Industrial robots are taking over jobs that humans used to do, leading to a manufacturing boom and signaling a future workplace teaming with robots. Does this come at a cost to employment prospects, or simply free workers to pursue more value-added and creative tasks?

March of the Robots

Can you imagine training a robot to do your job? This is a prospect many factory workers around the world are already facing or will face in the near future, as robotic technology advances and prices drop.

Jobs that involve repetition or danger are ripe for automation. Even jobs that require knowledge-based skills like translation or legal research may be replaced by technology in the coming years, according to a recent analysis by AP. Whether this development is a good thing for the workforce or an ominous one depends a lot on your view of technology and the human capacity for adaptation.

Photo Credit: Washington Post

Photo Credit: Washington Post

Sales of industrial robots have increased 38 percent in the last two years as these machines quickly become integral to the workplace. Witness the Baxter robot from Rethink Robotics, which can be had for $22K, is easily programmable, and works safely alongside its human trainers and colleagues on the assembly line.

Sunnyvale, California’s Liquid Robotics offers seafaring robots that help predict hurricanes. Former Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson’s 3D Robotics in San Diego is starting to offer low cost solutions to monitor crops. Adept, based in Pleasanton, California, is the largest manufacturer of industrial robots in the US and offers a variety of robots that pack and move goods efficiently around a buzzing warehouse increasingly devoid of humans.

A recent study by the International Federation of Robotics estimates that advances in robotics will add up to 1.5 million jobs by 2016, many of which will help revive or retain domestic manufacturing. That’s great for factory owners. What about workers?

Photo Credit: Adept Technology Inc.

Photo Credit: Adept Technology Inc.

Jobs Bust or Newfound Freedom?

The automation shift points to economic growth for sure, and it has the potential to transform society and the supply chain. Yet the long-running American news program 60 Minutes, in a story earlier this year highlighting the trend, maligned it as a job destroyer—much to the dismay of many in the Silicon Valley.

With news of Chinese manufacturing giant and iPhone producer Foxconn working to add one million robots over the next three years to replace jobs now done by humans, it’s understandable that fears abound. But are these fears well founded or are they also something that can stand to be replaced?

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A recent Silicon Valley event at SRI International, organized by news provider Xconomy, featured a lively debate on the job question. Industry panelists were largely in agreement that as the field of robotics rapidly advances, this will mean that humans are freed up to pursue more value-added and creative work—perhaps redefining the notion of work as drudgery and toil to work as creative expression or intellectual pursuit.

Some think that this automated world is imminent and can be realized in the next decade or two in tandem with other scientific and technological advances. A recent report by researchers at leading robotics institutions including MIT, Stanford, UC Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon outlines how robots will penetrate sectors from manufacturing to service to healthcare and defense, becoming as ubiquitous as the Internet in the coming years.

As noted in the Xconomy panel, however, this vision of a working utopia is highly dependent on society being able to retrain and educate workers to allow them to gain the skills to compete in this brave new world. And given the pace of innovation in this field, that needs to happen very quickly or the situation might become a race against the machines.

Tell us what you think—will more robots in the workplace mean less jobs and more misery for humans or just more interesting and fulfilling work for us all in the future?

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