale oil to carry on for another hundred years. If costs really start going up, we'll see more nuke plants coming online.

        Or we'll design robots to do the work. 8*)

    • by couchslug (175151)

      "We are at the end of the age of cheap oil and cheap energy."

      Bullshit. We are at the beginning of the age of DIFFERENT energy. Don't mistake "teething pains" for the Apocalypse.

      "The robots will go away once it becomes cheaper to hire humans than it is to make and power robots. It's really that simple."

      That's absurdly stupid. Robots, because they are EFFICIENT, often use LESS energy for a given repetitive task than machines run by humans. That's why (for example) automated machining centers have replaced mos

    • by tsotha (720379)

      We are at the end of the age of cheap oil and cheap energy

      I doubt this is true. We have enough fissile materials to last us for millennia, and we can make synthetic fuel from coal that's only marginally more expensive than diesel fuel made from oil.

    • by timeOday (582209)

      The robots will go away once it becomes cheaper to hire humans than it is to make and power robots. It's really that simple.

      In that case, we humans are doomed, because a human is far more energy-intensive than a robot. A human needs a stable temperature all the time, goes to and from work every day in a heavy metal box, consumes food that requires a vast amount of oil to fertilize and transport, and on and on. Worst of all it needs all this all the time, you can't turn it off even when it's not produci

  • Is that these robotic workers won't be spending their hard earned cash in brick-and-mortar, mom-and-pop, stores.

    Or maybe, just like with online retailers and digital distribution, there really aren't big downsides. Cheaper production > cheaper product > people have more money to spend elsewhere > more disposable income > more markets and more business opportunities.
  • by trout007 (975317) on Wednesday September 14, 2011 @05:02PM (#37403424)

    I've built many pieces of automation for manufacturing. The truth is this automation is very costly and only worth it if there is an expected payback. One of the first things I did was to help do an analysis to see what level of automation if any is worth it based on the expected demand, labor costs, expected length of production, how often the product changes and the associated tooling change costs, power costs, maintenance costs, ect.

    Full automation was very rarely needed to meet the demand.

    Most of the time we built some tools to help automate. Things like pallet systems that held parts down while the operator assembled them with powered screwdrivers and then had automated inspections. These systems were good because if demand increased you could replace the more difficult or time consuming stations as needed.

    • I always notice that on the "How Things Are Made" types shows. They have these big, beautiful machines to manufacture, like, tennis balls or something, and then human workers packaging them up. I used to think maybe there were labor agreements or some such, but I eventually realized it's probably just easier to have people there.

    • That's because robots are both stupid and expensive.

      Both are subject to Moore's law. We're just on the flat part of the curve. Once a robot gets 1/10th as effective at learning simple jobs on its own without programming it only takes 7-8 years until they're twice as effective.

      We're making really good strides in machine vision right now and once we have humanoid robots that can be 'drop-in' replacements the real jobpoaclypse will begin.

      • by trout007 (975317)

        Automation also involves doing things in different manner than humans. Say forming a sheet metal part. You've seen Jesse James hammer out a gas tank. If you want one tank it's takes a great craftsman quite a while to do it. Say you wanted 1000 of them. You don't make a robot that repeats what he does. You build a sheet metal stamping machine. It's a completely different process. But in order to see if it is cheaper you do to see what the costs of designing and building your dies are vs hiring Jesse to do i

  • Robots (Score:4, Interesting)

    by girlintraining (1395911) on Wednesday September 14, 2011 @05:04PM (#37403436)

    Q: How come all our labor got outsourced to 3rd world countries despite our significantly higher levels of modernization, efficiency, infrastructure, and technology?

    A: Because it's cheaper to throw a thousand people at a problem that'll work for peanuts than purchase, install, and maintain a robot. ... In short, there's no "rise" of robotic labor going on guys. On the contrary: The robots aren't competitive in a market where people work for cheap, no benefits, and there's (literally) billions of them that would jump at the chance to have the job of repetitive labor.

    • Speak for yourself. I'm an industrial automation engineer, and so many companies are looking at automation that we can't hire enough engineers to satisfy our needs.
    • Re:Robots (Score:4, Insightful)

      by 0123456 (636235) on Wednesday September 14, 2011 @05:33PM (#37403780)

      On the contrary: The robots aren't competitive in a market where people work for cheap, no benefits, and there's (literally) billions of them that would jump at the chance to have the job of repetitive labor.

      That'll explain the recent stories about Chinese factories replacing humans with robots because the humans are too expensive (I seem to remember there was a story about Foxconn posted here a few weeks back).

    • by Shotgun (30919)

      Take the fabrics industry in the US. My dad worked in a plant that employed hundreds of people to watch weaving machines. All of those jobs have gone away, to be replaced by one person that watches for empty bobbins. The machine will load and automatically rethread the machine when a bobbin runs out. Just one of the new machines has replaced literally hundreds of workers.

      My group used to have a secretary to handle all the paperwork and such that needed to be done. No more. We have email and a cabinet

    • by geekoid (135745)

      Only until the robots are cheap enough. Because paying 5 years salary for a robot has significant long term payoff for the company.

    • by tsotha (720379)
      That's true for some fraction of manufacturing. But since the '70s the real drain in manufacturing jobs in the US has been automation.
  • Indeed Watson has already replaced game show contestants, and I hear IBM is working on a new version to replace reality tv show stars. I for one am looking forward to Robotic Survivor.
  • by frinkster (149158) on Wednesday September 14, 2011 @05:11PM (#37403526)

    Earlier this year, Toyota opened their first new factory in Japan in 18 years [thetruthaboutcars.com]. There are very few robots in the factory; they even have humans doing the welding work. Toyota claims that all of the savings gained by robots is lost due to building the factory to accommodate automation and buying and maintaining the robots. In fact, Toyota has been moving away from heavy automation for the last 10 years.

  • Bastiat in Economic Sophisms made a great point.

    As humans we have two roles. As a consumer we want goods to be cheap and abundant. As producers we want OUR goods to be scarce and expensive. The question is what type of society do you want to live in? I would prefer one where goods are cheap and abundant. So anything that increases production and lowers costs is good for society overall even if it is detrimental to certain workers. The increase in productivity will benefit society overall.

    • Only under the assumption, by no means proven, that increases in well being are somewhat broadly distributed:

      If it is "lazy dockworkers against robots" vs. "Everybody who buys or sells things carried by ship", odds are that said lazy dockworkers are currently impoverishing society.

      On the other hand, (in the er, totally, um, hypothetical...) situation of the stagnation and/or decline of real wages since 1970 for almost every US population segement save for those at the very top, it is much less clear t
  • I've often wondered about the impact of robotics and AI in the economy.

    Suppose we have a mild form of strong AI where machines can do simple human tasks. Not anything that requires insight or creativity, but enough to do mindless tasks such as is currently done by unskilled laborers. Such as parts assembly. Foxconn comes to mind.

    The ubiquity of cheap Chinese labor has had a devastating effect on the US economy, as companies race to replace American workers.

    Machines will eventually take over as laborers, lea

    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Wednesday September 14, 2011 @05:36PM (#37403810) Journal
      The future economy will be quite simple, at a macro scale, though complex beyond human comprehension at a microscale:

      There will be two segments within the economy:
      The first segment will be automated computronium manufacture and managed service corprosentiences.
      The second segment will be financial services corprosentiences, consisting of lumps of computronium arranged in a tightly packed sphere around the NYSE, each jockeying for space a few light-microseconds closer to the trading area.

      The computronium manufacturers will manufacture and repair high frequency trading computronium. The high frequency trading computronium will buy and sell unbelievably elaborate derivatives and financial instruments of baroque opacity to one another.

      Because humans are extinct, the GDP per capita will be infinite.
    • Can anyone make a prediction of future economy? What will it look like, and how do we get there?

      - The future international currency will be the Bitcoin (TM).
      - Prices of goods will be set by nanosecond trading algorithms manipulating Wall Street prices that are controlled by an overreaching Perl 6 AI overlord.
      - Humans will manage to black out the Sun (unintentionally) by burning up the last of the fossil fuels on the planet.
      - Out robotic overlords will have discovered cold-fusion technology just in time to save them from being turned off by the solar blackout (They won't need humans as vat-grown ba

  • Sure, as some folks have said, we're not there yet. It's still cheaper to hire a human to do many tasks.

    But how many of you think we won't have a robot that has the dexterity of a human, can learn by watching, and takes less energy than a human worker(factoring in food production costs, recreation costs, sick time, benefits, etc.) in the next 100 years? 200 years?

  • One striking statistic they cite is that the number of robots in the word is the same as the population of New Jersey.
    Coincidence? I think not.

  • ...when are industrial robots going to unionize?

  • I think we've seen this dance number already... Ummm...what happens when your robot nearly-free-widget-makers learn enough to want the 2.5 kids/white picket fence/Maserati in the driveway dream too - and realize you never intended them to ever have it? Yeah...we don't have spaceships this time around to make a run for it when they nuke our asses from orbit - and am definitely not keen on becoming a human Duracell.

    Your geek card is revoked if you don't get the references.

  • by cartman (18204) on Wednesday September 14, 2011 @05:36PM (#37403802)

    There are liars, damned liars, and robotics engineers.

    Robotics has progressed painfully slowly. If you all remember, during the 1960's and 1970's it was a common belief that robots would soon replace most humans. Supposedly, robots would soon be doing all the tedious, boring labor. There were cartoons like "The Jetsons" which showed a home robot that did all the housework, cleaning, cooking, chores, etc. There was also the endless banter about how cars would drive themselves. Now, 35 years later, I am still doing my own laundry, cleaning my own bathroom, driving my own car, cooking my own food (or paying another human to cook it), and so on, despite huge research being piled into driverless cars and various kinds of robots. Yet this article has the gall to claim:

    By 2015, 30% of all cars may be intelligent, driverless vehicles

    What utter BS. I will bet my entire life savings (which is considerable) that that won't happen. After all, it's already 2011, leaving only 4 years until "I, Robot" is supposedly driving me around.

    Obviously robots are good at certain highly repetitive tasks which do not depend on image recognition. Robots already took over those few jobs, decades ago. (Perhaps even centuries ago; you could argue that machines like a combine harvester or a power tiller are "robots" if they have any kind of self-guiding machinery). However robots have gotten no better at image recognition, and still have great difficulty at simple tasks like folding towels, if the towels are arranged randomly and have different shapes.

    Robotics which rely upon sophisticated image recognition are no more prevalent today than they were 30 years ago and are making no obvious progress. Probably there will eventually be some kind of breakthrough which makes those kinds of robots (versatile ones with image recognition) common; but that breakthrough hasn't happened yet.

    • by geekoid (135745)

      Let see.
      You can get a bionic arm now, there are robots that can work in swarms, we have robots surveillance, you can buy a car that parks it self, applies breaks when needs, and maintain a constant speed, we have walking robots, location aware decision making devices. We have devices that auto balance, planes that fly themselves.
      And that s just hard robots. How many software robots do you use every day? I have written complete system that take a loan application, apply decisions and determine the recommend

    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Amara [wikipedia.org] "We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run."

      Ray Kurzweil said much the same thing:
      http://www.kurzweilai.net/articles/art0134.html?printable=1 [kurzweilai.net]
      "An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense âoeintuitive linearâ view. So we wonâ(TM)t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century â" it will be more like 20

    • by Animats (122034) on Wednesday September 14, 2011 @06:08PM (#37404216) Homepage

      I tend to agree. The article says there are only 8.7 million robots in the world. (I'm not sure about their definition. Do they count Roombas. Hard automation driven by cams?) That's an incredibly small number. It's one year of production for Toyota or GM, for example.

      The big problem is that the cost of the mechanics hasn't declined much. That's mostly a lack of volume issue. However, the control electronics keeps getting cheaper, since it's computer technology.

      Robot vision systems have improved a lot. Many pick and place robots now have at least a basic vision system for fine alignment. This is cheaper than trying to make the robot and the fixture so rigid that the job can be done blind. The biggest headache in industrial robotics is simply getting everything lined up so precisely that a dumb machine can do the job. Adding enough smarts to allow for some misalignment makes things work much better.

      There's been progress on unstructured vision. Towel folding [youtube.com] now works. The software is really slow. That can probably be fixed. [youtube.com]

      Having been in the field, I will say that we're now at the point where throwing money at the problem works. That wasn't true in the 1980s and 1990s. (See NASA's Flight Telerobotic Servicer, [astronautix.com] a $200 million flop.). The DARPA Grand Challenge was instructive in showing what money can do. The 2004 Grand Challenge was pathetic - nothing worked very well. At the 2005 Grand Challenge, the worst vehicles were better than anything from 2004, and the best ones were really good. It took NASCAR-sized budgets and the combined efforts of entire computer science departments and auto manufacturers, but it worked.

  • ... they've got self-destruct buttons and sassy attitudes.

  • I bet the article was written by a robot. It was that devoid of human character.

  • 1) People can only own 1 robot. They can either hire out the robot or themselves.

    2) Company pay an hourly robot tax that get redistributed to basic needs, and the left over to people.
    Basic needs get cheaper as more of life gets automated. Because we will use robot labor, and not human we remove almost every problem there is with a tradition communism means distribution.

    In any case, robots should always put the pampering of humans first.

  • First, robots were billed as a means to liberate the masses from unpleasant labor. Now they are billed as a means to liberate the few from the unpleasant masses.

  • by boristdog (133725) on Wednesday September 14, 2011 @06:23PM (#37404370)

    At the factory where I work we have hundreds of robots. We couldn't make semiconductors without them.

    Can any human maneuver a silicon wafer within fractions of a micron of a target? Can they do this hundreds of times an hour, 24 hours a day?

    No. This is what robots do, not humans.

  • by kborer (1420531) on Wednesday September 14, 2011 @06:40PM (#37404502)
    When people complain about technology killing jobs, I like to point out that they are essentially arguing against EZpass and other electronic highway toll payment technologies. How would you like to go back to waiting in line so that a human can collect money from each car? That would certainly create a lot of jobs.

    But that's not the end of the story. When technology kills less productive jobs, like telephone operators, it also creates new, higher-paying technology jobs. It may be painful in the short run for those who lose their job, but eventually those people can get other jobs that are more productive, with the benefit that the creative destruction of technology will continue to make life cheaper and easier. Ex-telephone operators will have cheaper cars built by robots, ex-car manufacturers will have cheaper phone calls, etc.

    Yes, they will need to develop new skills, but it's just a fact of life that you have to bring something to the table. Why else would anyone trade with you?

FORTRAN is a good example of a language which is easier to parse using ad hoc techniques. -- D. Gries [What's good about it? Ed.]

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