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A Humanoid Robot Named "Baxter" Could Revive US Manufacturing 414

Posted by samzenpus
from the no-lunch-breaks dept.
fangmcgee writes "Rethink Robotics invented a $22,000 humanoid robot named "Baxter" that could give cheap offshore labor a run for its money and return manufacturing jobs to U.S. soil. Artificial intelligence expert Rodney Brooks is the brain behind Baxter. From the article: 'Brooks’s company, Rethink Robotics, says the robot will spark a “renaissance” in American manufacturing by helping small companies compete against low-wage offshore labor. Baxter will do that by accelerating a trend of factory efficiency that’s eliminated more jobs in the U.S. than overseas competition has. Of the approximately 5.8 million manufacturing jobs the U.S. lost between 2000 and 2010, according to McKinsey Global Institute, two-thirds were lost because of higher productivity and only 20 percent moved to places like China, Mexico, or Thailand.'"
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A Humanoid Robot Named "Baxter" Could Revive US Manufacturing

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  • by rueger (210566) * on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @11:01PM (#42612683) Homepage
    " a $22,000 humanoid robot named "Baxter" that could give cheap offshore labor a run for its money and return manufacturing jobs to U.S. soil.

    Uh... seems like someone is unclear on the definition of "job."
  • by viperidaenz (2515578) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @11:04PM (#42612703)

    Of the approximately 5.8 million manufacturing jobs the U.S. lost between 2000 and 2010, according to McKinsey Global Institute, two-thirds were lost because of higher productivity and only 20 percent moved to places like China, Mexico, or Thailand.'"

    So they're going to bring jobs back by increasing productivity? The cause of 2/3rd's of the job losses?

  • by NJRoadfan (1254248) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @11:05PM (#42612713)
    Electrical service is much more reliable in the US compared to China/India. There is also an advantage of having your product manufacturing close to your marketplace... namely lower shipping costs.
  • by rabtech (223758) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @11:09PM (#42612763) Homepage

    This is the long term future for a lot of manual labor across the board. What that will mean for the future of human society is anyone's guess. Perhaps we'll all work 10 hour weeks. Or maybe most will be surfs, crushed under the boots of the aristocracy (robot owners).

    How a consumer-driven economy can survive these changes is another huge question mark.

  • by ExecutorElassus (1202245) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @11:11PM (#42612767)
    They're going to increase the profitability of manufacturing in the US by eliminating most of the costs of labor, thereby allowing more of the means of production to remain under the control -- and work to the benefit -- of capital.

    I really can't imagine a move like this being unpopular and/or economically suicidal in any way whatsoever. Nope.
  • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @11:14PM (#42612797) Homepage

    Are you suggesting the robots are not US citizens!?

    No, that US citizens are robots.

  • by smchris (464899) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @11:21PM (#42612839)

    If nobody has jobs anymore we better transition to an economy where everything the robots produce is free.

  • by DavidClarkeHR (2769805) <david...clarke@@@hrgeneralist...ca> on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @11:28PM (#42612893)

    " a $22,000 humanoid robot named "Baxter" that could give cheap offshore labor a run for its money and return manufacturing jobs to U.S. soil. Uh... seems like someone is unclear on the definition of "job."

    Well, not really. It would shift production back to north america, and that would require technicians to install and maintain the robots.

    At least, until we replace THEM with robots too.

  • by zigziggityzoo (915650) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @11:28PM (#42612897)
    The original luddites were afraid of this very thing - advances in loom technology turned weaving jobs from highly skilled labor into a job someone could learn in a few hours.

    This sort of thing will happen over and over again. And as progress marches onward, most of us still manage to find work.
  • by icebike (68054) on Wednesday January 16, 2013 @11:48PM (#42613033)

    Exactly.

    You also have to consider, (trying not to sound too Luddite in the process), that replacing a human in a paying job with a robot is scarcely better than off-shoring the job.

  • by Orne (144925) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @12:01AM (#42613125) Homepage

    At $22k for a 3 year life, assuming 24x7, it labors for $0.84/hour with no outages. The other video had $3/hour. Add that you can save on transportation costs, customs, etc and its a no brainier that manufacturing will become "local".

    As far as job creation, i can only see it create technician jobs to repair the machines. What this will not do is create the manufacturing jobs themselves. The age of low skill labor is over, those jobs are lost. That segment of the US population (poor, undereducated, entry level) will continue to be unemployed. It will also create Chinese unemployment.

  • by Ralph Spoilsport (673134) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @12:11AM (#42613195) Journal
    ding - 10 points. If all the manufacturing jobs left China and came back to the USA and were done by Robots - there would still be NO MANUFACTURING JOBS IN THE USA. If they are sophisticated enough to do manufacturing, then they are sophisticated enough to do basic grunt service jobs - a big chunk of MAcDonalds would disappear. Then what? We can't all be "entrepreneurs". We can't all be "Successful businessmen". So, you end up with an ever larger pool of poorly or mis-skilled labour who can't buy anything the robots make. Result? Economy evapourates like so much water on a hot sidewalk.
  • by Darkness404 (1287218) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @12:12AM (#42613201)
    Except that when you really look at the long term, the west has been working less and less for basic needs.

    Naturally with meaningless, fiat currencies and increased government intervention in the economy, true wealth for most has dropped recently. But let's go farther back to see the general trend.

    Today the average worker works for about 8 hours. Now depending on the job field that can be really working for 8 hours or it can be working for a couple hours while being "on duty" for 8 hours. Back 150 years ago, you literally worked from sunup to sundown, something that few workers do anymore, excepting those employed in agriculture which is down to about 3% or so of people in the US.

    For example, working in as a "tech guy" at a fairly small business, I'm there for 8 hours on weekdays but probably only do 3-4 hours of actual work while the rest is just downtime (waiting for a patch to download, etc.). Now, if there is a problem I work much longer hours (until the problem is fixed) but I'd say I've got about a 20 hour workweek already. There's no reason to think that its going to get much longer anytime soon, unless we add a new computer system and even then it will only be temporary, or unless we expand REALLY quickly. Sure, I'm on call for 40 hours a week, but do I really work those 40 hours if all goes well? Nope.
  • by fyngyrz (762201) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @12:18AM (#42613235) Homepage Journal

    What you're missing here is that there is more than one way to have an economy, and that the idea that "everyone needs to work" isn't a fixed datum in an unchanging world.

    At some point, (non-ai) robotics will assume the load of manufacturing and menial work, and from there they will percolate upwards. This may be the beginning of that trend (ignoring heavy manufacturing robotics, which are already in place and entrenched.)

    You need food, shelter, and healthcare. You do not have to provide that for yourself in order to have a healthy economy.

    Change is inevitable in this domain.

  • by anubi (640541) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @12:23AM (#42613273) Journal

    Well, currently I'm a doctor. So I work on people-thingies.

    Thought of using these things as healthcare assistants and live-in care for invalids? If they had strong arms, they would be able to help invalids into beds, wheelchairs, assist with bathing, food prep, and cleanups - especially the messy kind people hate to get their hands in. They could also radio in for help when the situation warrants it.

    God knows how many live-alone elderly could use one of these as a help-mate.

  • Actually you are missing the even bigger change, one that I have been pointing out for years. Capitalism, just like every other ism before it, is simply doomed. I have argued for years that we are all John Henry against the steam engine and you can kill yourself just like John Henry but in the end the machine will win, it is inevitable.

    Before anybody screams "Luddite!" or points out the industrial revolution I will point out that NO time in human history have we EVER been able to replace the worker entirely...until now. Before all those machines needed human hands and human brains but we have already reached the point you can take a factory that once employed 10,000 workers and replace them with a few guys to push the buttons, and now this. The machine doesn't get sick, or tired, doesn't need expensive medical insurance or workman's comp, at the end of it all we are playing IQ musical chairs and more and more simply won't have a seat when the music stops.

    What do you do with all the people that don't get a seat? Do we do as we do now, and subsidize megacorps like Mickey D's and Walmart with government assistance so the workers come out "cheaper" than the machine? Look at the auto industry, workers got a union and demanded a living wage and suddenly the machines were cheaper. What do you do with all the people whose labor simply is no longer required? You'll never take someone with an IQ of 103 (the average last I checked) and make them into a rocket scientist and even if you could wave a wand and do that there simply isn't a need for that many rocket scientists.

    To me the whole thing that proves capitalism in its current form is doomed is one simple fact: With our current level of tech we could wipe out half the people on this planet, poof! And not only would our quality of life not go down it would in fact go up as those that would be left would find their labor actually worth something! We are just gonna have to face the fact that there is a reason why Sci-Fi writers like Roddenberry didn't have money and capitalism being used in their futures and that is because once you reach a certain technological threshold it simply won't work. you'll have a handful that can afford to buy the factories full of robots and the rest rioting and looting to survive.

    Hell I would argue that for a large part of the population we are already there, if you got rid of government assistance and made the corps pay a true living wage you'd quickly see a ton of them switching to the robots as they would be cheaper. Even in China where the pay is pathetic are they seeing more and more automation because even with the pittance they make the machines end up cheaper. We just need to face the facts folks, the robots will end up replacing all but a handful of "super brains" like Hawking and DeGrasse while the rest of us? Simply won't have a chair when the music stops.

  • by blue trane (110704) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @12:39AM (#42613381) Homepage Journal

    Jobs should not be the ultimate goal. We must challenge the idea that jobs are the only way to contribute. Let us free people from the necessity of making a living by doing what a boss tells them, and let them instead pursue their own creative interests. Give everyone the option of a basic income, and have lots of challenges by business and government to stimulate the natural curiosity and scientific spirit that most of us are born with. Knowledge and technology will advance, which is what confers survival fitness by better enabling us to predict and adapt to sudden catastrophic change.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 17, 2013 @12:40AM (#42613385)

    Thanks to their lack of regulations they have more than 20 million people who can't safely go outside this week. I suspect they may be getting regulations soon.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 17, 2013 @12:49AM (#42613435)

    This should be modded up! I work for an embedded electronics manufacturer, although not in the USA or China. Things like pick and place machines and automated testing has enabled us to produce a much higher volume with less employees.

    The choice is either not to do it, then become overpriced, lose contracts and then everybody loses their jobs, or automate, then the shittier jobs disappear (repetitive manual labor) but *loads* of more qualified jobs are created!

    Sure, we have less people soldering and manually testing stuff. But with the higher volume of sales we now have lots more technicians to do debugging and service, way more programmers, people designing, maintaining and programming test equipment, more sales folks, a bigger IT staff, more managers and various other "desk jobs", etc. We also buy lots of stuff from local suppliers (including many custom made parts) which create a whole lot of jobs locally, we keep the local delivery drivers busy, etc. And we train a lot of people. They get a lot of very meaningful design and manufacturing experience.

    There's a whole lot of good that comes from keeping *some* jobs locally vs outsourcing everything to a country with sweatshop like conditions.

  • by dcollins (135727) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @01:41AM (#42613705) Homepage

    "And yet everyone (i hope?) agrees that it would be ridiculous to complain that automation kills jobs or that we should eliminate automation...."

    Well, my take on it is that omni-automation will produce an inhuman dystopia unless it's coupled with a proportional rise in socialism (so that we can communally benefit from the advances). My #1 choice would be to leverage automation in that way; but at the same time, the US seems committed to heading in the exact opposite direction in how we use it, so...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 17, 2013 @01:51AM (#42613791)

    Dollars are fictional paper. What you produce only has value because people want it, and have that paper. The entire economy is a game of the-man-behind-the-curtain.

    If it's all a fiction anyhow, there's no shame in reinventing it to be something a tad more humane.

  • by icebike (68054) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @01:53AM (#42613811)

    I doubt your scenario.

    Once we have the drudgery handed off to machines we willffind more work to do. Maybe we will start on mars or maybe just started a wholesale reinvented earth, with better cities that impact the planet less.

    History hasn't shown fewer projects with mechanized industry. If anything its the opposite. Less drudgery just to survive means more time for worthwhile work.

  • by 1s44c (552956) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @02:28AM (#42614005)

    They used to predict in the 50s that in the future a man would be able to easily support himself while only working two days a week.

    Funny thing is, they were actually correct. It's easy to live on two days of work a week... if you restrict yourself to living at a medium level of prosperity by 1950s standards.

    I remember the daydreams about how robots would do all the work and people would lead lives of leisure. Instead we work harder to try and keep up with the machines we built. Those daydreams were still going into the 80's.

    Where I live plenty of people live on zero days of work a week though. The state seems to have accepted that some people don't need, or just won't, work.

  • by 1s44c (552956) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @02:30AM (#42614011)

    Jobs should not be the ultimate goal. We must challenge the idea that jobs are the only way to contribute. Let us free people from the necessity of making a living by doing what a boss tells them, and let them instead pursue their own creative interests. Give everyone the option of a basic income, and have lots of challenges by business and government to stimulate the natural curiosity and scientific spirit that most of us are born with. Knowledge and technology will advance, which is what confers survival fitness by better enabling us to predict and adapt to sudden catastrophic change.

    Sorry to break it to you but communism didn't work. Your plan would just create a whole load of lazy people.

  • by TheGratefulNet (143330) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @02:49AM (#42614105)

    Sorry to break it to you but communism didn't work. Your plan would just create a whole load of lazy people.

    in capitalism, we have tons of lazy people.

    they claim to make our laws, but I'm not even sure about that.

    they own land, sit back and just collect money.

    there's lots of kinds of lazy. take your pick.

  • by sl149q (1537343) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @04:25AM (#42614449)

    No more ridicoulous than a farmer running a 60' cultivator instead of hiring a whole lot of people to follow horses pulling a 6' one (at a quarter the speed).

    If we still employed the vast majority of our work force to grow things to eat there would be two problems. First not enough food. But second not enough people to do all of the interesting (and not required) jobs that simply didn't exist 100 years ago.

    Pretty much anyone in the entertainment industry. Most of the telecommunications people. Vast majority of the health workers. The list goes on and on and on. Jobs that simply didn't exist and simply could NOT exist if we had not eliminated the need for people to work on the farm growing enough food to feed everybody.

    A job eliminated through efficiency or automation means a somebody that can hopefully go out and do something else that will in the long term be more valuable to them and society. And that's the real goal. Keep innovating new jobs and services to make everybody better off.
     

  • by mangu (126918) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @05:45AM (#42614749)

    If robots do all the work, or nearly all, does it really matter if most people get lazy?

    The problem is that people aren't satisfied with having all they need, they want to have the same as the other guy.

    Right now, we live in a society of undreamed riches to people in centuries past. Even a homeless guy on the street can get more by diving in the dumpster than a person could get by hard work a couple of centuries ago.

    But no one would be satisfied by that. They want the same or better standard of living as their neighbor. Inequality is widely perceived as a major societal problem. However, a society where everyone is absolutely equal is impossible, by definition.

    Take real estate, for instance. Who would get the beach front home? The penthouse apartment? There are natural limits to equality.

    When people work, some of them will work harder to obtain what they want, others are satisfied with laying on the couch and watch TV. Human society needs some form of merit accounting.

  • by nukenerd (172703) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @05:52AM (#42614783)

    I remember the daydreams about how robots would do all the work and people would lead lives of leisure. Instead we work harder to try and keep up with the machines we built. Those daydreams were still going into the 80's.

    I remember that too. Not robots particularly, but computers to do the paperwork and automated machines to do the labour. Just a few humans would need to work a few hours per week on maintenance. Sociologists writing in periodicals such as New Society, New Scientist and the more serious Sunday newspapers used to say that the main worry for the future was to keep the millions of idle, bored people from getting into mischief.

    That state of affairs could be almost practicable by now. But what has happened is that millions of non-jobs have been created instead. In the West there is now a vast marketing industry, half of it competing against and neutralising the other half. There is a vast "Health and Safety" industry, wherein billions of pounds/dollars (=economic product) is spent on possible saving a few lives. There are industries created around the enforcement of political correctness (my local council has a significant equal opportunities department).

    My father lived a cycling distance from work, but now vast amounts of wealth are frittered away by millions of people commuting daily the sort of mileage that my father would have considered an annual holiday journey. He cycled to work with no thought of being "green", the idea didn't exist then, but being "green" today is another new industry that sucks up vast amounts of wealth - don't get me started on that subject please.

  • by SmallFurryCreature (593017) on Thursday January 17, 2013 @07:55AM (#42615213) Journal

    Notice how many episodes of the series that should never have been, start with an artsy fartsy act of a crew that really doesn't seem to have a day job. The Enterprise is a floating luxury hotel that runs itself and were nobody ever has to get their hands dirty, leaving its passengers to pursue the arts and not be very good at it.

    The PROBLEM is... your art has no value. Very little art has. You can see this with the art shops run by bored rich house wives that are often little more then tax dodges or in some cases active money laundering operations or used for bribes. "No no, I won't slip you a brown envolope... say, that painting in your wives shop, what would you say that is worth *wink wink*".

    You can see it for the lower classes on youtube, only a tiny fraction has views over half a dozen, millions of video's have no views whatsoever. The simple fact is that the modern world doesn't need as many artists as it once did. Older ages, before replication of art was easily available to all, needed every painting, every book, every performance done by hand. It was a golden age for artists. These days, one artist can supply the needs for the entire planet. Consider comedy: Once every time you wanted to hear a joke, you needed to pay someone to tell it. Now you can just replay the same video over and over of the best comedians the world has ever produced.

    Why should I pay you for your crappy work when I can experience the masters for peanuts?

    Really, WATCH ST:TNG, it is nothing but layabouts going to each others performances. Work? That happens to other people. The series Friends is roughly the same idea, that the "elite" doesn't have to work. The Victorians thought the same BUT the Victorians did it over the backs of a massive work force who worked very hard indeed. The 90's tried to sell us the idea that EVERYONE could be the elite and that their would be a natural demand for all the creative works created by the entitled non-gifted. This hasn't turned out to be the case. A few artist have gotten really really rich and the majority of the plebs by cheap reproductions of their work, rather then original works in their price range.

    There have been many novel ideas about future economies where hard work is no longer the core of the economy and basically, none of them really work out because sooner or later so far, someone has to do the work AND there is always someone willing to launch the B-ark into space. The masses are not going to support an idle middle/upper class for very long... well maybe just long enough to help them up the little steps to the block.

    The US economy RAN on all those boring factory jobs that people in the movies always want to escape from but that were for decades the places fathers and mothers went to earn the money to raise their kids. See "An Officer and a Gentleman" the girl is working in a factory making cardboard boxes. Hardly inspiring work but all the girls who do NOT marry a jet pilot, it is their only source of income until they retire or die. It ain't glamorous, it ain't the stuff of dreams but all those workers payed their full taxes while the likes of Romney didn't. The economy runs on factory workers, not the elite. The elite can't and won't pay for millions of workers sitting idle reading Shakespeare and writing sonnets. Neither will the workers support an ever growing middle class doing nothing either.

    You can try to move the working to China but then they will just do what the Koreans and Japanese did before them, become the elite themselves and make their own phones. And kiddies, all the idiocy you can come up with why the Chinese can never be creators the same was said about the Koreans and the Chinese. Hell, go back a bit further and the Brits said the same thing about the colonies (that is you Americans) when they outsourced farming, so the British country side could be reserved for gardening, parks and recreational hunting. And then the US copied industry too and the British economy has been sliding into obscurity ever since.

  • China is communist in name only. They're more of a fascist dictatorship.

Aren't you glad you're not getting all the government you pay for now?

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