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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Thomas Friedman, "I Made the Robot Do It": Will Robotics Create New Jobs?

Note the contradiction in Thomas Friedman's latest op-ed entitled "I Made the Robot Do It" ( Visiting the design workshop of Rethink Robotics in Massachusetts, Friedman quotes Rodney Brooks, the company's founder:

"The minute you say 'robots' people say: 'It’s going to take away jobs.' But that is not true. It doesn’t take away jobs. It will change how you do them."

To which Friedman responds:

"Actually, the robots will eliminate jobs, just as the PC did, but they be will lower-skilled ones. And the robots will also create new jobs or enlarge existing ones, but they will be jobs that require more skills."

Although I am not familiar with Rethink Robotics, it stands to reason that improved robotics will eliminate lower-skilled jobs, i.e. the ones that are currently being outsourced to sweatshops in China, Vietnam and Pakistan.

Friedman concludes:

"This is the march of progress. It eliminates bad jobs, empowers good jobs, but always demands more skill and creativity and always enables fewer people to do more things. We went through the same megashift when our agricultural economy was replaced by the industrial economy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Therefore, what this election should be about is how we spawn thousands of Rethinks that create new industries, new jobs and productivity tools."

Yes, improved robotics will allow fewer people to do more things. It could also reduce outsourcing from the US. But will it create new industries and jobs?

I'm not so optimistic.


  1. Robots don't create jobs. Friedman is babbling. As usual. Several years Friedman welcomed .... outsourcing ... and the future USA where everyone is a manager of the world.
    Do I have to continue?

  2. Friedman is indeed babbling as usual. Simply consider the scales involved: We're looking at an estimated 30% world-wide population increase by around 2050 or so, with a world population approaching 10 billion souls. In our present value system, all sentient, able-bodied adults are expected to be gainfully employed to earn their bread. And even with a present population of around 7 billion, we are hard pressed to find gainful employment for the masses. Pair this reality with the perennial advances in technology where fewer and fewer with the requisite technical skills can produce more and more. Factor in the demographic and educational trends, particularly in the U.S., and what you're left with is an excess of humans and a deficit in human capital capable of meeting the demands of technologically advanced societies. To illustrate the point, several years back, I did design work on a German plant which produces aerated, autoclaved concrete building materials. This rather large automated facility, run almost exclusively by computers and programmable logic controllers, required, when completed, exactly twelve people for the entire operation. This is the world we're moving into. Apple, the king of the U.S. corporate world, employs less than 50,000 persons directly in its U.S. operations--and in jobs for which the bulk of the U.S. work force would be unqualified. Even the construction of interstate highways requires shockingly few people. So my question is: where will the jobs come from for a burgeoning world population? It seems to me that we're are moving inexorably toward a two-tiered world--of knowledge workers...and the rest. I don't see how robotics does anything but accelerate that trend.