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Whatever happened to the future? Back in the 1950s they said we’d be taking our holidays on the moon by now. Instead, we’ve got Fruit Ninja.

Still, at least one feature of the promised space age is coming to pass: robots! Not so much the humanoid, we’re-taking-over-the-planet variety, but more the industrial, where-would-you-like-that-rivet kind. Of course, we’ve had robots in factories for some while, but according to John Markoff in the New York Times, we’re now entering a new phase: 

  • "This is the future. A new wave of robots, far more adept than those now commonly used by automakers and other heavy manufacturers, are replacing workers around the world in both manufacturing and distribution." 

The application of robotics may become more important than outsourcing to low cost labour regions like China as a means of organising production. Indeed, Chinese manufacturers are planning to replace their own workers with robots: 

  • "Even as Foxconn, Apple’s iPhone manufacturer, continues to build new plants and hire thousands of additional workers to make smartphones, it plans to install more than a million robots within a few years to supplement its work force in China." 
  • "Foxconn has not disclosed how many workers will be displaced or when. But its chairman, Terry Gou, has publicly endorsed a growing use of robots. Speaking of his more than one million employees worldwide, he said in January, according to the official Xinhua news agency: ‘As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.’" 

One assumes that being described as "animals" doesn’t do much for worker morale either. Still, Mr Gou has a point. Unlike people – or, for that matter, animals – robots don’t need to be fed or watered, nor do they sleep or complain or get sick or indulge in any number of other inconvenient organic activities.

They don’t require wages either, which provides the west with a major opportunity. Whereas, say, an American worker costs a lot more than a Chinese worker – robots cost much the same the world over. In fact, given the wage differential, western employers have a stronger incentive to invest in robotics. John Markoff runs some numbers: 

  • "In one example, a robotic manufacturing system initially cost $250,000 and replaced two machine operators, each earning $50,000 a year. Over the 15-year life of the system, the machines yielded $3.5 million in labor and productivity savings." 

That’s great. But what will all those replaced workers do? 

  • "…the advent of low-cost automation foretells changes on the scale of the revolution in agricultural technology over the last century, when farming employment in the United States fell from 40 percent of the work force to about 2 percent today." 

It’s a frightening analogy, but a misleading one. Whereas the human appetite for food is limited by the size of the human stomach; our consumption of manufactured goods (and the associated services) is less constrained. Even if many fewer human workers are required per unit of production, there will be enough jobs if we can figure out how to use this capacity to achieve a balancing increase in the overall amount we produce.

This will require some creative thinking – which, if nothing else, is one area where we humans still rule supreme.

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