Chinese city aims to have 80% of production done by Robots by 2020

South China’s economic powerhouse of Guangzhou has set a goal of having 80 percent of the city’s manufacturing production done by robots instead of human labor by 2020.

According to an industrial development guideline issued by the municipal government on Tuesday, the use of industrial robots will be encouraged in mechanical and automobile manufacturing, food processing and the manufacturing of pharmaceutical, electronic and dangerous products.

The document says that there will be subsidies of up to 30,000 yuan (4,800 US dollars) for those who purchase or rent a robot, and a maximum one-off subsidy of 500,000 yuan for companies that introduce a complete set of automation equipment in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province.

The Guangzhou municipal government believes the rising human resource costs and increased demand for sophisticated manufacturing have provided an opportunity for accelerated roll-out of robots. Fostering a robot-making industry with estimated output value of over 100 billion yuan (US$16 billion) by 2020 Source Global Times China. (HT Iza Kaminska)

5 Reads in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Technology

Emotional AI: The Human Side of Machine Learning (O’Reilly Media)

Tech Leaps, Job Losses and Rising Inequality (The New York Times)

Every Drone Mission the FBI admits to Flying (Motherboard)

The effects of trade and technology on employment (David Autor at The Royal Economic Society)

The global market for AI is set to grow from €700 million ($959 million) in 2013 to €27 billion ($35 billion) in 2015, according to a report from the European Union (Mark Vickers).

Study indicates Robots could replace 80% of Jobs

PerezIn a few decades, twenty or thirty years — or sooner – robots and their associated technology will be as ubiquitous as mobile phones are today, at least that is the prediction of Bill Gates; and we would be hard-pressed to find a roboticist, automation expert or economist who could present a strong case against this. The Robotics Revolution promises a host of benefits that are compelling (especially in health care) and imaginative, but it may also come at a significant price.

The Pareto Principle of Prediction

We find ourselves faced with an intractable paradox: On the one hand technology advances increase productivity and wellbeing, and on the other hand it often reinforces inequalities.

A new study due to be published in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Skills and Training by Stuart Elliot visiting analyst at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), who incidentally is on leave from the Board on Testing and Assessment of the National Research Council, indicates that technology could replace ‘workers for 80 percent of current jobs.’

In his study Elliot relies on advances in speech, reasoning capabilities and movement capabilities to illustrate how robots and technology can replace jobs. I am in agreement with the general thoughts of the study, although I believe speech recognition is now far more advanced than Elliot states. This element alone will lead to a reduction in many jobs, such as translation over the next five years.

Elliot is not the first to claim that robotics and technology will have such a profound impact on employment or inequality. Michael Hammer, a former MIT professor and prime mover in the restructuring of the workplace in the 1990’s estimated that up to 80 percent of those engaged in middle management tasks were susceptible to elimination due to automation.

In the book Average is Over Professor Tyler Cowen also predicts a hollowed-out labor market, devoid of middle-skill, middle-wage jobs, where 80% or more of our citizens will be unable to prosper. They will become a permanent underclass, unable to improve their lot.

This ‘underclass’ may be happening sooner than Cowen predicted. While there are ‘short term’ adjustments in the employment numbers, the majority are in the low-paying sectors, 73% of ‘new’ jobs are in the bottom of the wage pyramid and temporary employment positions rather than permanent.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that among the most rapidly growing occupational categories over the next ten years will be “healthcare support occupations” (nursing aides, orderlies, and attendants) and “food preparation and serving workers” – overwhelmingly low-wage jobs.

Projected job marketAs recent as last month the FT reported that: “New technologies are transforming the structure of the US economy but creating only modest numbers of jobs, according to the biggest official survey of businesses, conducted only once every five years.”

In the book Race Against The Machine the authors state: “Digital technologies change rapidly, but organizations and skills aren’t keeping pace. As a result, millions of people are being left behind. Their incomes and jobs are being destroyed, leaving them worse off.”

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, Google’s Eric Schmidt warned that the problem of new technologies substantially changing and replacing jobs will be “the defining one” for the next two or three decades.

Thinking machines

Increasingly, machines are providing not only the brawn but the brains, too, and that raises the question of where humans fit into this picture. Earlier this year, Jörg Asmussen State Secretary in the German Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs emphasized this trend when he said:

“Digitization, or the “second machine age” (as in the title of the best seller by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAffee), has only just begun. It is in the process of relieving and ultimately replacing first our physical and then our intellectual labor. This trend will be a threat to brainworkers such as accountants and stock-market traders. And check-out clerks at supermarkets will also soon be a thing of the past.”

Echoing this, Randall Parker, Professor of Economics at East Carolina University, recently wrote:

“Robots and other automated equipment have increased factory automation so much that factories are a dwindling source of all jobs. The next big target for automation has been and continues to be office work.”

In the US manufacturing sector there was a solid increase in sales of 8 percent between 2007 and 2012 but with significant falling employment, the industry shed 2.1m jobs and its payroll dropped $20 billion.

Approximately one out of 25 workers in Japan is a robot, this is in part due to a growing elderly population and declining birthrates, which mean a shrinking workforce, but it is also a fact that global business seeks to drive productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness to new heights with robotics.

This time is different, or maybe not

In his seminal book, The Enlightened Economy, Joel Mokyr argued that: “in Britain the high quality of workmanship available to support innovation, local and imported, helped create the Industrial Revolution.” Dig a little further and Mokyr refers to: “the top 3 to 5 percent of the labor force in terms of skills: engineers, mechanics, millwrights, chemists, clock and instrument makers, skilled carpenters and metal workers, wheelwrights, and similar workmen.”

It was a small minority of the working population that had the skills to help advance the Industrial Revolution, others had to learn new skills to adapt to the technology changes. This time is no different. Just as each revolution sets a higher potential level of productivity each revolution requires a new set of skills to overcome the resistance of the old paradigm, which is deeply embedded in the minds and the practices.

Despite the job losses in the US manufacturing sector factories are increasingly employing more skilled engineers to tend complex equipment and at higher wages, Annual payroll per employee in the manufacturing sector rose from $45,818 in 2007 to $52,686 in 2012.

It’s time to act

Robotic hardware, Artificial Intelligence, automated software and connected networks are only going to get more powerful and capable in the future, and have even bigger impact on jobs, skills and the economy.

The message for all of us can be summed up in a quote from Abraham Lincoln’s second address to Congress.

“As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”

In his paper Elliot raises a very good question: “Even if alternative jobs are available, how will the displaced workers acquire the necessary skills for the new tasks?” This should be a wake up call. All of us must give serious consideration to our future and learn the skills that will give us the best chance of working WITH the machines. I’ll repeat Lincoln’s statement, since that’s the big takeaway. “As our case is new, so we must think anew, and ACT anew.” These are exciting and challenging times…

Why Your Employees Should Be Playing With Lego Robots

My latest post on Harvard Business Review is now live:

Using robots in training programs to overcome challenges pushes participants out of their comfort zone. It deepens their awareness of complexity and builds ownership and responsibility.

The array of skills and work techniques that this kind of training offers is more in need today than ever, as technology is rapidly changing the skills demanded in the workplace.

Instead of programming people to act like robots, why not teach them to become programmers, creative thinkers, architects, and engineers? Read more on HBR.org

The next 5 years for Drones

Helen Greiner who co-founded iRobot 14 years ago spoke yesterday at the DEMO conference. Helen is now the co-founder and CEO of CyPhy Works, a startup developing flying robots or drones (not quite Unmanned Ariel Systems) for industrial applications. In her brief DEMO Labs talk (see video below), Helen takes us through the next five years of drones — from hobbyist toys to industrial surveillance and retail delivery. Helen indicates: “The next wave of robots will be flying robots.”

CyPhy Works

As Helen says: “Anywhere it is hard to get eyes to the right places, that is a good job for drones”

5 Friday reads in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Driverless Cars

The Future of Artificial Intelligence – In Conversation with Cognitive Psychologist with Gary Marcus (PBS)

DARPA’s New Biotech Division Wants to Create A Transhuman Future (i09.com)

Will a World of Driverless Cars be Heaven or Hell (Atlantic Cities)

Daniel Dewey of The Future of Humanity Institute Oxford, Thinking Carefully About Artificial Intelligence (Podcast and interesting resources)

Robot exoskeleton lets girl lift her arms, reach for the stars (CNN)

Make that 6 reads…

Bringing the Robot Revolution Closer — Making Affordable Robotic Humanoids and Hands (TechnologyReview) (Hat Tip )

A random walk with HAL the friendly Exoskeleton

CyberdineIn hospitals and nursing homes in Japan, disabled people are learning to walk again by wearing a robot suit. The suit ironically named HAL, for the Hybrid Assistive Limb, is strapped to one or both legs to help the patient regain mobility.

I say ironically because HAL is the Artificial Intelligence villain of science fiction. But the exoskeleton HAL is in fact far friendlier. It has been designed to support and expand the physical capabilities of its users, particularly people with physical disabilities.

HAL is produced by Cyberdine, Inc a Japanese company established in 2004 to further develop and market the work of Professor Yoshiyuki Sankai at the University of Tsukuba

Last week Cyberdine, listed its shares on the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s ‘Mothers market’ where its share price more than doubled on its first day of trading, closing at 9,600 yen ($92.40), far above the initial public offering price of 3,700 yen ($35.60).

In December 2012 Shinsei Bank, Limited made its first investment into Cyberdine through its Fukushima Growth Industry Development Fund, outlining its faith in Cyberdine as potentially contributing significantly to the area ‘as part of efforts to revitalize Fukushima prefecture after the Great East Japan Earthquake.’

Exoskeletons look likely to be a considerable market, with reports ranging as wide as $1.8 billion to $45 billion per annum by 2020.

In his book The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, Dr John Coats a neuroscientist and former Wall Street Trader writes about how the brain and body coordinates in producing our thoughts and behavior – he describes, and remember he is a neuroscientist, the central operation of our brain:

“You may be tempted to answer, given our heritage, that the Central most defining feature of our brain is its capacity for pure thought. But neuroscientists have discovered that conscious rational thought is a bit player in the drama that is our mental life. Many of these scientists now believe that we are getting closer to the truth if we say that the basic operation of the brain is the organization of movement.”

Think about that, the brains main role is not to engage in pure thought but to plan and execute physical movement. What is the point, say neuroscientists, if our sensations, our memories, our cognitive abilities, do not lead at some point to action?

During the 20th century, investments in human-mobility technology primarily focused on wheeled devices.  According to the World Health Organization, about 10% of the global population, i.e. about 650 million people, have disabilities. Studies indicate that, of these, some 10% (65 million people) require a wheelchair.

It seems likely that in the 21st century more investments will be made to drive innovation in exoskeletons. The fact that large automobile companies, such as Honda and Toyota have exoskeletal research programs is an indication of this technological shift. Perhaps in the next decade exoskeletons will be as pervasive in society as wheelchairs (electrical and manual) are today. We will be giving movement back in a totally different way to millions of people.

Hugh Herr has a personal reason for building the next generation of bionic limbs, robotic prosthetics or exoskeletons. Hugh lost both legs in a climbing accident 30 years ago; now he is the head of the MIT Media Lab’s Biomechatronics group and founder of Biom a personal bionics company. In the video below, at TED 2014, Hugh shows his incredible technology in a talk that’s both technical and deeply personal — with the help of ballroom dancer Adrianne Haslet-Davis, who lost her left leg in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing,

Researchers are doing remarkable things with cybernetics and bringing movement back to many…I believe it will be a very big and important market.