A new class of smarter robots is being readied for the workplace.
A new class of industrial robot is appearing. These robots are smart, affordable, and safe enough to work alongside humans, and they can do many tasks that human workers perform today (see “This Robot Could Transform Manufacturing”). But does that necessarily mean there will be fewer jobs left for humans to do?
At a robotics industry event organized by business blog Xconomy in Menlo Park last week, people working on better industrial robots claimed their technology will actually boost the U.S. economy and create more jobs, even if some jobs do disappear forever.
“We’re replacing jobs that people don’t want to do and really shouldn’t be doing,” said Aldo Zini, whose company Aethon makes wheeled robots that ferry medicines, food trays, and garbage around hospital corridors so people don’t have to. Human workers who do those jobs often develop repetitive-stress or back injuries and frequently quit, said Zini. In some cases, better robots will simply be tools for existing workers, not replacements, added Aaron Edsinger, CTO of Redwood Robotics, a company working on making robotic arms cheaper. “We think of it as industrial augmentation to make workers more efficient,” he said. “I think we’ll find new jobs that come from that.”
Edsinger and other robot boosters point back to previous technological revolutions to make the case that even if robots displace some workers, the overall effect on the economy and workforce will be positive. A hundred or so years ago, approximately 70 percent of U.S. workers were engaged in agriculture; the figure today is just 2 percent, Edsinger pointed out. “The tractor [was] one of the great technological disruptions,” he said. “I would be happy if we were building the John Deere of robotics in that we were disrupting how things are made but also enabling the workforce to develop in a different direction.”