In a story with potentially profound implications,
The New York Times writes about two Philips Electronics factories, one on the coast of China that employs hundreds of low-wage workers, and another in the Netherlands that employs several dozen. They both produce the same product, but thanks to increasing high-tech robotics, the Netherlands plant does so more efficiently. As the story notes, the robots “do it all without a coffee break — three shifts a day, 365 days a year.”
“This is the future. A new wave of robots, far more adept than those now commonly used by automakers and other heavy manufacturers, are replacing workers around the world in both manufacturing and distribution. Factories like the one here in the Netherlands are a striking counterpoint to those used by Apple and other consumer electronics giants, which employ hundreds of thousands of low-skilled workers….
Many industry executives and technology experts say Philips’s approach is gaining ground on Apple’s. Even as Foxconn, Apple’s iPhone manufacturer, continues to build new plants and hire thousands of additional workers to make smartphones, it plans to install more than a million robots within a few years to supplement its work force in China.
Foxconn has not disclosed how many workers will be displaced or when. But its chairman, Terry Gou, has publicly endorsed a growing use of robots. Speaking of his more than one million employees worldwide, he said in January, according to the official Xinhua news agency: “As human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache.”
The falling costs and growing sophistication of robots have touched off a renewed debate among economists and technologists over how quickly jobs will be lost. This year, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, made the case for a rapid transformation. “The pace and scale of this encroachment into human skills is relatively recent and has profound economic implications,” they wrote in their book, “Race Against the Machine.”
In their minds, the advent of low-cost automation foretells changes on the scale of the revolution in agricultural technology over the last century, when farming employment in the United States fell from 40 percent of the work force to about 2 percent today.
That’s a compelling comparison. The mechanization of agriculture changed the face of the nation, particularly here in the South. The Great Migration of black Americans out of the rural South into places such as Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and later to points west was driven to a significant degree by the introduction of the mechanical cotton picker and other devices, rendering their farm labor useless. For many white workers in Appalachia, mechanization of the coal industry played a similar role.
For decades, America’s growing industrial base absorbed that excess labor, and the nation as a whole transitioned from an agricultural to an industrial economy. But if mechanization is in the process of performing a similar transformation in the industrial world — replacing even the millions of low-wage “animals” now doing that work in China and elsewhere — where does that excess labor turn next for employment?
– Jay Bookman