The Robot Census

Robert Carr at the New Geography has a fascinating article on the growth of industrial robots, and the people keeping an eye over the phenomenon. In brief, in some industries 1 in 10 workers are a robot. Last year, 1 in 50 soldiers in Afghanistan were robotic.

How are we to evaluate our true workforce? It’s left to the statistical department of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) to keep track of them, where they are born and where they eventually work. To measure the impact of these immigrants on local populations, the IFR uses a metric called Robot Density. Simply it is the number of multipurpose industrial robots per 10,000 persons employed in manufacturing industry whether automotive, electronic or generally. The IFR found the worldwide average industrial robot density of the 45 countries it surveys is about 50 robots. The bottom 21 countries have less than a 20-robot density.

However, in 2010, the most automated countries were Japan, Republic of Korea, and Germany with densities of 306, 287 and 253 respectively. The fact that all these countries have low human birthrates makes you think a bit. If you take just the auto industry in Japan and Germany the densities rise to 1,436 and 1,130. Number three in the auto industry by the way is Italy with 1,229. What about the good ol’ USA? In 2010, 1,112 industrial robots worked in the auto industry for every 10,000 human workers. We also tend to have more babies.

You see what’s happening here? At 1000, the number of robots equals one-tenth of the (human) workforce.

So what are the consequences, why does the increasing automation of labor matter? Well, you can run much more efficient factories producing more reliable products. But we haven’t figured out what it means for the workforce, or for the last of the old guard industries when most of the new hires don’t speak English (or any other human language, for that matter), don’t sleep, and run on electricity.

Mind-numbing consistency, that’s the ticket. Robots don’t make things better than people do. They simply make things the same, forever. Work turned out on Friday is the same as that turned out on Monday. Moreover, they have other advantages. A robot-populated factory filmed for a documentary in Japan needed to import lighting. The actual factory needed none. Such factories may also dispense with HVAC systems, potted plants and lavatories. You can hear the heavy breathing among the bean-counters!

If the hairs on the back of your neck haven’t perked up by now, we can add a chilling coda. Who do you think is turning out all these robots? That’s right, robots! Under the watchful eyes of their control humans as of now, but later, who knows?

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