Debating Robots, Jobs, and the Changing Nature of Work on April 11 at SRI

2/5/13Follow @wroush

If you saw the 60 Minutes segment “March of the Machines” on January 13, you probably came away with some mixed feelings about the state of robotics. The report showed robots doing an impressive array of jobs, from assisting with delicate surgery to driving autonomously on freeways to ferrying medicines down hospital corridors. But don’t get carried away with your admiration, warned correspondent Steve Kroft, because those same robots are “competing for our jobs.”

Needless to say, people in the robotics industry were surprised and a little dismayed by the TV report. I was too. I met the CBS producers behind the segment when they were in Silicon Valley on a scouting trip for the story last summer, and I didn’t get the sense they were preparing an economic critique. But that’s definitely how the report came off, as Kroft placed much of the blame for high post-recession unemployment on advances in software, robotics, and automation.

This reproach from one of the country’s most respected news organizations comes at a moment when the U.S. robotics industry, which is just beginning to get a serious foothold outside the traditional realm of the automobile assembly line, can ill afford it. Companies considering whether to invest in robots might hesitate if they saw a risk of a backlash in the court of public opinion. There’s “a real issue of whether U.S. prominence in the next wave of robotics will be undermined by stereotypes about [the] impact on jobs,” one roboticist complained to me.

Well, here at Xconomy we’d like to present an alternative point of view—and we’d like to get you involved in the debate. On April 11, as part of National Robotics Week, we’ll gather some of the nation’s leading robot builders at SRI International in the heart of Silicon Valley for a special afternoon forum called “Robots Remake the Workplace.”

Xconomy Forum: Robots Remake the WorkplaceThe premise we’ll be working from is pretty much the opposite of the one in the 60 Minutes piece. It’s that the robotics business is on the cusp of an unprecedented boom, and that robots may soon be as ubiquitous in the workplace as personal computers are today, bringing a comparable boost in productivity. What’s needed now, our speakers will argue, is more investment, more innovation, and smarter commercialization strategies.

We’ve always believed that most economic growth comes from technology. One caveat, of course, is that the process is rarely linear. Some human workers may indeed find that they’ve been displaced by robots that can do the same jobs at lower cost. Also, it’s undeniable that technology has helped many companies ramp production back up without rehiring all the workers they laid off during the Great Recession.

But the point that 60 Minutes largely glossed over, at least in the televised portion of its report, is that adopting robotics technology may actually make U.S. companies more competitive. It can lower the cost of manufacturing and make it economical to build things here in the United States, rather than offshoring manufacturing to Asia. It can make human employees far more productive. And doing those things can free up companies to invest in new product lines, which ultimately creates new jobs.

Rodney Brooks, the founder and CTO and chairman of Rethink Robotics, and John Dulchinos , the CEO of Adept Technology, articulated those points to the 60 Minutes crew. Unfortunately, these segments were left out of the broadcast version of the report—CBS News published them as “Web Extras.”

The gist of the TV report—which relied heavily on ideas about the future of work from MIT scholars Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee—was that there’s something different about robotics and software, and that we can’t count on them to drive job growth the way previous technological revolutions did.

We’ll have Rod Brooks himself on hand on April 11 to argue against that motion. Rethink is building inexpensive manipulation robots intended to help domestic companies compete with cheap labor in places like China. “At the macro scale, if you are not shipping all of that money out of the country to do manufacturing, it is going to increase the total number of jobs,” Brooks told Kroft in one of the Web Extra segments. “Because now you’ve got a lot more supplies going into the factory, a lot more distribution happening here, a lot more stuff happening around it.”

Brooks will be flying in from Boston to give one of our featured keynote talks. We’ll also hear from Colin Angle, who co-founded iRobot with Brooks (and serves as its CEO), and from Yulun Wang, the CEO of InTouch Health, which is collaborating with iRobot on remote presence robots for medical clinics. Oh, and did I mention Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired? He’s so excited about robotics that he left the magazine to become CEO of San Diego-based 3D Robotics, which sells parts for drone helicopters.

Other prominent guests will include Steve Jurvetson of Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Ajay Agarwal of Bain Capital Ventures—two of Silicon Valley’s most bullish venture investors when it comes to robotics—and the founders of some very cool robotics startups, including Double Robotics, Harvest Automation, Redwood Robotics, Romotive, and Qbotix. I’ll be telling you more about each of those companies in the weeks ahead, and we’ll be announcing even more speakers soon.

In short, we’re bringing you a stellar lineup of engineers and entrepreneurs, representing some of the most interesting robotics companies around the country. If their stories aren’t enough to convince you that robots are about to improve the productivity of our factories, offices, hospitals, farms, and energy plants, then maybe you ought to apply for a job at CBS.

One more word about the 60 Minutes segment. In my opinion, Kroft and his producers fudged from the opening seconds of the report, when they defined a robot as “a machine that can perform the job of a human” and argued that a robot can be “mobile or stationary, hardware or software” (emphasis mine).

Well, if you define “robot” so broadly that it includes things like ATMs, ticketing kiosks at airports, digital switchboards, Siri-style virtual personal assistants, and IBM’s Watson supercomputer, as 60 Minutes did, then of course it’s easy to argue that robots are taking away jobs. The whole trend in software for the last 50 years has been to automate rote processes that once required human calculations or decisions.

But when you lump virtual software agents or “bots” in with honest-to-goodness electro-mechanical robots like the ones most of our speakers are building, I think you spread the guilt unfairly, and you throw out a lot of interesting distinctions. There’s also a basic logic problem at work. If you define a robot as a machine that can perform the job of a human, then it’s patently tautological to say that robots are taking jobs away from humans.

But I don’t mean to rant. Clearly, the nature of work and workplaces is changing, and robots are going to be a big part of that story. “We are going to find ourselves in a world where work as we currently think about it is largely done by machines,” MIT’s McAfee told Kroft. What will people do in that world? “That is the $64,000 question,” McAfee said. “We are going to be in a very weird, very different place.”

Yes—but not necessarily a bad place. Join us on April 11, and we’ll try to give you a better look at it.

Here’s the 60 Minutes report (Flash only, so it won’t play on iOS devices).

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Michael Sudano

    Fantastic lineup and wonderful description / rant, Wade ;) Cannot wait!