May 29 2017
‘The cobot controversy” is the title of a short article published by and on the Hannover Messe (“Hannover Fair”, the industry exhibition) website. […]This article proposes a “balanced” view about the impact of the collaborative robots (cobots) on the jobs in industry. It caught my interest because most often the articles on those subjects, i.e. robots and future of jobs are single-sided.
On the one hand promoters of the factory of the future, industry 4.0 and robotics only highlight the alleged benefits of the new technologies. On the other hand, prophets of doom predict nothing else than mass extinction of jobs.”
Sourced through Christian Hohmann’s blog
Michel Baudin‘s comments: This is the first of a series of posts on Christian’s blog about cobots, a term I hadn’t heard before that designates robots that collaborate with people. According to Wikipedia, the term was coined in 1996 by tow academics, J. Edward Colgate and Michael Peshkin, and has been used to designate commercial products since 2012. The concept, however, has existed independently of the term both in science-fiction and in real life.
For a science-fiction example, see the power loader Ripley uses to fight off a xenomorph in James Cameron’s 1986 Aliens:
In real life, companies like Intuitive Surgical produce what they call “robotic-assisted” surgery systems that meet the definition of cobots.
In manufacturing, in general, jidoka, Toyota’s approach to automation, is incremental and focused on the interaction between humans and machines, which encompasses cobots.
The concern that new technology destroys jobs has been voiced since before the industrial revolution when craftsmen were organized in guilds dedicated to the prevention of technological innovation. Over time, the ostracism of inventors, the riots, and the destruction of machines, did serious damage but eventually failed. For over two hundred years, through creative destruction, new technology has always created more jobs than it destroyed, giving us no reason to assume that it will be different with cobots or any other types of human-machine systems.
At the same time, this process has also been disruptive, toppling existing organizations and causing new ones to emerge, with some individuals gaining positions while others lost theirs. How traumatic these transformations are depends on the speed with which they occur. Since 1980, the focus of the computer industry has shifted from mainframes to minicomputers, desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones, with each generation dominated by different companies. Overall, the number of jobs generated by this activity in the US has grown, while changing focus.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that, while employment in computer and electronic products dropped from 1.94M in 1990 to 1.035M in 2017, employment in IT services rose from 410K to 1,53M. And it is not a complete picture because it doesn’t include numbers that are harder to find, like that of researchers, developers of software products, etc., down to the materials handlers in e-commerce warehouses.
What happened to the holders of the 900,000 jobs lost over 26 years in the computer and electronic products industry? Some retired, many moved into IT services along with the companies they worked for, and some went into unrelated businesses. If a large proportion had become chronically unemployed, this would be known. It didn’t happen. They had — or could acquire — marketable skills on their own. The same cannot be said, however, of long-term factory workers whose jobs disappear.
A machinist who has been operating the same drill press for 20 years is less likely to find another job than one who has rotated through milling machines, grinders, broaching machines, stamping presses, and has learned along the way how to program machining centers or PLCs. Developing multi-skilled operators does not serve only the company by making the workforce more flexible; it also serves the workers if and when they leave. Managers may be wary that their multi-skilled operators will be more likely to be poached by competitors but, if they don’t develop these skills, that are likely to lose their most ambitious and dynamic workers for failing to give them in-house career prospects.
When plants close and hundreds or thousands of employees suddenly lose their jobs, governments are often solicited to act, most often to prevent the closure. And some do it, like Putin at Pikalevo in 2009, in this video I originally posted in 2014:
Eight years later, however, the plant is not doing so well. This video has renewed relevance today, because of the similarity with Trump’s intervention at Carrier and because the man who is ostensibly humiliated by Putin in the video, Oleg Deripaska, is now a feature in American news, after asking for immunity in exchange for his testimony to Congress in the Trump-Russia affair.
In both cases, there is the question of how appropriate this kind of intervention is, with free-market, laissez-faire purists arguing that it is not. The main risk is that, by working to preserve existing jobs, a government may be fighting a rearguard action, instead of looking forward and helping new activities create new jobs. The latter, of course, is risky too, as discussed in my comments on Doc Hall’s essay on Lean As A Regenerative Value System.