Robot Employment Scare: 'Crappy Journalism'?

Representatives of the robotics industry are up in arms about a segment that aired on 60 Minutes earlier this month. A segment called "March of the Machines" details the technological advances in automation and robotics, and also explores how that impacts jobs in the U.S. And that's where some folks got sore -- about the idea that robots are stealing jobs from American workers.

In a statement put out the day after the show’s airing, Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), said that the MIT professors quoted in the story were “missing the bigger picture.” Henrik Christensen, director of robotics at Georgia Tech, wasn’t so nice, calling the 60 Minutes segment “a piece of crappy journalism” during his keynote at yesterday’s Automate show in Chicago.

As I walked around the show floor at Automate yesterday, I hadn’t yet watched the segment. So I was a bit surprised to see a sign reading, “As seen on 60 Minutes” at the booth for robotics supplier Adept Technology. I asked Adept’s Mark Noschang, who was working in the booth, if that was the same 60 Minutes that everyone was complaining about. He started telling me about how jobs are coming back to the U.S., and about how it’s advances in robotics and automation that’s making the U.S. more competitive, and therefore creating more jobs.

“I get that connection,” I told him. Christensen hammered that point home in his keynote earlier that morning, after all. But did 60 Minutes get that? He urged me to watch the whole segment, insisting that only the first 5 minutes is spent arguing that robots destroy jobs, and the remainder is complimentary.

So I watched it. You can watch the video yourself, or read the transcript, at the 60 Minutes website.

Maybe the folks at Adept just liked their technology being featured in 60 Minutes. When all was said and done, though, nearly the entire segment seemed like one of those scare pieces designed to keep the public watching. From start to finish, MIT professors Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson prattle on about how American jobs are being picked off by robots.

This is supported through an interview with Rodney Brooks, founder of iRobot, which makes the popular Roomba robotic vacuum. Brooks’ latest offering is a robot named Baxter that costs just $22,000. Designed to do simple tasks in a factory setting, Baxter’s price tag comes out to about $3.40 an hour—about the cost of a Chinese worker, points out Steve Kroft, 60 Minutes’ reporter.

Though Brynjolfsson notes that robots such as these are aimed at taking jobs away from Chinese workers rather than American workers, he doesn’t hold out hope for the American worker either. “Even if offshore manufacturing returns to the U.S., most of the jobs will go to robots,” he says near the end of the 60 Minutes segment.

Although he seemed livid about the one-sidedness of the “March of the Machines” piece, Georgia Tech’s Christensen did not sugarcoat the rise of automation in the manufacturing employment picture. “Some say jobs will go away, others say this is absolutely fantastic,” he said about coverage in the press. “There’s probably truth to both sides.”

The studies he points to, however, are those showing that the economy always picks up much faster than job growth; and that for every job created in manufacturing, there are 1.3 jobs created in areas because of it; and that investments in technology lead to unemployment in the short term, but a much higher job comeback just 3-5 years out.

When the National Robotics Roadmap was taken to the White House, people there had the same reaction as 60 Minutes, Christensen said. “They said, ‘This administration is all about creating jobs. You’re killing jobs, so why would we want to talk to you?’ We had to explain to them that they were being stupid.”

Ultimately, the Obama administration was convinced, and is now working on ways to bring manufacturing back home, Christensen said, “empowering” more small and medium-sized manufacturers, which could benefit from more accessible automation.

To make a show of balanced reporting after showing HAL rebelling against humans in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” 60 Minutes opted to end on a “positive note” with a quote from Brynjolffson: “One thing that Andy and I agree on is that we’re not super worried about robots becoming self aware, and challenging our authority. That part of science fiction, I think, is not very likely to happen.”

What a comfort.

Aaron Hand is the managing editor for Control Design and for Industrial Networking. Email him at ahand@putman.net or check out his Google+ profile.

What are your comments?

You cannot post comments until you have logged in. Login Here.

Comments

  • Whether it's robots or downsizing, the bottom line is always to lose all the jobs or just some of the jobs.

    If we don't employ robots for menial, high-precision, dangerous, tasks the whole industry goes away.

    If a company does not lay off some people to continue operations, the company closes.

    John Marshall, P.E., Engineering
    Henkel of America, www.henkelna.com

    Reply

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments