As a US presidential candidate, Donald Trump made keeping manufacturing jobs in the country a key economic issue. He promised to bring back jobs from China, Mexico, Japan, and elsewhere; he pledged to force companies from Ford to Apple to Nabisco to open or re-open factories on American shores; and he vowed to revive the coal and steelmaking industries. His promise to create industrial jobs was key to his electoral victory.
Still, many were—and remain—deeply skeptical of Trump’s plans. Mark Cuban, internet entrepreneur and frequent thorn in the side of the president, says that bringing back manufacturing will backfire and lead to overall job losses. Instead, he says, the US ought to invest in robotics to compete with China. “We have to win the robotics race,” he says. “We are not even close right now.” (For what it’s worth, Trump’s labor secretary Steven Mnuchin recently disagreed, saying robots aren’t even “on my radar screen.”)
Cuban is on the right track, but the fact is that it’s too late to go head-to-head with China on building robots alone. We can’t compete with China’s robot revolution. But we can complement it.
In the popular media, we talk a lot about robots stealing jobs. But when we stop speculating and actually look at the real world of work, the impact of advanced robotics is far more nuanced and complicated. Issues of jobs and income inequality fade away, for example — there aren’t remotely enough robots to affect more than a handful of us in the practical sense.
Yet robots usually spell massive changes in the way that skilled work gets done: The work required to fly an F-16 in a combat zone is radically different from the work required to fly a Reaper, a semi-autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle, in that same zone.
Because they change the work so radically, robot-linked upheavals like this create a challenge: How do you train the next generation of professionals who will be working with robots?
My research into the increasing use of robotics in surgery offers a partial answer. But it has also uncovered trends that — if they continue — could have a major impact on surgical training and, as a result, the quality of future surgeries.
As you probably know by now, HitchBot—a device made of pool noodles, rubber gloves, a bucket, and the computer power needed to talk, smile, and tweet—was deliberately decapitated and dismembered this week, only 300 miles into its hitchhiking journey across the United States. HitchBot had successfully made similar journeys across the Netherlands, Germany, and Canada, relying on bemused strangers for transportation. The geek-o-sphere is up in arms, claiming that this violence reveals something special and awful about America, or at least Philadelphia.
I think perhaps there’s something else at work here. Beyond building robots to increase productivity and do dangerous, dehumanizing tasks, we have made the technology into a potent symbol of sweeping change in the labor market, increased inequality, and recently the displacement of workers (see “Who Will Own the Robots?”). If we replace the word “robot” with “machine,” this has happened in cycles extending well back through the Industrial Revolution. Holders of capital invest in machinery to increase production because they get a better return, and then many people, including some journalists, academics, and workers cry foul, pointing to the machinery as destroying jobs. Amidst the uproar, eventually there are a few reports of people angrily breaking the machines.
Two years ago, I did an observational study of semiautonomous mobile delivery robots at three different hospitals. I went in looking for how using the robots changed the way work got done, but I found out that beyond increasing productivity through delivery work, the robots were kept around as a symbol of how progressive the hospitals were, and that when people who’d been doing similar delivery jobs at the hospitals quit, their positions weren’t filled.
Most entry-level workers did not like this one bit. Soon after implementation, managers at all my sites noticed that some of these workers sabotaged the robots. This took more violent forms—kicking them, hitting them with a baseball bat, stabbing their “faces” with pens, shoving, and punching. But much of this sabotage was more passive—hiding the robots in the basement, moving them outside their preplanned routes, obscuring sensors, walking slowly in front of them, and most of all, minimizing usage. Workers and managers attributed these stories to an ongoing, frustrated workplace dialogue about fair work for fair pay.