The ethical concern regarding robots replacing humans in the workforce is a continual refrain. On the one hand, the increased productivity enabled by robotics may be the key to strengthening the U.S. economy and allowing a leaner workforce to remain competitive. On the other hand, is it fair to put people out of work just to save a few bucks?
A Brief History of Robots
From the beginning, humans have been fascinated by mechanical devices. The first recorded steam-powered device, a major technological milestone in human development, was the Aeolipile, described by Hero of Alexandria (Heron) of Roman Egypt in his first-century manuscript, Spiritalia seu Pneumatica. Almost two thousand years later, the Westinghouse Electric Corporation introduced the first humanoid robot, Elektro, which they exhibited at the 1939 and 1940 World’s Fairs. The first autonomous electronic robot was created by William Grey Walter at Bristol University in England in 1948. It was named Elsie, or the Bristol Tortoise, and it could sense light and use physical stimuli to navigate.
Today, robots are linked to improvements throughout the economy. In fact, in manufacturing operations, robots outperform their human counterparts in tasks that require precision, accuracy and repeatability and, unlike humans, they maintain consistent production and quality levels.
Over the past decade, much attention has been paid to the exodus of jobs to overseas and rightly so. The United States lost over two million manufacturing jobs between 2001 and 2007; in November 2009 alone, 41,000 manufacturing jobs were lost.
But offshoring has not been limited to manufacturing; millions of white-collar jobs have also disappeared. It seems the general view of corporate America is that the only way to remain competitive is by reducing labor costs and moving jobs overseas to cheaper labor markets.
However, with the continued advances in robotic technology, the profit motive to offshore demands re-evaluation. Along with lean manufacturing and quality enhancements, the United States can use robotics to level the playing field with foreign competition. The key has always been to work smarter, not harder, and automation allows this to happen.
While replacing humans with robots is a perennial ethical concern, the reality is that the U.S. workforce will be shrinking on its own as the baby boomers begin their transition into retirement. According to Rick Schneider, CEO of Fanuc Robotics America Inc., within 15 years, the United States will suffer its own labor gap when just 40 million new workers are available to fill the jobs vacated by 70 million retiring baby boomers.
The Japanese, who have been experiencing their own labor gap, have already converged upon robotics as the solution and are outpacing America in terms of robotic technology. Nevertheless, the United States has a long history of embracing technology that allows fewer workers to produce more goods and services, for example, within the agricultural industry in the early 1900s and the steel industry in the later 20th century. Future education will be the key to successfully increasing the use of robotic technology throughout U.S. industry and government.
The other major obstacle facing robotics is the myth of cost and training. In some quarters, the perception still exists that robots are fancy and expensive; however, the reality is quite different. Just as computers have shrunk from the size of a room to the size of your lap, technological advances have similarly benefited robotics and automation. More robots are in use generating valuable experience to apply to future designs. As the technology continues to improve, costs will continue to decline, while at the same time, new and different domains become available.
New Uses for Robots
Traditionally, robots have been used to perform mundane, repetitive, or dangerous tasks. However, with recent scientific leaps in automation, more opportunities exist for robots to step in and take on more sophisticated duties. Several of the new fields of service for robotics include food processing, postal processing, nanotechnology, medical surgery, and military applications. For example, robotic-based surgical technology, although expensive, can result in shorter hospital stays, reduced infection rates, and quicker recovery times.
Generally speaking, each of the industrialized nations can acquire the same robotic technology. The real challenge is how the technology is used in combination with human skills. Humans and robotics can provide complementary capabilities. This is why education plays such a key role; without an educated work force that can continue to find new ways to improve and use the technology the full potential of robotics may not be reached.
The current economic and financial crisis plaguing the United States underscores the need for new and innovative solutions to job creation and efficiency. In that regard, robotics can play a significant role in allowing U.S. manufacturers to overcome the current challenges and to remain competitive in the global marketplace.
 Heron Alexandrinus (Hero of Alexandria), Spiritalia seu Pneumatica, (Germany: K. G. Saur Verlag, 1998).
 Robert Scott, “The China Trade Toll: Widespread Wage Suppression, 2 Million Jobs Lost in the U.S,” paper, Economic Policy Institute, no. 219, July 30, 2008.
 Rick Schneider, “Robotic Automation Can Cut Costs,” (hyperlink no longer accessible) Manufacturing Engineering, 135, no. 6, (12/2005).
 Diana Kurylko, “Vance Makes Room for G-Wagen; Mercedes’ Alabama Plant Expands to Build More Vehicles, Share More Parts.” Automotive News, October, 13, 2003.