Robo-Sabotage is surprisingly common — Matt Beane

MIT Sloan Ph.D. Student Matt Beane

MIT Sloan Ph.D. Student Matt Beane

From MIT Technology Review

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.

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Chinese manufacturing seeks a major upgrade – through the use of robots — Thomas Roemer

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Thomas Roemer

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Thomas Roemer

From South China Morning Post

When Chinese officials recently announced plans to support investment in robots in China’s manufacturing industries, the reaction in some US circles was one of astonishment, if not incredulity. Much of China’s attraction as a manufacturing powerhouse, after all, has been low labour costs, so turning towards robots would seem like relinquishing a key competitive advantage. In fact, several key drivers explain why this is a very intentional and strategic move.

One key factor is that while China’s labour costs still lag behind those in other key economies, Chinese labour has become relatively expensive compared to nations such as Vietnam and Indonesia. Moreover, Chinese labour costs are increasing at a much faster rate than in the US and, while the gap is still considerable, it is narrowing at a relentless pace. China also faces a labour scarcity in its economic boom centres.

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The jobs that AI can’t replace — Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

MIT Sloan’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

From BBC

Current advances in robots and other digital technologies are stirring up anxiety among workers and in the media. There is a great deal of fear, for example, that robots will not only destroy existing jobs, but also be better at most or all of the tasks required in the future.

Our research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has shown that that’s at best a half-truth. While it is true that robots are getting very good at a whole bunch of jobs and tasks, there are still many categories in which humans perform better.

And, perhaps more importantly, robots and other forms of automation can aid in the creation of new and better jobs for humans. As a result, while we do expect that some jobs will disappear, other jobs will be created and some existing jobs will become more valuable.

For example, machines are currently dominating the jobs in routine information processing. “Computer,” after all, used to be an actual job title of a person who sat and added long rows of numbers. Now it is, well, an actual computer.

On the other hand, jobs such as data scientist didn’t used to exist, but because computers have made enormous data sets analyzable, we now have new jobs for people to interpret these huge pools of information. In the tumult of our economy, even as old tasks get automated away, along with demand for their corresponding skills, the economy continues to create new jobs and industries.

Read the full post at the BBC.

The authors also appeared on the BBC’s “Panorama” for a segment titled “Could A Robot Do My Job.”  See the program here.

Erik Brynjolfsson is the Schussel Family Professor of Management Science, a Professor of Information Technology, and the Director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy at the MIT Sloan School of Management. 

Andrew McAfee is the Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Center for Digital Business.

Robots will stay in the back seat in the second machine age — Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson

Erik Brynjolfsson, Director of the MIT Center for Digital Business at MIT Sloan, and Andrew McAfee, Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Center for Digital Business

Erik Brynjolfsson, Director of the MIT Center for Digital Business at MIT Sloan, and Andrew McAfee, Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Center for Digital Business

From the Financial Times

It is easy to be pessimistic about jobs and pay these days. More and more work is being automated away by ever more powerful and capable technologies.

Not only can computers transcribe and translate normal human speech, they can also understand it well enough to carry out simple instructions. Machines now make sense of huge pools of unstructured information, and in many cases detect patterns and draw inferences better than highly trained and experienced humans. Recent advances include autonomous cars and aircraft, and robots that can work alongside humans in factories, warehouses and the open air.

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Andrew McAfee: Are droids taking our jobs?

Robots and algorithms are getting good at jobs like building cars, writing articles, translating — jobs that once required a human. So what will we humans do for work? Andrew McAfee walks through recent labor data to say: We ain’t seen nothing yet. But then he steps back to look at big history, and comes up with a surprising and even thrilling view of what comes next. (Filmed at TEDxBoston.)

Andrew McAfee is Associate Director and Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Center for Digital Business and co-author of  “Race Against the Machine”