12 Conference Report #techonomy12

Where’s My Robot?

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  • (From left) John Markoff, Rodney Brooks, Andrew McAfee (all photos by Asa Mathat)

  • Rodney Brooks

  • Andrew McAfee

  • John Markoff

Panelists

Rodney Brooks
Founder, Chairman and CTO, Rethink Robotics

Andrew McAfee
Principal Research Scientist, MIT

Moderator

John Markoff
Senior Writer, The New York Times


Your children may prefer their company, you may “hire” robotic workers, they may do our dirty work, and one may care for you in your old age. The future for robots seems boundless. Is there a limit to the invasion? Read excerpts from the discussion below, or download the full transcript.

Markoff: Obviously robots are increasingly a part of our society. The question is, what does it mean?

I’m particularly struck by the current rate of change, and I wanted to start by asking Rod, who both founded iRobot and Rethink Robotics, about the consequence of moving between the Roomba generation and the Baxter generation of robots. What is different in the two eras that matters?

Brooks:  Well, the Roomba was the first cheap mass market robot. That was a big thing. But it’s a special-purpose robot. It just cleans the floor.

Baxter is a robot to go into factories and do simple cases of simple tasks that people do right now that are boring. But there’s two important things about it. One is that the software on it is set up so that a line worker, a person who doesn’t even have a high school diploma, can learn to program it in less than five minutes and retask it for new things over time.

And the other thing is, we’re coming out with an SDK early next year so that other people can take this and program it to do all sorts of other stuff, which is not manufacturing.

Markoff:  What about adding Baxter style flexibility to those older-generation robots? Can you see a convergence?

Brooks:  The current industrial robots that are out there are—the customers are pulling it to be more flexible.

McAfee: Think what it’s trying to do. It’s a $25,000 robot. That’s discretionary budget for any decent-sized manufacturing facility. You take it out of the box. You plug it into the socket, the electrical socket in the wall. Your hourly worker trains it for on the order of half an hour.

Brooks: I’ve been arguing that this is not meant to replace people. It’s meant to make them more productive. That was why I made it so that ordinary line workers could program it. Because it wasn’t this technology that’s coming down from above and they’re not allowed to be part of the equation.

McAfee: I think when it comes to the impact of technology on the labor force, we ain’t seen nothing yet. We’re just on the other side of a tipping point where computers and robots and hardware and software are doing things that used to be, honestly, the domain of science fiction. That’s going to have a lot of wonderful consequences for our society and our economy. It’s going to have some very, very challenging consequences for the labor force, and particularly for the less-skilled, less-educated workers, of whom there are a lot in the States and all over the world.

A number of pretty smart people have warned about technological displacements. John Maynard Keynes did it in 1930. We haven’t had it yet. We’ve always found new uses for labor as technology comes along.

What I think is different this time, and I think this time is actually really different, is that I see technology encroaching into human skills and abilities that have never, ever been the case before. When the digital technology becomes better, the employers hire digital labor, not the human labor. I expect that trend is going to continue.

Markoff:  Does that end the onshoring trend? If China follows us and automates, do they have a cost advantage and do jobs stay there?

McAfee: I think Rod’s point is that if you take labor costs out of the equation, it makes a lot more sense to do your manufacturing close to your home market. Makes a huge amount of sense. But again, the trend is super clear: output economic activity going up, overall employment in the good old-fashioned, industrial jobs sense of the word going down.

Brooks:  Just to give you the statistic, the productivity of American manufacturing workers has increased by 3.7 percent on average for 60 years. That’s a pretty big growth.

McAfee:  That’s amazing. What you’re doing is going to continue that healthy trend.

Markoff:  What is the equivalent labor cost of—what does Baxter work for?

Brooks:  We’re saying it’s under $4 an hour.

Markoff: Should we automate everything we can automate?

Brooks: I think we will be having people and machines working closely together. Robotic machines. That’s what’s happened. The computer didn’t get rid of the office worker. Now overall, the total number of office workers may have gone down, but it changed the nature of work office workers did.

McAfee: The great double-edged sword of technology, is that it is going to let us improve the quality of our lives. Let older people live more autonomous lives for longer. That’s fantastic. I’m as strong a techonomist as I think anyone in the room, but at the same time what Rod and his entrepreneurial colleagues are doing is looking for expense and inefficiency out there in the economy, and they are throwing all of their intelligence and all their might at it. What that’s going to mean is automation of a lot of the workforce. I don’t see any other outcome here.

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  • BabyBoomerWriter

    I am curious about the relationships humans will develop with robot work partners and how that complicated bond might evolve. Reflecting on the emotional attachment we readily form with our pets, it’s not unreasonable to imagine humans experiencing a modicum of discomfort when, at the end of a work day, they power down an essential robot helper and leave it alone in a dark room as they head home to a family dinner…