The Robotics Census


Immigration is a concern for countries around the world, not just the U.S. It’s that annoying tendency of humans to gravitate toward an area where they can survive as opposed to staying where they are barely surviving or worse.  Once there, of course, these workers are seen often as taking jobs, altering local cultures and in general upsetting lots of apple carts.  

Here in the US, most fear concerns Spanish speakers but how about a whole other classification of immigrant workers whose impact may be the most insidious I of all: those that speak machine code, the basic language of computers.

We’re talking about what we call robots, machines that can think and can do tasks for humans. In many instances, they can replace or reduce the human workers needed to do a job. Hence, they must be considered workers themselves.

Unfortunately, they aren’t even counted in our national census, a clear instance of anti-machine racism. How are we to evaluate our true workforce? It’s left to the statistical department of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) to keep track of them, where they are born and where they eventually work.

The numbers IFR deals with are not cumulative numbers. The actual number of robots working at any one time is a function of their lifespan which is about that of a dog:  about 12-15 years, usually. But since we’ve only had robots since the late sixties, that doesn’t mean much. Improvements that increase lifespan are always being made.

These new workers come in various categories including personal service robots, professional service robots and industrial robots. Like their human counterparts, robot workers come with varying levels of skill and intelligence.

A personal service robot can do anything from vacuum cleaning to lawn-mowing to window cleaning. Recognize those jobs? They used to be done by low-skilled workers and kids looking to make a buck around their neighborhood. Not anymore. This constitutes the fastest growing segment of robotics, with about 15 million more of these are due to be released into the wild by 2014.

The professional service robot can handle medical applications, search and rescue, bomb disposal, and in increasing numbers, military jobs like aerial surveillance: drones. The fastest growing jobs of this segment are milking robots – the days of stools and pails are over – and defense applications.  

And therein lies the paradox of the robot worker. You can’t really complain about fewer jobs for window washers while praising the selfless robots willing to die for us.

How then are we to think about those now ubiquitous automated checkout stands in your local CVS which management wants to make you use to check out your own purchases — as if it’s fun? While ignoring that each of those stations used to be a human’s job. Almost makes you want to resolve to patronize only human checkers, that is, if you can find one!

Some of the smartest of the new immigrant workers are the industrial robots. Industrial robots generally have appendages and they work overwhelmingly in the automobile and the electronics industry. Most of them have found work of late in the Republic of Korea, China and the ASEAN countries.  The IFR tells us there are more than 1,300,000 in service.

Don’t let that apparently low number fool you. You have to understand that one industrial robot can be a factory. All it takes to turn that one robot into an army is new software. They are quick learners. One day it’s a welder, the next it’s an electrician. They are designed to work 24 hours straight, with no lunch and no breaks, doing the same operation over and over with the utmost precision.

Mind-numbing consistency, that’s the ticket. Robots don’t make things better than people do. They simply make things the same, forever. Work turned out on Friday is the same as that turned out on Monday. Moreover, they have other advantages. A robot-populated factory filmed for a documentary in Japan needed to import lighting. The actual factory needed none. Such factories may also dispense with HVAC systems, potted plants and lavatories.  You can hear the heavy breathing among the bean-counters!

If the hairs on the back of your neck haven’t perked up by now, we can add a chilling coda. Who do you think is turning out all these robots? That’s right, robots! Under the watchful eyes of their control humans as of now, but later, who knows?

To measure the impact of these immigrants on local populations, the IFR uses a metric called Robot Density. Simply it is the number of multipurpose industrial robots per 10,000 persons employed in manufacturing industry whether automotive, electronic or generally. The IFR found the worldwide average industrial robot density of the 45 countries it surveys is about 50 robots. The bottom 21 countries have less than a 20-robot density.

However, in 2010, the most automated countries were Japan, Republic of Korea, and Germany with densities of 306, 287 and 253 respectively. The fact that all these countries have low human birthrates makes you think a bit.

If you take just the auto industry in Japan and Germany the densities rise to 1,436 and 1,130. Number three in the auto industry by the way is Italy with 1,229.

What about the good ol’ USA? In 2010, 1,112 industrial robots worked in the auto industry for every 10,000 human workers. We also tend to have more babies.

You see what’s happening here? At 1000, the number of robots equals one-tenth of the (human) workforce.

Our future arch enemy in the auto industry, China, increased their density from a paltry 2006 level of 37 to a paltry 105 in 2010, though with their population numbers and still relatively low wages they could probably put autos together Henry Ford style and still make money.  

The undeniable fact is robots are taking over the auto industry in the same way the Swiss captured the watchmaking industry just four hundred years ago. Remember? The other big robot user, the electronics industry, can boast similar numbers and similar robotic domination.

Are robots to blame for the recent recession and its attendant job losses? Well, you can rest easy knowing that robots suffered during the last few years, too. Job placements, in fact, were down 47% to the lowest level reported since 1994.

But by 2010, the auto and electronics industries had begun their recovery and robot placements recovered by 50%. In monetary terms this uptick was worth $5.7 billion to robot manufacturers. Substantial, but still not up to 2008 levels. Worldwide worth of the robot worker market, notes IFR, now totals some $18 Billion annually.

Noted science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once composed a set of laws to restrain the behavior of robots and to make them more acceptable to society. The original set has been refined and added to over the years by others and by Asimov, himself. They are:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

And, there is a fourth known as the “zeroth” law, to precede the others:

0.  A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

Robots currently are not smart enough to read, understand or follow these laws. In the case of milking robots that isn’t a problem, but with drones, it might be. Humans have to control them. When things are going well, these multi-talented helpers are more than welcomed and appreciated. After all, nobody really wants handmade automobiles. If they’re all different, how would you get parts for them? And electronics built by Chinese ladies with soldering irons is not a business model that inspires confidence.

The fact is, for good and/or evil robots are now firmly entrenched in our industrial culture. And more are on the way. In the next four years, robot immigration , according to IFR, will increase by about 6% per year on average: about 6% in the Americas, about 7% in Asia/Australia, and about 4% in Europe.

Whether they are harming humanity depends on your perspective. They are taking jobs in some places and they are creating jobs in others. Perhaps the most we can hope for is a tempering of the automation frenzy while we humans prepare for the onslaught. We’re going to need more education and training to live with and control our new compatriots. For the near future, it may be wise to keep track of the new census, the combined census, because that’s the way it’s going to be from now on. Us and them.

So far, in some countries,  one in ten industrial workers has their more capable, robotic counterpart.    Every technological advance has consequences, winners and losers; and it’s disingenuous to pretend they don’t.

Robert Carr, as far as we know, is human and writes occasionally on technology. He is based in Los Angeles.

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No reason for automation to create unemployment. If it were to, then the vast majority of us would be unemployed today. The problem is the difference seems to be funding big government rather than more leisure time.

As for the auto industry; robots are well on their way giving us robotic cars as well, and this will lead to a major revolution on its own.