Robots Join The Workforce: Will They Claim Your Job?
You wouldn't describe many labor markets as having explosive growth.
But that's the only way to describe what's going on with one batch of workers that, by one measurement, experienced a 40 percent growth in employment last year.
The workers enjoying such good fortune amid the prolonged misery known as the global economic crisis? Robots.
While the field of robotics was invented in the 20th century, it's only recently begun exploding and now is on the verge of transforming the world of work.
According to a new analysis released by the International Federation of Robots, an industry group that promotes the robotics industry worldwide, robot sales grew 38 percent in 2011. The worldwide stock of robots now is estimated to be in the range of 1.1 million to 1.4 million units, as prices have gone down and new technology is enabling "humanoid" robots that can interact with people and carry out simple on-screen computer tasks. "Baxter," one humanoid robot for sale, is priced at $22,000, though some of the new robots from other brands can run as low as $2,000.
And nearly every sector, from manufacturing to retail, is seeing growth in use of robots, Business Insider notes. What does this mean for workers? Jobs of the future? Your field?
Helping Nurses Do Their Jobs
This new phase of robotics has robots helping workers do menial tasks. "Telepresence technology" allows robots to be operated remotely from anywhere through an Internet connection -- much the way Internet users use videoconferencing programs -- according to The National. Robotics company VGo, of Nashua, N.H., raised nearly $11 million and began selling telepresence robots last year, and this past summer announced a pilot program of robots that accompany nurses on their rounds in western New Hampshire and parts of Vermont, the Nashua Telegraph reports. The robots are expected to interact with patients.
Some managers are enthusiastically embracing the robotics trend as a way to improve service and productivity. Pharmacy departments in central England's Doncaster and Bassetlaw hospitals begun using robots to dispense medicine a few months ago, and say that they've already seen an increase in productivity: The time needed to deliver meds at the hospitals has been cut in half since the robots were put in service.
And that's exactly what the hospital network was hoping for. "The main driving forces," for the introduction of the robots to deliver meds, "was the increasing demand for medicines dispensing," Andrew Barker, the clinical director for pharmacy and medicines management at the hospital network, told The Star newspaper in Sheffield.
But robots have done more than just improve delivery time for the meds, he says. The new robots have allowed for "more secure and efficient service."
Such a strategy has also been been pursued by businesses outside the medical sector. Foxconn, the Taiwan-based electronics manufacturing giant that counts 1.2 million employees, has announced plans to start using robots in its production of hardware for Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Dell among others. The company expects to employ 30,000 by the year's end. The motivation? According to CNET, the company says it's aiming for increased efficiency and lower labor costs, but suicides among Foxconn workers has been a growing and much publicized problem, along with labor unrest over conditions at its factories. At least 16 workers have taken their lives at the Taiwanese company's plant in Shenzen, China, since 2010.
Are Robots Helpmates Or Rivals For Jobs?
Indeed, any discussion about the use of so-called "humanoid" robots in the economy must address the potential for job loss among actual human workers. Some business leaders who are promoting the robots in the workplace say that the robots are really only useful when working in tandem with humans. One such company, Vanguard Plastics of Southington, Conn., has used Baxter robots to help with menial production-line jobs, reports The New York Times. "Our folks loved it and they felt very comfortable with it. ... Even the older folks didn't perceive it as a threat," Vanguard President Chris Budnick said.
Another company that takes advantage of human-robot cooperation is Daimler-Chrysler. According to a report by the Financial, a Georgia-based business publication, the company is working in conjunction with the KUKA AG robotics company to employ lightweight robots to work side by side with humans to help with the finer points in the production of items, such as rear axle gearboxes on the cars from the company's Mercedes-Benz line.
Robotics advocates stress how workers should welcome robots into the workplace. "People fear robots, but what they should really fear is not being able to compete in the global marketplace," says Jeff Burnstein, the president of the Michigan-based Robotics Industries Association in an interview with AOL Jobs. Without embracing the help of robots, he says, American plants will lose out to foreign competitors who will and, as a result, will create higher performing products at lower prices.
If robots enter the workplace and help it survive, he says, more jobs will be created. As an example, even if a robot does the painting and welding in an auto plant, employees will still be needed to monitor and program the robots. "This does require retraining of many workers, but that's been going on for 20 years anyway because of competition."
New robots in the fast-food industry will have the potential to make fast-food workers obsolete, according to the San Jose Mercury News. Introduced by Momentum Machines, the pilot "Burgeon" robot can create 360 burgers an hour, or an average of one every 10 seconds.
That includes grinding the meat, stamping out the patty, toasting the buns and adding condiments -- including pickles, tomatoes and lettuce.
This is hardly a sector that needs another chip stacked against its workers. Fast-food workers have been organizing recently in places like New York City, seeking more rights and better pay, including a hike in the national minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
More robots in the workplace might change everything. Sectors that once employed armies of human laborers are now seeing much of their work done by robots. The global automobile industry now has 80 percent of its production done by machine, reports the BBC.
And according to a post on VentureBeat, the technology blog, the "next frontier" of work to be completed by non-humans is "non-routine work," says Matt Beane, a researcher at MIT's Sloan School of Management. "Some of the biggest changes in work could be at the high end," he notes, singling out retail and security as two industries that could see an uptick in work to be completed by non-humans.
What do you think about robots entering the workforce?
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Dan Fastenberg was most recently a reporter with TIME Magazine. Previously, he was a writer for the Thomson Reuters news service's Latin America desk. He was also a reporter and associate editor for the Buenos Aires Herald while living in South America.
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