Businesses adopting robots for new tasks

But will the machines and their ilk take away jobs -- even white-collar ones?

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Araten says there has been no staff reduction since Baxter's arrival. In fact, he says, K'NEX is committed to hiring people with skills in the so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), in part because it has an educational division that makes products tied to STEM school curricula. "We're focused on STEM as an organization," he says, "and the people we hire need these skills more and more." Overall, hiring has increased about 25% in the past four years, he adds.

Taking jobs away?

Although K'NEX and Think Logistics report that they have had no layoffs tied to their adoption of robotics, some skeptics say the increasing use of robots will ultimately eliminate jobs. But fans of the technology answer that dull, repetitive tasks are ideal for robotics and that it's better to take these boring jobs out of the hands of humans who are prone to error and inefficiency.

Indeed, some robotics aficionados insist that, although technology will inevitably lead to the elimination of some jobs now done by humans, robots will ideally free people up to focus on creative tasks, while helping companies save money and reducing the need for offshore labor.

If anything, "I'm afraid we're not going to have enough robots," says Rodney Brooks, founder and CTO of Rethink Robotics, which makes the Baxter line of robots. Brooks, who is also a professor emeritus at MIT, says his goal in developing Baxter was to help find a way to keep manufacturing operations in the United States so that type of work wouldn't have to be outsourced to countries like China. He estimates that the U.S. spent $350 billion on manufacturing in China in 2007. If that money were spent here instead, he reasons, the jobs would stay here as well -- but they'd be different jobs.

Before developing Baxter, Brooks, who also co-founded iRobot, maker of the popular Roomba automatic vacuum cleaner and other robotic devices, says he spent a lot of time in factories talking to workers. He would ask them if they wanted their kids to work in factories, and "the universal answer was no," he says.

"You see an aging population of workers because people don't want to do repetitive tasks. These are not jobs people are lining up for, because they're dull and repetitive," says Brooks, calling that type of work "mind-numbingly bad."

Brooks envisions people moving to work in other areas of the supply chain, such as logistics and shipping.

Not everyone shares that outlook. Software developer and entrepreneur Martin Ford, for example, believes the workforce faces a dire future because of the growing acceptance of both physical robot units and software automation tools that will increasingly take jobs away from humans. Ford authored the book The Lights in the Tunnel, which paints an apocalyptic picture of robots taking over both blue-collar and white-collar jobs.

"A lot of those jobs are going to evaporate because the [automated] enterprise software is going to encompass specialized artificial intelligence" that, he says, can do much better than humans on tasks like analyzing data or setting up spreadsheets. Moreover, a lot of routine physical work -- sifting through boxes for evidence at a law firm, for instance -- will increasingly be done by automated systems, Ford says.

"I see a wholesale invasion of robots and software automation pretty much everywhere... any job on any level that's routine and predictable, where you do the same types of things again and again," he maintains.

In 10 to 20 years, robots will have "a real impact on employment," says Ford. "It's a huge, critical economic and social problem."

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