Three hundred million Americans and growing. An unceasing flow of immigrants, both legal and illegal. Unemployment nearing ten percent (1). If anything, it seems as though there’s a shortage of work to go around in the United States. Then comes the other bad news: a graying population. Impending doom for Social Security. An unskilled youth population. You’ve suffered through the nitpicking: “These illegals are taking our jobs!” “We really need more migrant laborers. Jobs are going unfilled!” This argument is a rehash of the hotter versions playing out across Western Europe and in much of the industrialized world. In short, the industrialized world is losing its working age population and the solutions currently employed are either ineffective or they carry too many frustrating side effects. The talking heads at every angle of this issue are portending doom and gloom.
But the Japanese don’t see it that way. They should have some credibility on this subject since Japan now has the oldest population in the world and a presently declining population. A traditionally homogenous culture with a reluctance to accept outsiders, Japan places some of the tightest restrictions on immigration in the world. So how does the country deal with that disease of post-modernity, the labor shortage? Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto. And the Japanese aren’t just saying “arigato” for their robotically assembled Prius anymore. Robots in Japan have become so ubiquitous, they’re preparing meals, bathing senior citizens, teaching students (2), and even modeling fashion on the runway (3). The nation builds and uses nearly half of all robots in the world (4).
So how does this idea help the rest of us? While Western Europe and the Asian Tigers have made strides to incorporate robotic technology into their economies, the situation in the United States looks bleak. We squabble over migrant vegetable pickers and Detroit assembly line workers. It never dawns on the American to ask the revolutionary question, “Why do these jobs still exist in the 21st century?” But economic pressures have a way of changing attitudes. The flow of immigrants is not unceasing; levels of net international migration into the United States have been dropping for more than a year now. While pointing to the recession as the reason for this decline is easy, tighter border security, stricter hiring controls, and failure to pass the 2007 Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act are beginning to exhibit their desired effects. That’s where the robots come in.
Chances are you’ve seen a Roomba in action. It’s that little vacuum cleaner, feared and hated by pets everywhere, that navigates the home by itself. Perhaps you’ve seen specials on 60 Minutes about bomb-disarming robots. This public image of robots in the US has promotional value but it doesn’t accurately convey the truly significant changes robots are having on the American economy. Kiva Systems, a start-up founded by MIT alums, is revolutionizing material logistics by staffing warehouses with tiny robots (5,6). These new systems have boosted productivity for retailers such as Gap and Staples. The message to take home is that these warehouse robots are not very complex, therefore allowing cheap mass-production. Like Ford’s Model T, mass production of robots will drive down costs, enlarge the customer base, and could be the tipping point for a robotic revolution as profound as the information revolution.
What about those fruit pickers? The harvesting of nuts has been nearly fully automated for quite some time because the hard shells allow for rough handling. Until recently, however, the picking and collection of fruits has been a daunting, if not impossible, task for robots due to the extreme requirements for dexterity, gentle handling, and visual identification of the individual fruits. Light speed advances in pattern recognition technology during this decade have crushed any skepticism about the feasibility of computers discerning the fruit from the vine. And what about dexterity? CASC, a USDA funded project led by Carnegie-Mellon, is currently designing robots which will pick apples in the Pacific-Northwest, a job traditionally held by seasonal migrant farm workers (7). This is no easy task, considering that an apple is no good if the skin is broken.
The necessity of roboticizing the American economy is so critical that in 2007, Congress saw the founding of the Congressional Caucus on Robotics. Cofounder Congressman Mike Doyle (D-PA) says that, “Today, [robots] are also being used to defend our nation, perform surgery, fill prescriptions, deliver supplies and materials, and even as tools to educate our children, so it is important that we create a forum by which Congress can familiarize itself with the impact this first great technology of the 21st century is likely to have on the lives of all Americans” (8).
In short, robots have passed that first, most challenging hurdle: they’ve achieved legitimacy. Just as the computer geeks of the 1970’s had to fight an uphill battle in convincing the public of the value of computers, robots today are trudging through the same torrent of skepticism, indifference, and popular mockery. Bill Gates has observed the similar patterns of development in the robotics and computer industries. Very soon, the field of robotics will explode. You know the routine; there will be a bubble, followed by a bust, followed by real, impactful growth. Geeks tinkering with robots in their mom’s basement in 2009 will be the Michael Dells, the Sergey Brins and the Larry Pages of 2019. How many robot producing Googles and Microsofts are out there right now, in their fetal years? Tomorrow, we will know because robots will be everywhere.
1 Reuters. “U.S. Sept non-farm payrolls plunge 263,000| Reuters.” Reuters.com – World News, Financial News, Breaking US & International News. http://www.reuters.com/article/companyNewsAndPR/idUSN0127799920091002.
2 Demetriou, Danielle. “Robot teacher conducts first class in Tokyo school – Telegraph.” Telegraph.co.uk. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/5311151/Robot-teacher-conducts-first-class-in-Tokyo-school.html.
3 Shaw, Keith. “Japan’s Top Model is now a robot | NetworkWorld.com Community.” Network World NetworkWorld.com – Network World. http://www.networkworld.com/community/node/40008.
4 Suzuki, Kazuyoshi. “Science Links Japan (Gateway to Japanese Sci-Tech Info) – Automata and Robots.” Science Links Japan (Gateway to Japanese Sci-Tech Info) – Home. http://sciencelinks.jp/content/blogcategory/55/282/.
5 Madrigal, Alexis. “Autonomous Robots Invade Retail Warehouses | Wired Science | Wired.com.” Wired News . http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/01/retailrobots/.
6 Rosenberg, Mitch. “Recent Kiva Systems News .” Automated Order Fulfillment Material Handling System ‒ “ Kiva Systems . http://www.kivasystems.com/news-events.html.
7 “Comprehensive Automation for Specialty Crops (CASC).” Home | Field Robotics Center. http://www.fieldrobotics.org/casc/Welcome.html.
8 “News Releases.” Congressman Mike Doyle, 14th Congressional District of Pennsylvania. http://doyle.house.gov/newsrel/070626.htm.