The Robots Are Coming!

Google, we learn from Monday’s New York Times, has a secret lab in an undisclosed location in the Bay Area where it is developing robots. We don’t know what the Google-oids are working on there, but we do know that the company has developed and built a driverless car that has already traversed 100,000 miles on California roads without getting either a ticket or a scratch.

Surely, though, there are innumerable now-human activities that could be performed efficiently, and eventually more cheaply, by robots. On Tuesday, the Robot Report (“Tracking the business of robotics”) ran a story that Foxconn, the Taiwan-based manufacturer that employs roughly one million Chinese workers who assemble all of Apple’s products (and many of Dell’s and other high-tech companies) has broken ground on a factory in Taiwan to manufacture robots. Foxconn hopes to replace 500,000 of its Chinese workers, the Report says, with 1 million robots.

If Foxconn succeeds at this venture, it will be yet another example of U.S.-developed technology going to Asia for manufacture—following, as it were, the Apple model. It also means that the kind of mechanization now prevalent in many of the remaining U.S. factories, which are far less labor-intensive than their Asian counterparts, will come to Asia as well, with consequences for Chinese employment that would doubtless alarm the Central Committee and countless others.

For that matter, suppose Google continues to develop its driverless car until its safety and efficiency standards far exceed those of humans, and then scales up so that the purchase of such robots isn’t prohibitively expensive. How long before bus companies, cab companies, and truck companies decide to go driverless? Suppose Google commercializes a robot that can drive a truck, pick up, and deliver packages? Does anyone believe the fiercely anti-union Fed Ex wouldn’t discharge its drivers and go with the robots? Does anyone believe that unionized UPS wouldn’t be compelled to follow suit? Which brings us to the U.S. Postal Service. Is this an unimaginable scenario for, say, 2030? I don’t think so.

Even as things stand today, we’ve not really replaced the manufacturing jobs that have been mechanized with higher-skilled ones. That’s one reason why lower-paying service-sector and retail-sector jobs have increased while jobs in manufacturing have plummeted. What happens when, say, five million transportation workers are replaced by robots, too? I hope that Google lab is pondering this question as well –- God knows, hardly anyone else is.