(See our previous blog posts: “Humans Need Not Apply: What Happens When There’s No More Work?” and “Will President Trump’s Wall Keep Out the Robots?”) Today we’d like to refer readers to an important article, “Dark Factory”, that recently appeared in The New Yorker. “Dark Factory” explores the growing impact of robotics and AI on the manufacturing and service sectors of the U.S. Economy.
In “Dark Factory”, Sheelah Kolhatkar discusses her visit to Steelcase, the manufacturer of office furniture. Steelcase, like much of American manufacturing, has had its economic ups and downs over the years. Kolhatkar describes how, in recent years, the company has increasingly employed robotics as a means to improve manufacturing efficiency, and as a result, now relies on fewer workers than it has in the past. Representative of an ever-growing number of manufacturing companies in the U.S., Steelcase employs fewer and fewer high school graduates, and now seeks college educated employees with technological skills, so that these higher skilled workers can supervise an expanding army of manufacturing robots.
As Kolhatkar shows, while efficiency gains are good for Steelcase and other manufacturing companies that employ robots and AI— and even, in some cases, make work more tolerable and less grueling for the remaining employees on the shop floor— the net effect of these technologies is to displace large swaths of the work force and to shift wealth to the owners of companies. Kolhatkar cites research that shows that the use of industrial robots, like those at Steelcase, is directly related to decline in both the number of manufacturing jobs and declining pay for remaining workers.
Kolhatkar also discusses “dark factories”— factories and warehouses whose use of robots and AI are so extensive that they need not turn on the lights because there are so few human workers. While such factories and warehouses are not yet wide-spread, major U.S. corporations are looking to use robotics and AI to run nearly employee-less operations. Although some companies may not be eager to begin utilizing robotic warehouses, competitive pressure is sure to compel U.S. companies to implement fully robotized facilities, or lose competitive battles with other nations that do adopt these technologies.
AI and Robotics Not Limited to Manufacturing
The result of the growing use of robotics and AI in the U.S. is, of course, the declining demand for workers in what where once fairly labor-intensive human-dominated work environments. (Manufacturing now employees only about 10% of the US workforce, and these jobs are under constant threat by new technologies.) Although displaced manufacturing workers often seek jobs in the service sector, this sector is now hardly immune to automation. MacDonald’s, for example, is introducing “digital ordering kiosks” where customers electronically enter their orders and pay for their meals. MacDonald’s is expected to automate in 5500 restaurants by the end of 2018. Uber and Google continue to invest in the development of autonomous driving technologies, and the U.S. trucking industry is eager to adapt autonomous vehicles so that it can reduce substantial labor costs associated with trucking. Amazon has purchased Kiva, a robotics company, and is developing robots that can zoom around Amazon warehouses and fulfill orders. (A Deutsch Bank report estimates that Amazon could save 22 million dollars a year in each of its warehouses, simply by introducing warehouse robots to replace human workers.)
As Kolhatkar’s “Dark Factory” shows, while the future looks increasingly promising for the shareholders of companies who introduce labor-displacing robotics and AI, it doesn’t appear quite so sunny for those humans who must work for a living—especially in the manufacturing and service sectors of the U.S. economy. Like the “dark factories” that promise to displace them, for many workers, the future too, will be dark.
“Welcoming our New Robotic Overlords”, Sheelah Kolhatkar, The New Yorker, October 23 2017
“AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs”, Pew Research Center
“Artificial intelligence and employment”, Global Business Outlook
“Advances in Artificial Intelligence Could Lead to Mass Unemployment, Experts Warn”, James Vincent, The Independent, Wednesday 29 January 2014