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Welcome to Insight: Innovation

Date: March 25, 2013
Author: Jeffrey R. Young​

City: Chicago



 ​The New Industrial Revolution


A coming wave of robots could redefine our jobs. Will that redefine us?​

Baxter is a new type of worker, who is having no trouble getting a job these days, even in a tight economy. He's a little slow, but he's easy to train. And companies don't hire him, they buy him—he even comes with a warranty.

Baxter is a robot, not a human, though human workers in all kinds of industries may soon call him a colleague. His plastic-and-metal body consists of two arms loaded with sensors to keep his lifeless limbs from accidentally knocking over anyone nearby. And he has a simulated face, displayed on a flat-panel computer monitor, so he can give a frown if he's vexed or show a bored look if he's waiting to be given more to do.

Baxter is part of a new generation of machines that are changing the labor market worldwide—and raising a new round of debate about the meaning of work itself. This robot comes at a price so low—starting at just $22,000—that even businesses that never thought of replacing people with machines may find that prospect irresistible. It's the brainchild of Rodney Brooks, who also designed the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner, which succeeded in bringing at least a little bit of robotics into millions of homes. One computer scientist predicts that robots like Baxter will soon toil in fast-food restaurants topping pizzas, at bakeries sliding dough into hot ovens, and at a variety of other service-sector jobs, in addition to factories.

I wanted to meet this worker of the future and his robot siblings, so I spent a day at this year's Automate trade show here, where Baxter was one of hundreds of new commercial robots on display. Simply by guiding his hands and pressing a few buttons, I programmed him to put objects in boxes; I played blackjack against another robot that had been temporarily programmed to deal cards to show off its dexterity; and I watched demonstration robots play flawless games of billiards on toy-sized tables. (It turns out that robots are not only better at many professional jobs than humans are, but they can best us in our hobbies, too.)

During a keynote speech to kick off the trade show, Henrik Christensen, director of robotics at Georgia Tech, outlined a vision of a near future when we'll see robots and autonomous devices everywhere, working side by side with humans and taking on a surprisingly diverse set of roles. Robots will load and unload packages from delivery trucks without human assistance—as one company's system demonstrated during the event. Robots will even drive the trucks and fly the cargo planes with our packages, Christensen predicted, noting that Google has already demonstrated its driverless car, and that the same technology that powers military drones can just as well fly a FedEx jet. "We'll see coast-to-coast package delivery with drones without having a pilot in the vehicle," he asserted.

Away from the futuristic trade floor, though, a public discussion is growing about whether robots like Baxter and other new automation technologies are taking too many jobs. Similar concerns have cropped up repeatedly for centuries: when combines first arrived on farms, when the first machines hit factory assembly lines, when computers first entered businesses. A folk tune from the 1950s called "The Automation Song" could well be sung today: "Now you've got new machines for to take my place, and you tell me it's not mine to share." Yet new jobs have always seemed to emerge to fill the gaps left by positions lost to mechanization. There may be few secretaries today, but there are legions of social-media managers and other new professional categories created by digital technology.

Still, what if this time is different? What if we're nearing an inflection point where automation is so cheap and efficient that human workers are simply outmatched? What if machines are now leading to a net loss of jobs rather than a net gain? Two professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, raised that concern in Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution Is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy (Digital Frontier Press, 2011). A recent report on 60 Minutes featured the book's thesis and quoted critics concerned about the potential economic crisis caused by robots, despite the cute faces on their monitors.

But robots raise an even bigger question than how many jobs are left over for humans. A number of scholars are now arguing that all this automation could make many goods and services so cheap that a full-time jobs could become optional for most people. Baxter, then, would become a liberator of the human spirit rather than an enemy of the working man.

That utopian dream would require resetting the role work plays in our lives. If our destiny is to be freed from toil by robot helpers, what are we supposed to do with our days?

To begin to tackle that existential question, I decided to invite along a scholar of work to the Automate trade show. And that's how my guest, Burton J. Bledstein, an expert on the history of professionalism and the growth of the modern middle class, got into an argument with the head of a robotics company.

It happened at the booth for Adept Technology Inc., which makes a robot designed to roam the halls of hospitals and other facilities making deliveries. The latest model­—a foot-tall rolling platform that can be customized for a variety of tasks­—wandered around the booth, resembling something out of a Star Wars film except that it occasionally blasted techno music from its speakers. Bledstein was immediately wary of the contraption. The professor, who holds an emeritus position at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explained that he has an artificial hip and didn't want the robot to accidentally knock him down. He needn't have worried, though; the robot is designed to sense nearby objects and keep a safe distance.

Sam Ogden, Science Source
The company's then-CEO, John Dulchinos, assured us that on the whole, robots aren't taking jobs—they're simply making life better for human employees by eliminating the most-tedious tasks. "I can show you some very clear examples where this product is offloading tasks from a nurse that was walking five miles a day to allow her to be able to spend time with patients," he said, as the robot tirelessly circled our feet. "I think you see that in a lot of the applications we're doing, where the mundane task is done by a robot which has very simple capability, and it frees up people to do more-elaborate and more-sophisticated tasks."

The CEO defended the broader trend of companies' embracing automation, especially in factory settings where human workers have long held what he called unfulfilling jobs, like wrapping chicken all day. "They look like zombies when they walk out of that factory," he said of such workers. "It is a mind-numbing, mundane task. There is absolutely no satisfaction from what they do."

"That's your perception," countered Bledstein. "A lot of these are unskilled people. A lot of immigrants are in these jobs. They see it as work. They appreciate the paycheck. The numbness of the work is not something that surprises them or disturbs them."

"I guess we could just turn the clock back to 1900, and we can all be farmers," retorted Dulchinos.

But what about those displaced workers who can't find alternatives, asked Bledstein, arguing that automation is happening not just in factories but also in clerical and other middle-class professions changed by computer technology. "That's kind of creating a crisis today. Especially if those people are over 50, those people are having a lot of trouble finding new work." The professor added that he worried about his undergraduate students, too, and the tough job market they face. "It might be a lost generation, it's so bad."

Dulchinos acknowledged that some workers are struggling during what he sees as a transitional period, but he argued that the solution is more technology and innovation, not less, to get to a new equilibrium even faster.

This went on for a while, and it boiled down to competing conceptions of what it means to have a job. In Bledstein's seminal book, The Culture of Professionalism, first published in 1976, he argues that Americans, in particular, have come to define their work as more than just a series of tasks that could be commodified. Bledstein tracks a history of how, in sector after sector, middle-class workers sought to elevate the meaning of their jobs, whether they worked as athletes, surgeons, or funeral directors: "The professional importance of an occupation was exaggerated when the ordinary coffin became a 'casket,' the sealed repository of a precious object; when a decaying corpse became a 'patient' prepared in an 'operating room' by an 'embalming surgeon' and visited in a 'funeral home' before being laid to rest in a 'memorial park.'"

The American dream involves more than just accumulating wealth, the historian argues. It's about developing a sense of personal value by connecting work to a broader social mission, rather than as "a mechanical job, befitting of lowly manual laborer."

Today, though, "there's disillusionment with professions," Bledstein told me, noting that the logic of efficiency is often valued more than the quality of service. "Commercialism has just taken over everywhere." He complained that in their rush to reduce production costs, some business leaders are forgetting that even manual laborers have skills and knowledge that can be tough to simulate by machine. "They want to talk about them as if these people are just drones," he said as we took a break in the back of the exhibit hall, the whir of robot motors almost drowning out our voices. "Don't minimize the extent of what quote-unquote manual workers do—even ditch diggers."

In Genesis, God sentences Adam and Eve to hard labor as part of the punishment for the apple incident. "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life" was the sentence handed down in the Garden of Eden. Yet Martin Luther argued, as have other prominent Christian leaders since, that work is also a way to connect with the divine.

People's relationship to work has been complex from the start, and its cultural resonance has shifted over time. Today many people's identities are tied up in their jobs. "Beyond mere survival, we create ourselves in our work," writes Al Gini, a professor of business ethics at Loyola University Chicago, in his 2001 book, My Job, My Self.

But Gini points to earlier periods when attitudes were quite different. The ancient Greeks, for instance, used slaves for most labor and "regarded work as a curse, a drudgery, and an activity to be conducted with a heavy heart." Their view, he writes, was that "work by its very nature inhibited the use of reason and thereby impeded the search for the ultimate ends of life."

Aristotle never worked a day in his life.

Swikar Patel for The Chronicle Review Burton Bledstein, a historian of professionalism and the middle class, at the Automate trade show
Today Jeremy Rifkin is among those who make a case for what he calls "rethinking work." Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends and a senior lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of business, is best known for his 1995 best seller, The End of Work. In his most recent book, The Third Industrial Revolution, he says that a reshaping of society made possible by a variety of trends, including automation systems and green technology, could leave people more time for what he calls "deep play."

He imagines robots' making manufacturing so cheap and efficient that most people will simply be able to work less to meet their basic needs. He says we will then be free to start new kinds of nonprofit activities that link us with other people in new ways, helping us lead more-fulfilling lives.

"Why is it that being a productive worker is the highest value of being alive on this planet?" Rifkin asks. "The real mission of the human race is to learn how to begin to integrate ourselves into a single biosphere," he says, arguing that the Internet can bring about a true global village.

"What we have to come to grips with now is that the most productive and efficient human being is not going to be as productive and efficient in a physical or intellectual way as the automated technology that's coming," he says.

Work won't go away completely, in his view, but the workweeks for many will greatly decrease. "The average work day in forager or hunter-gatherer society is three to four hours—the rest is leisure or play," he says. In the robot age, "I think a five-to-six-hour day makes sense."

Frithjof Bergmann, an emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, goes further in his proposals for a radical restructuring of society that would bring about what he calls a "New Work system."

He envisions a social structure in which large-scale manufacturing plants disappear, replaced by a series of neighborhood centers with advanced 3-D printers that can make a variety of goods on demand. People would spend part of their week doing self-service tasks to maintain their own lives—like homemade manufacturing and urban gardening—and spend a couple of days a week at what he calls a "Paid Calling," some task uniquely suited to each worker. That way "the impulse for the work arises from within me" and comes "from the very heart and core of my soul," as he put it in an essay, published in 2000, titled "Ecology and New Work."

Bergmann runs an organization in Flint, Mich., called the Center for New Work, to advance this vision, and he argues that the current economic recession provides an opportunity to phase in his ideas, some of which he has been promoting since the 1980s. "I spent just now two weeks teaching people in Detroit how to make the best possible use of 3-D printers," he told me. "You can use fabricators like you're already using urban gardening, so you do have the opportunity to spend much more time than you had in the past to do things that are to your taste."

Even some of the roboticists here at the Automate show believe that their inventions could lead to a rebooted work environment. One of them is Gary R. Bradski, a machine-vision scientist on leave from Stanford University to help start a company called Industrial Perception—the one demonstrating a robot that can unload boxes from a delivery truck without human assistance.

"You're going to see in the next five to 10 years a significant increase in automation and robotics within the health-care space,"

Bradski said he could imagine a world in which everyone owns shares of manufacturing companies where almost all of the work is done by robots, with those shares providing a "baseline" income to all. Those who want finer things or experiences could do extra work—by inventing or designing things. He notes that teenagers without jobs have no trouble filling their days, and that people could spend time with "storytelling and play and coming up with new ideas that some 3-D printer can implement."

Utopian visions of machines eliminating the need for work date back to the earliest days of labor-saving devices, said Edward Granter, a lecturer at the University of Manchester's business school. "People have been writing about utopias like that since the time of St. Thomas More," he said, referring to the Renaissance social philosopher who made the term famous. Granter published a book in 2009, Critical Social Theory and the End of Work, that tracks the history of such utopian ideas. During the 1930s, some experts even interpreted the Great Depression as an "indication that technology was at the stage where people were being permanently eliminated from the production process," and some saw the prospect of a more leisured future as "replete with a certain promise," he writes.

In an interview, Granter praised the latest versions of these ideas and noted that such visions are helpful reminders that the idea of work could be different. But he said that if history is a guide, we're unlikely ever to be freed from working.

What is most surprising about the latest round of automation technology is that it is affecting not just working-class jobs but desk jobs as well, he said. Software that helps in legal research, or "document discovery," is replacing some lawyers, for instance, and plenty of other information workers, including tax preparers and copy editors, are at risk of being elbowed out by computer programs that can do part of their jobs. One researcher has even developed a software program that writes books automatically, drawing on facts posted in public-domain resources on the Internet.

"We were supposed to be the elite," Granter said. "But information workers became even more precarious than industrial workers."

What do the people who work with robots like Baxter think of their new co-workers? I called up a hospital that bought one of the Adept robot couriers to find out.

"At first, when we were trialing the robot, there was a bit of resistance," said Jeremy Angell, coordinator of support services at CentraCare Health System's St. Cloud Hospital, in Minnesota. Angell supervises a robot courier named Rocky, who is custom-made to hold several vials in carefully marked slots, and whose job is to carry those specimens from nurses to lab technicians and back again. Some lab technicians worried that it would be cumbersome to figure out which sample was which when this rolling shelf pulled up.

The assistants who had previously made the deliveries liked Rocky from the start, though. Carrying specimens around had been a hassle that left less time to do other tasks, like responding to phone requests from nurses and other hospitals that use the lab.

Angell said no one at the hospital had lost a job because of Rocky. But the robot allowed the laboratory to handle more work without hiring the two full-time assistants that had previously been planned. "We did not have to bring in someone to do a menial task," he said.

One of the laboratory assistants, Lynn Balaski, explained that she uses Rocky only during the busiest times, and that when things are slow she still prefers to hand-deliver the samples. "He's there when I need him, which isn't all the time," she said.

Lab workers jokingly pretend that Rocky is more than just plastic and programming, and find themselves responding playfully to his preprogrammed jokes or comments about the weather—all recorded by Angell. But the robot's comic timing is so bad that the sheer ineptness makes Balaski laugh.

The recent federal health-care-reform law has led more hospitals to consider bringing in these kinds of courier robots, said Sandy Agnos, a product manager for Swisslog Healthcare Solutions, which helped customize Rocky. "You're going to see in the next five to 10 years a significant increase in automation and robotics within the health-care space," she said. "You have hospitals that are being forced to cut staff, and then you have constrained resources where people have to multitask."

Warehouses are the front lines of human-robot relations, though. Amazon, the online-retailing giant, has been a high-profile adopter of automation technology, bringing in fleets of sophisticated rolling robots to carry shelves from a storage area to "pick workers," who take what the robots bring and drop those items into boxes. The company declined my request to interview one of the humans who work with so many robotic colleagues. But another company that operates warehouses using the same robots connected me to a manager in its facility in Devens, Mass.

"Out on the floor, we've kind of just become used to having them here," said the manager, Brian Lemerise, a senior director for the company, called Quiet Logistics. He said the robots, made by Kiva Systems, eliminate the need for humans to walk miles a day fetching items in a storage area the size of two football fields. That trekking was "a non-value-added use of time," he said. One robot can do the work of one and a half people, and because the company can afford more of them than it could human workers, packages ship faster.

Lemerise said that because the robots had been around since the company's beginnings, about four years ago, employees see them as helping make their jobs possible rather than as threatening them.

Ana Santana, a 27-year-old pick worker, said that she previously worked in a warehouse where she had to walk to items herself, and that she preferred leaving that part to the robots.

"I feel like somebody's helping me," she said. Now she goes to the gym to get her exercise. "I know I can do half an hour and I'm done," she added with a laugh.

The rolling robots are also much quieter than the system of conveyor belts that moves items around other warehouses, she said, so she can talk with two other human co-workers at stations near hers.

The robotic system constantly adjusts the pace at which it brings items to the human pick workers, always making sure to have about 200 seconds' worth of work on deck, no more, no less. That means if a worker slows down, the robot sends less work over. Some workers try to see if they can outrun their mechanical partners, said Lemerise.

Santana said she had no fear that robots could eventually replace her. "Humans need to be involved in orders," she said. "The robots cannot pack the orders, cannot pick them. They just make our jobs easier."

One reason for all the fuss about Baxter and Rocky taking jobs may be a longstanding tendency to personify robots.

"With robots, it feels a little more like it's replacing a person," said Benjamin F. Jones, an associate professor at Northwestern University's business school who specializes in innovation. "A robot is one-to-one, almost. But one combine harvester is probably replacing 100 people."

Still, the question of whether robots are helping or hurting the work force has become a serious policy issue. Georgia Tech's Christensen, the keynote speaker at the trade show and a leading pro-robot spokesman, has argued to the Obama administration that new robot workers can help bring back manufacturing jobs to the United States that have moved overseas. Administration officials were skeptical at first, he acknowledged: "You're about killing jobs, why would we talk to you," he remembered being told. But he said they "got convinced," and he pointed to a recent move by Apple to move more production of its computers to the United States because automation made it cheap enough. The professor recently helped update a white paper sponsored by the National Science Foundation laying out a "National Robotics Roadmap" for the country.

And Jeremy Rifkin, who writes about moving to an era of "deep play," is an adviser to the European Union.

Bledstein said he may write something more about automation and how it has changed the middle class, and he mentioned that he would continue to teach and do research as long as he can. He wants to keep working. He thinks every professional does, as long as the work is meaningful. "People I know who have really retired, they have really deteriorated quickly," he said. "Work is far more than just a practical category. It's fundamental. We need work."

By the end of a day at the Automate trade show, my feet were tired, and I was coming down with a cold. As I trudged out, I was struck by how steady and relentless the robots on display appeared, with some moving as many as 300 objects per minute in an endless loop. They weren't going to stop unless someone hit the off switch.

Jeffrey R. Young is a senior editor at The Chronicle.​

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