The Robotic Elephant in the Room: There May be No Choice When it Comes to the Robot vs. Worker Question

In a recent article, "Robots and Robber Barons" by Paul Krugman, NYT OP-ED, he floated the idea that the increased development of robotic and automation technology, coupled with the financialization of manufacturing, is slowing hiring in the manufacturing sector and will start displacing workers in other sectors as well.

I would like to add that there is an even more sinister element at work that could mark an ongoing hiring decline in not only labor heavy manufacturing, but also in medical, office and other industries that you wouldn't think would be affected by robots and automation.

That sinister element: Efficiency

I imagine that most people, myself included, when they think of robotics and automation, they envision flinging steel and hydraulic arms that emit plasma or sparks violently attacking an auto frame that moments later will morph into a shiny red new Ford Focus or Dodge Dart or that one car from GM.

Usually, this ballet of lightning spewing violence is part of a news report about right to work laws or the auto-bailout or something along those lines. Frequently, the reporter will mention something about "the days when you can go to work where your father worked and his father before him, are long gone…"

The big three, all of the automakers for that matter, came out of the recessions of the 70's and 80's having learned how to do more with less. During this period, ten of thousands of workers were laid off. By the time things noticeably rebounded in the 90's and 2000's, some workers were brought back, but because of the adaptation of automation, thousands of workers didn't return. To add insult to injury, their kids weren't hired either; well, not unless their kids were robotic engineers.

This isn't news to anybody. While this transition has hurt some regions of the country more than others, the other thing that isn't news is that the product coming out of these regions has never been better. Especially, that one car from GM!

Believe it or not, aside from owning a car, most people are removed from the auto industry- unless of course, if you live in an area that gets really cold in the winter and is surrounded by the Great Lakes.

But what if you are or know someone in the medical field? What if you are a fireman or work in security? How about maintenance work? Office and report writing? We all know that the use of robots is doing nothing but growing in manufacturing: welding, cutting assembly, lifting, gripping, moving, conveying, and a host of others.

There are robots that are assisting in and performing both life-threatening and non-abrasive medical procedures; robotic units patrolled the Republican National Convention this past summer in Tampa; robot inspectors proof legal and office documents.

How about this- Farming?

A company called Dorhout R&D has developed a robotic planter for farm use. This robot can communicate with other robots to let them know that it needs help in planting or that a certain area is completed, or to move in a different direction. There are also robots in development that that can weed, fertilize and irrigate.

Efficiency! These electronic autonomous wonders can perform their tasks more precisely, more quickly, and for as long as they are commanded without worry of fatigue or quality drop off- more so than their bag-of-bones counterparts. Have you ever heard a robot say, "whoa…whoa. I'm on break"?

The great upside to the expansion of robotic and automation technology is the rising need for operators and engineers. While, obviously engineering degrees are needed for the design aspects, potential operators can find training readily available through community colleges and sometimes even through the manufacturers themselves. These are good, solid paying jobs that should experience real growth through the next decade and beyond.

The downside to this is that it could, in theory, take just one operator to run a plant of robots that replace ten, twenty, hundred, or even three hundred or more workers. That's some downside, especially when trying to grow an economy!

While people get excited when real and practical means are introduced to improve production, processes, or simply to make our lives a little easier, the reality is that the math doesn't look good. These advances are made and will continue to be made on the backs of the men and women who used their hands to drill or weld parts together, who patrolled warehouses or office buildings, who researched legal documents, who assisted doctors in operations, or who planted corn in the spring in Michigan and fruit in the fall in California, etc.

This isn't a rant against progress or the coming robotic revolution or the evils of automation. It simply has to do with that other reality that is pushing this discussion along – efficiency.

Efficiency, in some ways, is an unfortunate reality and will always trump and win out in the war of man vs. machine. No matter how great an owner is or how compassionate a CEO is towards his workers, he or she can't ignore processes and applications that they know will advance and enable their company to compete—whether that business is in assembling, fabrication, healthcare, security or dairy and agriculture—in the global economy.

While not the only reason, the great robotic elephant in the room is a big reason why hiring isn't happening at a quicker pace, despite companies sitting on loads of cash. Efficiency is that wall that in many cases is preventing sons and daughters working at places where their parents once worked…unless, of course, they know how to run a robot.

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