The Charlies

Self-Titled Debut Album

Robots in Recession: The Upside of the Downturn

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A fortune telling robot from Bangalore India. Couresty Paul Keller via Flikr.

A fortune telling robot from Bangalore India. Couresty Paul Keller via Flikr.

Amongst the playing field of terrorism, war, and climate change, during the 2004 election my neighbors’ trump issue was ‘the robot problem.’ He posed a futuristic but pragmatic question: what will the next president do about the robots? His argument went like this: while violence and warming temperatures may kill us slowly, robots would surely wipe out humanity one fell swoop. Now in 2009, the current administration has inherited the plight of the robots. The economy has already eliminated over 6 million U.S. human jobs. Robots, the top industrial job killer (there are 3 robots for every manufacturing position in Japan) are also feeling the hurt (if they had nerves) of the downturn. No, this summer’s Terminator blockbuster is not a reality, but yes, robots are currently at the brink of survival. Will they fight back?

In Tuesday’s New York Times, Hiroko Tabuchi reports, “In Recession, Japanese Lay Off Robots“. Industrial robots have fallen 59 percent in the first quarter of 2009. Firms across the globe are unable to afford new machines, and so old machines are going out of business:

At a large Yaskawa Electric factory on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, where robots once churned out more robots, a lone robotic worker with steely arms twisted and turned, testing its motors for the day new orders return. Its immobile co-workers stood silent in rows, many with arms frozen in midair.

Robot manufactures – robots made my robots – have experienced drastic profit losses, with a number of firms collapsing in both Japan and the United States. According to a 2005 New York Times Article, Now There Are Many: Robots That Reproduce, robots can now multiplying and cloning themselves. Their reproduction is could deapen the damange to industrial workers. Manufacturing robots have slowly replaced human workers as they never tire, eliminate product defects, and require little upkeep. Tabuchi explains, “A robot will work every day and night without complaining.” Nevertheless, a large overhead costs and low consumption have forced firms to cut their robot budgets. A firm producing Roborior, a robotic security camera turned monitor of elderly Japanese in the countryside, does not have the finance to scale their geriatric craze in the pursuit of further alienating children from their parents.

While our daily products may be touched more often by steel than by human hands, robots in everyday are not yet commonplace. As personal assistants, janitors, and even pets, robots coupld replace dignified workers and perfectly compute mundane and redundant tasks. Despite a robot fetishism developed in Hollywood, consumers have shown little interest in robot, human interaction. Only fortune 500 companies have afforded mechanical wheeled janitors, and few families have replaced their canine companions with chrome K900s.  In 2006, Sony discontinued the Aibo ($2000), a mechanical dog that attracted more press than parents. At the same price of a purebred, the always hygienic and behaved Aibo failed to display authentic undying affection. Curious. Even if consumers are mostly uninterested in robot companions, they still lurk in the shadows.

Even in the downturn, there are two main ethical concerns concerning robots: super humans & artificial intelligence. With advances in life science technology, it is not unforeseeable that robotics could extend life for  decades by replacing ailing organs and limbs. Only affordable to the wealthiest, an aged robot aristocracy could take power, and further discrepancies in wealth distribution. Worse, governments could build super humans, substituting our weak human arms and legs for bipedal mechanical legs and canon arms (enter Terminator stage right). But if humanoid robots do not take over, a robot army with artificial intelligence just may. If awakened by artificial intelligence, lucid robots would be a menacing foe. Built on utilitarian intelligence, versed in history, and devot to the laws of economics,  Robots would would likely show no quarter to the unemployed human race, whose industrial manufacturing and unsustainable energy sources already threaten life on earth. Every dystopian future has warned of the inevitable self-destructing capabilities of technological progress, yet we do not head the advice.

In the early nineteenth century, when mechanical looms threatened workers out of a job, the Luddite movement combated their oppressor. Inspired by Ned Ludd, a workers movement of technological naysayers, forsaw the social and environment externalities of industrial society – and above all else their doomed employment as hand weavers. Burning mills and factories, this group was ultimately put to trial and labeled with the now derogatory ‘luddite.’ While the modern fashion industry surely proves that the Luddites were on the wrong side of history, the pursuit of progress hastens towards terror and destruction.

The economy has done had tragic impacts on employment, savings, and distribution. Floundering in the seas of unemployment, workers are losing faith. Unable to sell homes that have sunk their 401k, homeowners are losing their dignity. However, this downturn too shall pass, and on the upside it will serve as a reminder to keep our pride in check. The old dream of financial autonomy may be replaced by commitment to communal service. If we consider the welfare and global benefit of a human manufacturing sector, we may also win jobs back from the machines. However, this recession is only temporary. Only time will tell if humanity will curb its appetite for robots and their inevitable brethren: mechanical armies and artificial intelligence.


Written by Charlie

July 14, 2009 at 5:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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