How robots are changing the fundamentals of the workplace

In the fictional world, robots generally out-manoeuvre humans at every turn. In reality, they still have some way to go. For example simply powering an autonomous robot is a nightmare; current battery technology allows a robot maybe 20 minutes of life and visual sensors are costly and erratic, which is one of the reasons that the simple human act of walking has eluded many of the world’s best robot scientists. That said some observers say humanoid robotics is today where personal computer technology was in the 1970s.

As the number of unmanned systems on the ground in Iraq has gone from zero to 12,000 over the last five years the military clearly have a big role to play in the growth of this area. But the growing capabilities of robots are changing the definition of work, employment, even the nature of the workforce and asking big questions as they progress. Sheila Moorcroft writing for Shaping Tomorrow looks into the key issues and provides some answers in a post that is reprinted here.


Robot capabilities continue to increase across a range of intrinsically human capabilities – to walk, see, navigate, manipulate tools, even collaborate – to name but a few. They also increasingly have capabilities that we do not have – to swim at great depths in the ocean or fly in dangerous places such as battlefields or inside manufacturing plant – to inspect, explore and report back. Recent robot fairs, conferences and exhibitions abound with such examples. We may be about to see whole swathes of human economic activity replaced by robots or automated systems capable of doing many jobs such as taking food orders in restaurants, searching legal documents for relevant evidence or planting and harvesting.

Foxconn factory

The result, some are predicting is a hollowing out of middle level jobs, so that primarily high skilled and very low skilled remain.The scale of the potential shift is illustrated by Foxconn, the Taiwanese company that makes iPads and iPhones mostly in China. It currently has a human workforce of 1.2 million, and a robot workforce of 10,000; it plans to ‘hire’ 1 million robots by 2013 with all the attendant benefits of 24 hour working and fewer labour relations problems – Foxconn has been the focus of employee demonstrations and even suicides in recent months. While this example is in relatively conventional robot application territory -manufacturing – the scale and the fact that it is in China, where previously low wages were a major attraction, is perhaps an early indicator of things to come.
Productivity and competitiveness are the mantras of modern economics. However, if we begin to replace too many jobs, too fast and thus consumer spending and confidence reduce further, the likelihood of a recovery in consumer spending could be on permanent hold for large portions of the population. If, as others are predicting, some jobs will never return after the recovery – in banks, military, government, postal services and others such as pharmacists or prison guards can be done by robots, this will add to the jobless recovery and raise the need for a rethink.The advent of robots, will, like the arrival of any other new technology, provide new and as yet unimagined opportunities and undoubtedly make workplaces safer for some, and allow us to explore new frontiers in space and on the deep seabed. With aging workforces and growing care needs, looming skill shortages, a war for talent, and reluctance among some workers to take low paid jobs, robots on the other hand may also increasingly be needed.
The question is to what degree new opportunities and filling gaps in the workforce will balance out job replacement. One author predicts 50% unemployment in America as vast numbers of jobs in construction, manufacturing, retail and transportation disappear over the next 20 years or so.Could we be seeing the beginnings of the need for a shift in economic thinking, that there needs to be a re-balancing between cost cutting – what could be called a race to the bottom – on the one hand and wider economic benefits such as enough disposable income to maintain growth on the other? Are we seeing the end of what is called Okun’s rule of thumb – that 3% point increase in output resulted in 1% reduction in unemployment? Whether or not such gloomy forecasts are true, what might a world of 50% unemployment look like? What kinds of social systems, new economic mechanisms might be needed? If the middle classes disappeared, what would society look like?
The answers to these questions will inevitably involve many brains. To provide some insight into the type of people leading this field the Washington Post recently named its own list of the robotic scientists to watch in the decade ahead. They may well have some of the answers.
Colin Angle . A former denizen of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Angle went on to found iRobot, creator of the Roomba vacuum-cleaner robot. According to his company bio, “Angle’s master thesis at MIT produced Genghis, a six-legged autonomous walking robot that is now at the Smithsonian National Air and Science Museum in Washington.”

Chris Atkeson . Atkeson is a Harvard grad and a star at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon, a leading expert on how to get robots to learn, and how to get them to act human. His bio says, “My life goal is to fulfill the science fiction vision of machines that achieve human levels of competence in perceiving, thinking, and acting.”

Scott Hassan. Hassan was “was the key software architect/developer of Google,” according to his bio, and went on to found Willow Garage, a Silicon Valley startup devoted to building humanoid robots for the people. Willow Garage champions open-source software, and the company has loaned several of its PS2 robots to other robot labs so they can learn from and improve upon their creation.

Marc Raibert. He’s co-founder and president of Boston Dynamics, a Cambridge firm that has developed robots that can run, hop and climb like animals. Raibert came out of MIT and ran its Leg Lab, becoming one of the nation’s foremost authority on the impossibly difficult task of getting robots to walk. His best-known robot is the surprisingly agile Big Dog. Raibert’s newest creation is PETMAN, a surprisingly limber robot designed to test clothing for the military.

Stefan Schaal. Schaal runs the Computational Learning and Motor Control Lab at USC, another big player in humanoid robots. He’s an expert in teaching robots to learn, as well as to move. Among other projects, Schaal’s team has worked on Little Dog, a diminutive counterpart to Big Dog

Sheila Moorcroft writes for business trends blog Shaping Tomorrow.

Index B tracks the commercial behaviour of thousands of enterprises each year and uses the information this creates to help clients generate insights and intelligence about them and inspire better ways to influence, engage and connect with them. To find out more please visit


  1. Eloise says:

    This web site is so great and educational. I just shared this on Flickr. Thanks for the descriptive content. Spectacular Work!

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