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Robot Industry Rebrands, as Machines Learn to Do Your Job and Mine

The San Jose conference highlights the changing look and language of robotics.

Courtesy: Rethink Robotics

The International Collaborative Robotics Workshop sounded a defensive note before it even began, the title underscoring the industry’s desire to cast machines as friendly helpers rather than automated job stealers.

The sector seems to be going in for some rebranding as improving technology and tumbling costs align to bring robots into closer contact with more workers and industries, well beyond the blue-collar ranks of automotive plants.

The first two speakers at the San Jose, Calif., conference on Tuesday, Erik Nieves of Yaskawa Motoman and Rodney Brooks of Rethink Robotics, sought to define and parse the emerging vocabulary of the field. Instead of “industrial robotics,” they spoke of “production,” “integrated” and “collaborative” machines, new language for a new generation of technology capable of safely moving out of assembly-line cages.

The look is changing, too. Rethink’s Baxter is a big red machine with a human name, friendly eyes and built-in safety features. It simply stops when it runs into something, allowing it to work directly alongside workers.

And it doesn’t take technical skills to program Baxter to work on various tasks: Anyone can do so by simply moving its arms and grippers in the desired pattern and pressing a few buttons.

“We’re trying to make robots much easier to use and intuitive to use,” Brooks said in an interview a few days before the conference.

Simple and relatively inexpensive robots like Baxter or the six-axis arm developed by Universal Robots are putting these machines within reach of small and medium-sized businesses, said Esben Ostergaard, co-founder of the latter company.

“There’s a big, big market for automating all these small companies,” he said onstage.

And it’s not limited to manufacturing settings. One speaker set for later in the day was Steve Cousins, founder of Savioke, which developed a robotic bellhop to work directly with customers in hotels.

Meanwhile, improving software AI systems can increasingly pull off tasks once reserved for accountants, attorneys, doctors and (God forbid!) journalists.

It’s certainly reassuring that modern robots are capable of not injuring or killing co-workers in their proximity, but does calling a robot collaborative make it so? Won’t some simply replace rather than augment the line workers they were supposed to toil beside?

In opening remarks, Bob Doyle of the Robotic Industries Association, which hosted the conference, called those who would suggest as much “naysayers.” He said today’s robots allow companies to be more productive, competitive, cost effective and safe.

“We think it’s creating jobs — higher productivity jobs — and we’re seeing that in the Silicon Valley area,” he said.

I had previously put the robot-jobs question to Brooks, the MIT robotics pioneer who founded Rethink as well as iRobot.

“I’m not worried we’re going to have too many robots and not enough jobs,” he said. “I’m worried we’re not going to have enough robots because of the demographic inversion,” as more baby boomers reach old age and leave a shrinking number of people in the workforce.

“We’ll need robot systems in our homes helping elderly people who would otherwise be in old folks homes with nurses,” he added. “The problem is there won’t be enough people to be nurses. We’re going to have a real need for robots to help with health care. It’s the only way we’re going to get through the demographic change.”

Still others stress that technology always reshapes the workforce over time but ultimately positively, freeing up us humans for higher level, creative tasks. It helps explain why 90 percent of us aren’t still working in agriculture.

But the very promise of automation is lowering labor costs, so any honest assessment has to admit that while robots fanning out across the economy may create jobs (at least in the robotics field), it’s bound to kill many as well.

The ultimate questions are what happens to people without advanced skills and how the change affects the aggregate job balance over time.

Some argue we’re moving into a different phase in history, in which technology’s reliable productivity gains have hit a point where they’re now pushing down on wages and contributing to growing economic inequality.

A recent Pew survey among experts in various fields produced an even split between those who said these technologies won’t displace more jobs than they create and those who believe the opposite is inevitable.

“Unlike previous disruptions, such as when farming machinery displaced farm workers but created factory jobs making the machines, robotics and AI are different,” said Mark Nall, a program manager for NASA, in his response. “Due to their versatility and growing capabilities, not just a few economic sectors will be affected, but whole swaths will be.”

“This is already being seen now in areas from robocalls to lights-out manufacturing,” he added. “Economic efficiency will be the driver. The social consequence is that good-paying jobs will be increasingly scarce.”

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