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Robotopia

The mechanical armWhile US industry lobbyists, associations and unions decry the various means in which traditional blue collar jobs such as manufacturing are increasingly disappearing (or moving, to be more accurate, south of the border or overseas), they have failed to direct their ire at the futuristic job-killer most likely to make “blue collar” an antiquated term in just decades: Robots.

And yet the rise of our mechanical counterparts should be embraced.

Already, the industrial sector has seen machinery replace a significant portion of manual labor in the last century; but no matter how advanced a machine becomes, it still needs a human to operate it and troubleshoot problems that inevitably arise.  These are precisely the “machine overseer” type jobs that many companies are sending to China, India, Mexico and other places where the cost of labor is ridiculously low.  Of course, companies who outsource also enjoy lower tax rates, lower start-up costs, and other perks of being a first-world business in a developing economy.  But labor costs are the main incentive to move.

So what if there was some way to lower the labor overhead of major manufacturing firms while keeping the taxes, profits, and upper-management jobs in the US?  What if the “machine overseer” could be a machine as well?  As evidenced by developments in robotics, that is an increasingly real possibility.

Many visitors to Disneyland have seen the ASIMO exhibit at Tomorrowland, featuring a soft-spoken, highly flexible robot that can do seemingly everything an under-the-table household helper of questionable legality can.  But running million-dollar equipment in a manufacturing facility or fabrication shop or other steel-related business requires a level of intelligence and intuition that has, until now, been a uniquely human quality.

Enter Boston-based Rethink Robotics, which has recently introduced Baxter—a breakthrough in real-world robotic applications due  not only to Baxter’s capabilities, but its widely attainable purchase price.  According to the company’s website, Baxter performs various repetitive production tasks while “safely and intelligently working next to people” by exhibiting “behavior-based common sense.”

Although many people who have thrown a cell phone or two against a wall or furiously pounded on an unresponsive computer keyboard might scoff at the mere idea of a machine with common sense, Baxter features “human presence detection” (so it won’t bump into you while you’re enjoying your morning coffee) and “visual object identification” (so it won’t scan sensitive instruments with a glazed donut twist).  As a bonus, Baxter even has an LCD screen face atop his bulky mechanical body with crudely-drawn eyeballs to give it a hint of humanity among its less-intuitive machinery peers, all of which offer a “compelling alternative to low-cost offshoring for manufacturers of all size.”

In fact, the future prevalence of Baxter-type labor could not only prevent US companies from outsourcing manufacturing or moving companies wholesale overseas, but the promise of lower-than-sweat-shop labor costs could even bring firms that already have overseas operations, like Caterpillar and Apple and Nike, back to the US for good.  The surge of renewed tax revenue would not only halt or eliminate all fears of the “fiscal cliff,” it would build a shining bridge of hope over the cliff and onto the promised land of prosperity beyond.

Anyone familiar with “The Jetsons” or “Star Trek” knows that eventually, machines will replace most lower-level employment functions, so there’s no point trying to reserve those jobs for humans who can’t compete with Baxter’s one-time investment of roughly $20,000 that will cover years of service (plus, robots don’t take sick days or vacations or complain about working conditions—so hey, no unions!).

Then again, anyone familiar with “Terminator” or “Battlestar Galactica” knows the inherent risks of giving robots too much responsibility and power. As long as we don’t plug them into the internet, where they could become self-aware and gain access to military applications, we should be able to enjoy a veritable “Robotopia” in which US companies stay in the US and we can still buy stuff dirt cheap at Wal-Mart.


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