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Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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Google Bets On Robots: Goodbye, Jobs?

While Amazon makes a splash with drones, Google invests in robot technologies. Depending on your profession, that could be bad news.

Surgical Robots: Look Who's Coming To The OR
Surgical Robots: Look Who's Coming To The OR
(click image for larger view)

Not to be outdone by and its widely hyped plan to automate home delivery using drones, Google has revealed that it made seven discreet acquisitions in the past six months with an eye toward enhancing its competence as a maker of robots.

The acquired companies -- Autofuss, Bot & Dolly, Holomni, Industrial Perception, Meka, Redwood Robotics, and Schaft -- develop robotic and automation systems or focus on design and advertising.

As reported by John Markoff in The New York Times, the effort is being led by Andy Rubin, who, appropriately enough, headed Google Android business until earlier this year. It is seen at the company as a "moonshot," the term Google gives to projects of exceptional ambition, such as its self-driving cars and balloon-borne Internet access points.

[ Will future cars talk to each other? Read 5 Ways Big Data Can Improve Your Car. ]

Google's robotics group doesn't yet have a formal place in the company's corporate structure. It's not part of Google X, the company's experimental laboratory, because the goal is to deliver products relatively soon. The group's first products are expected to meet the needs of automated manufacturing and logistics, something like the systems Amazon employs in its highly automated warehouses.

The question this venture raises is: How many people will become unemployed because of these robots? Speculating that Google could try to put its recently launched Shopping Express service into the hands of robots, Markoff wrote, "Perhaps someday, there will be automated delivery to the doorstep, which for now is dependent on humans."

The article happens to quote Andrew McAfee, a principal research scientist at the MIT Center for Digital Business, who opines that there's a massive automation opportunity because there are still people who walk around manufacturing floors and distribution centers to move objects.

This the same Andrew McAfee who, in a 2012 TED talk, declared that droids are coming for our jobs, a subject he explores in his coming book, The Second Machine Age.

"I think within the lifetimes of most of the people in this room, we're going to transition into an economy that is very productive but that just doesn't need a lot of human workers, and managing that transition is going to be the greatest challenge that our society faces," McAfee said in his presentation.

Paradoxically, he then declared his optimism and implied this challenge will be solved. He concluded by echoing the words of Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings at his defeat by IBM's Watson: "I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords."

Image source: Murderous Automaton
Image source: Murderous Automaton

Perhaps Google should be investing in armed robots to suppress those who might rise up against our new computer overlords, because not everyone will be so sanguine about being made redundant and idle. Wars have been fought for less.

In a blog post published Monday in response to a recent New Yorker article on Google's self-driving cars, Lee Vinsel, assistant professor of science and technology studies at Stevens Institute of Technology, argues that author overlooks the social consequences of technology. He then castigates Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos for (in a recent 60 Minutes interview) dismissing the fate of independent booksellers as the inevitable result of advancing technology, rather than acknowledging Amazon's role in transforming the book business.

"Bezos's statement is a beautiful example of someone using the notion of technological determinism -- the idea that technological change drives social change -- to absolve himself of responsibility," Vinsel wrote. "Remember all you workers, when you work all day in warehouses without heat and air conditioning and go home exhausted and underpaid, that's just the future happening to you. Many of my friends have outright hatred for Walmart. They should save some of their spleen for Mr. Bezos."

Vinsel insists that Bezos likes drones because they don't have human rights. Bezos, were he inclined to argue the point, might phrase it differently: Drones don't have human expenses. But purely economic rationale leads to the inevitable conclusion that humans are expendable, at least as workers. They're still necessary as customers, but they don't buy much if they don't have jobs.

The paradox of McAfee's rosy view about the apparently decreasing need for human workers is that the data he presents doesn't point toward a happy ending. It suggests fewer and fewer people will have jobs.

To get to a happy ending, McAfee relies on a report about how the arrival of mobile phones in Kerala, India, improved the lives of local fishermen, and on his assertion that economies run not on capital or labor, but on ideas.

Both are problematic examples. Phones augment human activity, communication specifically. They don't replace human activity. The fishermen in Kerala might be less enthusiastic if confronted by an automated trawler. Likewise, ideas matter, but they are not independent of social context. Nor are they particularly meaningful without capital and a stable political and legal framework. Economics truly is the dismal science when the social welfare of people is factored out of the equation.

In a phone interview, McAfee made it clear he's comfortable with the paradox, and said he believes advancing technology is simultaneously the best news we have and the biggest challenge we face.

"Technological progress is the only free lunch that economists believe in," he observed.

Without doubt, technology has brought amazing benefits to the world and will continue to do so. But McAfee acknowledges current technological trends might be different. Automation in previous eras created a lot of displacement, he said, but there was always new demand for labor created at all different levels of skill.

"Even after we electrified the factories, we developed a large, stable middle class," McAfee told us. "What I'm seeing that might be different this time is that technology is encroaching more deeply into the bundle of things that humans do."

What this means is that at some point in the future, computers and robots could become so smart and capable that most people will have nothing to offer a potential employer.

Vinsel in his post discusses the rise of "dark factories" that operate with few human workers and muses that the automated systems being developed by Amazon, Google, and other technology companies could bring us a dark transportation system, run by a skeleton crew of people. It would be efficient, and perhaps even safe. But would it be worth the cost in human opportunity?

To reconcile McAfee's views, you have to understand he's talking about two different time frames. In the short term, he says, the robots will not take our jobs.

"The right thing to do in the short term is to encourage economic growth, to encourage employment growth," McAfee says, noting that jobs tend to increase as the economy grows. He does suggest a possible course of action: Tax something other than income to raise public revenue and to accommodate the changing labor market. Maybe it's time to draft a robot tax so that our mechanized replacements can fund our retirement.

Long-term, he isn't so sure. Asked whether we need to embrace a welfare state or a police state to adapt to a world that has no need for, say, 30% of its population, McAfee said, "Nobody knows the answer to that question."

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User Rank: Strategist
12/9/2013 | 3:15:30 PM
Re: Offshored Surgical Robots
On this one you should be safe; the round-trip time to India via fiber is almost 200ms, which is fine for reading CT scans, but dangerous for high-precision control of manipulators.  Doesn't mean someone won't do it, since there's nothing someone won't try to sell that's a little cheaper and a lot worse, but not in my chest cavity.


Now once the surgical robots are more than glorified waldoes, things get more interesting...
User Rank: Ninja
12/9/2013 | 1:55:50 PM
Re: Doomed to repeat it.
To be fair, he only presented the viewpoints of another article. However, I agree that the viewpoints of THAT author are historically myopic, most likely for a political stand.

As some others have said, there will always be a struggle between technological advance vs human costs (economics vs social impact).
User Rank: Ninja
12/9/2013 | 1:02:41 AM
Different labor market
I'm not really all that pessimist about the robots taking over, a welfare state or a police state. The labor market will change and so will the skills of the workers. As Seven Of Nine says: We will adapt.
This (total) transition will take place in a far distant future. Are we sure earth will last that long, anyway?
Marilyn Cohodas
Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Author
12/6/2013 | 3:19:09 PM
Can a robot replace you?
Google may be taking a left turn into acquiisition of robotics companies and automation systems but could its vast datacenters be the ultimate home of these metal marvels? Here's what you might encournter, courtesy of virtualization and cloud solutions architect Bill Kleyman. Bill recently toured a robotics factory and in this short video, offers a glimpse of what the next-generation datacenter might look like..

Click here to watch: (or paste link into your browser):
User Rank: Author
12/6/2013 | 9:12:28 AM
Re: wrong direction
Bezos "absolved himself of responsibility" for what exactly? For creating a hugely successful business that drives other companies out of business? Companies have been doing that to other companies for generations. Does Bezos now need to apologize for doing that? As Bezos said on the 60 Minutes segment, Amazon and the Internet aren't driving certain companies out of business. The future is. Progress is. 
User Rank: Apprentice
12/5/2013 | 11:10:50 PM
wrong direction
As is typical with these people who became billionaires with many technoligies we really never needed. Soon to be proven as the mom and pops, local farmers and artisans retake main street and leave these drones to their own future seperate from the real world which is soon upon us. Quite possible they can use them to find their own unnatural planet which would be a perfect fit. I wonder how they think making these billions was so easy when that was never the way of the natural world and the past billionaires who actually earned theri money without an IPO. I bet they will be shocked in the next decade when their world seprates from the natural one,,,,and it will!  Johnnygreenseed
Lorna Garey
Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
12/5/2013 | 5:21:53 PM
Didn't any of you see Wall-E
In the future we will all lounge around in floating seats while robots bring us cold beverages. Humans can spend their time being creative when we're free of the drudgery of things like cleaning bathrooms and assembling drones.

Technological change this vast will need an equally dramatic adjustment in the economic model.

Number 6
Number 6,
User Rank: Moderator
12/5/2013 | 4:55:38 PM
Offshored Surgical Robots
If a surgical robot can be controlled nine feet away, it's practical to control it from 9,000 miles away.

On the one hand, that's great for patients in areas without skilled surgeons. But what happens when hospitals in developed countries discover how much cheaper they can do surgery when the surgeon is from a state... or country... with lower labor rates?

Watch surgery end up outsourced, just like radiology.

The lawyers who make the laws ensure that only their own field is secure from offshore outsourcing. There's no reason they'll protect the medical field.
IW Pick
User Rank: Ninja
12/5/2013 | 1:42:25 PM
Re: Stay Creative
I think that is great advice to be giving anyone. Generally speaking and in my view, I think economics and technology are the same things. It's like the chicken and the egg. Technology began during the 1st industrial revolution and so did the study of resource allocation etc. Everything that the world has currently i.e. education standard, products, standard of living and human rights! Etc is all thanks to the industrial revolution.

Some say that we are in our 5th industrial revolution due to cloud computing, IOT, drone deliveries (pizza with extra toppings, I wonder if it's polite to tip a drone) and robots etc, either way, 5th or 1st industrial revolution, the problems are inevitable not because of technology or economics but because of resources. As things such as global oil reserves etc are not infinite, unfortunately.

Fortunately, economic growth is infinite, Tim Worstall from the Adam Smith Institute in London explains this point nicely here for example, a carburetor car is driving a distance of 10 miles per gallon and it is changed with a hybrid car that is now driving at 20 miles per gallon, economic growth has just happened without increasing gas input, and yes gas prices have gone up as a result. The only way where economic growth could be limited is if either we don't desire it or Zeno's paradoxes come into play.
User Rank: Strategist
12/5/2013 | 1:32:50 PM
Doomed to repeat it.
I expect that the buggy-whip making robots will be first...  Did you write this on an IBM 8086 PC with a 14" 320x200 tube-type monitor and dual 360K floppies that cost you a few grand?

What a historically and economically myopic article! 

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