Robot makers spread global gospel of automation

John Markoff

The robot equipment industry has one word for the alarmist articles and television news programmes that predict a robot is about to steal your job: Fiddlesticks!

Well, that wasn't actually the word used last week at the Automate 2013 trade show held in Chicago, but the sentiment was the same. During a presentation, Henrik I Christensen, the Kuka Chair of Robotics at Georgia Institute of Technology's College of Computing, sharply criticised a recent "60 Minutes" report on automation that was based on the work of the MIT economists Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson.

The two economists in 2011 wrote "Race Against the Machine," a book that renewed the debate about the relationship between the pace of automation and job growth. They argue that the pace of automation is accelerating and that robotics is pushing into new areas of the work force like white-collar jobs that were previously believed to be beyond the scope of computers.

During his talk, Christensen said that the evidence indicated that the opposite was true. While automation may transform the work force and eliminate certain jobs, it also creates new kinds of jobs that are generally better paying and that require higher-skilled workers. "We see today that the US is still the biggest manufacturing country in terms of dollar value," Christensen said. "It's also important to remember that manufacturing produces more jobs in associated areas than anything else."

An official of the International Federation of Robotics acknowledged that the automation debate had sprung back to life in the United States, but he said that America was alone in its anxiety over robots and automation. "This is not happening in either Europe or Japan," said Andreas Bauer, chairman of the federation's industrial robot suppliers group and an executive at Kuka Robotics, a German robot maker.

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