The rise of the robots

I met the future a few days ago. He was in a lab at Virginia Tech, 18 inches tall, had a nice smile, and he beat me at soccer. He also never complains; works 24 hours a day; demands no retirement, health benefits or promotions; will never unionize; and doesn’t talk back. When a colleague knocked him down, he did not rush off to HR. He stood back up and returned to work.

And we wonder why, in the midst of a staggering economy, businesses keep handing our jobs over to robots.
   
How many jobs? That’s a sticky question. People in the robot business tell you that their mechanized minions are snapping up mainly the three D’s: jobs that are dull, dirty and dangerous. Like working a factory production line, bomb disposal or public relations for the Salahis.

In the process, the robotophiles argue that newer, better jobs are being created. One survey a few years back pointed out that Japan has far more robots at work than any other country, and their unemployment rate is well under 5 percent. Take that, you greedy humans!

But other economic and tech analysts say, “Cool your diodes. That’s just a Replicant talking point.” They insist that one of the key reasons we are having such a hard time recovering jobs is that so many businesses, eager to save money in these tough times, are automating every task they can. Mail handling, breadmaking, phone answering, traffic control, feeding the dog, spaying the cat: “Hey, we’ve got an app for that!”

So where is Washington in all this? President Obama is strongly pro-robot. Earlier this year he went to Carnegie Mellon to talk up the idea that advanced robots, even if they take jobs in the short term, can make us more globally competitive and create much more work for humans in the long run. It’s a hard case for even his foes in Congress to counter. Arguing against automation makes you look like a fuddy-duddy at best, a Luddite at worst.

But I don’t know. As I watched my little soccer playing pal at that university lab, I kept thinking, is there anything these things can’t do? And what will be left for us? Because it looks like he’s not only ready to take over my Monday through Friday chores, but maybe my weekends, too.

– CNN’s Tom Foreman is a regular on “AC360°”/www.ac360.com and “The Situation Room.”


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