Human vs. Robot: The Battle for the Workforce

In class we learned how increasing productivity and efficiency of process can lead to larger profits for the firm. One of the methods used to increase productivity was the incorporation of robots into the workforce. We learned that robots can be used in a variety of ways, such as milking cows, constructing cars, or transporting. With decreased cost of production and human error, robots are among the most supported guarantors of future profits. However, not everyone supports the growing use of robots in the workforce. According to the Economist, robots are the death of the lower – middle skilled workforce and the beginning of “premature deindustrialization” (The Third Great Wave, p. 4)

The terms “efficiency” and “productivity” have always been referred to positively; as efficiency in process rises, productivity rises.” Thinking this through, we define efficiency as the better use of resources, the decrease in human labor per product, and the increase in output from freed – up labor, which ultimately should result in an increase in wages. In essence, to increase productivity, efficiency has to increase; and efficiency is synonymous with less cost and more revenue. Revenue is then used to reward workers for their high productivity. It is here that the robot-human conflict comes in.

It does not take a seer to foretell the replacement of low-skill human laborers by robots. The Economist outlines that, in a correct system, as technology replaces human workers; the higher skilled workers make more money and spend more money, creating new jobs (Technology isn’t working, p. 6). However, it is no stretch of the imagination that businesses are reluctant to increase the wages of their employees, and this issue is the problem. Average human productivity increased last year at a rate of 2.5%, while wage increase lagged at 1%. This shows that, as output increased, people earned marginally less than what would have been normal. Without increased wages, people cannot spend, and without spending, there is no new creation of jobs.

Furthermore, we know that robots do not require payment for their services. And as we saw on Monday, their accuracy and precision removes the problem of human error, making them the epitome of efficiency. These facts make them a more viable solution to increasing output. As the Economist observes, COOs and managers see that robots can dramatically increase a firm’s output without having to receive payment, and so they invest in more robots (6). This results in less need for human labor, which leaves many unemployed, which ultimately leads to less sales and more inventory.

As time moves forward, technology will continue to improve. We saw this with video cassettes to DVDs to online streaming and the ipod series, and now we are seeing the workforce demography change as well. I feel that businesses have to find a balance between robot and human workers in order to maintain cash flows. I find it interesting that something so helpful in the workforce could lead to such problems, and it merits discussion.

How do you feel about robots entering the workforce? Do you really think it will be all that bad? How do you think low-skill laborers will make a living if their jobs are occupied by technology that does not need money to survive?

“The Third Great Wave.” Economist 4 Oct. 2014: 56, 58. Print.

Is Baxter Increasing Production or Replacing Humans?

Baxter is a new manufacturing robot from Rethink Robotics. It is created to perform the menial repetitive tasks that occur at an assembly line such as picking items of a conveyor belt. Baxter is expected to increase the productivity of U.S. manufacturers and help them retain business that would otherwise migrate overseas.

Rodney Brooks with Baxter

The red and charcoal-gray Baxter goes on sale October 2012. Baxter has five cameras, a sonar sensor that detects motion 360 degrees around it, and can learn tasks within an hour. It is also very cheap in comparison to other assembly-line robots which can cost $200,00 each. At $22,000 a unit, Baxter is the equivalent paying a human $4 an hour for three years of eight-hour shifts.

Other assembly-line robots can be dangerous, so they are often isolated in cages away from employees. Baxter however, is designed to work safely alongside workers and can be set down safely almost anywhere on a factory floor. Its eyes are on a swiveling computer screen and greet any worker who approaches. To teach Baxter a job, a human simply grabs its arms, simulates the desired task, and presses a button to set the pattern. Baxter will also be upgradable. The company plans to update Baxter’s software for free every few months, enabling more complex behaviors such as two-handed manipulation.

Rethink Robotics’ origins date back to the 1990s when founder Rodney Brooks got an unwelcome taste of the realities of the global supply chain as the cost of shipping products overseas rose along with the price of oil. Rethink Robotics was conceived as an attempt to change the economics of manufacturing.

Baxter is designed to make U.S. workers more productive than their foreign rivals. However, worker production is not really a problem. According to IHS, U.S. companies produce about $2 trillion worth of goods annually while China produces $2.2 trillion. U.S. companies also do it with a tenth of the manpower as China. America’s manufacturing issues are more than just productivity. Companies use overseas manufacturers because they’re cheaper and nearer the rest of their supply chain.

There is also the fear that Baxter could replace U.S. workers. Rethink Chief Executive Officer Scott Eckert compares Baxter to the arrival of the personal computer. He says it effectively turns workers from menial laborers into robot managers. So the question remains. Is Baxter really going to keep jobs in the U.S. or will companies continue to use overseas manufacturers. If U.S. companies do decide to use Baxter instead of overseas manufacturers, then will U.S. workers simply be replaced? Its tough to say but Rodney Brooks seems to believe Baxter is the future to saving U.S. jobs and manufacturing.

Businessweek Article