5.1 Tracing a Second Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution involved harnessing machines for production previously done by hand. By "second industrial revolution" is meant the automation of those same tasks so machines require few, if any, human attendants. This is not new, for the entire machine age tells the story of machines having ever greater efficiency, power, and productivity. Automated textile devices first claimed the livelihood of thousands of independent artisans when the English garment and lace factories came into being in the early nineteenth century. Each machine that mechanized work previously done by hand reduced the number of people required to produce a given quantity of goods. This affected agriculture and industry simultaneously. The machine revolution proceeded simultaneously through all parts of the economy because the various sectors competed for raw materials and human resources. Also, new technologies developed for one industry are applied to others in short order.

The machines of the industrial age, though as diverse as the industries in which they were employed, had one thing in common that distinguished them from the human workers before them. Each was a speciality device, designed and built for a specific task. To accommodate any subsequent changes in an industry invariably meant retooling--a euphemism for scrapping much of the existing machinery and replacing it with new. In only a very few cases does any part of an industrial-age machine survive a substantial technological change; it becomes noncompetitive or irrelevant, so it is unplugged and thrown away.

Human workers, on the other hand, can be retrained to use new skills and new tools--if the employer takes the time and effort to do so, and the unions will allow it. Throughout the machine age, human retraining took place continuously as new machines demanded different skills of their operators. However, as time passed, more of the physical tasks in manufacturing became automated, and the machines started to become more general-purpose and to require fewer operators. Logically, the next step in the sequence is the replacement of the human operators by machines sufficiently versatile that the "retraining" could be applied to the them instead of to workers.

Until recently, this step could not be taken because there were no satisfactory ways of encapsulating retrainability in a machine, and the jobs of at least some of the human workers were safe. With the advent of programmable automatons, or robots, they no longer are.

Profile On . . . Technology


Where did the term "robot" come from?

In 1921 Czech dramatist Karel Capek wrote a play, R.U.R. or Rossum's Universal Robots. The Czech word means "heavy work."

What disciplines are involved in robotics?

Robotics is a difficult multidisciplinary field embracing computing science, mechanical engineering, control systems, and knowledge of the design and operation of the manufacturing process.

What are the Laws Of Robotics?

1. A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second laws.

Who enforces these laws?

No one does. They were formulated for use in the fiction of Isaac Asimov in 1940 and popularized since then by a number of other writers of science fiction. There are no robots yet capable of being programmed to "obey" these laws, and it is not certain there ever will be.

Does this mean that a robot could kill a human being?

Present day robots are little different from any other industrial machinery in this respect. Some have detectors that allow them to avoid a human being, but apart from this, it is as dangerous to get in the way of a working robot as it is to stand in the path of a moving truck.

What can robots do?

Robots have been equipped with grippers, manipulators, motion sensors, heat, light, and sound detectors and are capable of handling tools, moving about, lifting, carrying, and fitting parts.

They can weld, assemble electronic components, spray paint, sand and polish, apply adhesives and other coatings, drill, make tools, load, unload and store materials, move parts about in a factory or warehouse, mine coal, make castings, and assemble and inspect finished products.

They can be sent to Mars to rove a hostile landscape, gather and assess data for scientific experiments, or serve as a child's toy.

Can robots see?

There are many manufacturers of robotic visions systems. These allow robots to sense colours and shapes, position parts in the correct location, and inspect products for flaws. The patterns read by the optical systems are compared with ones in storage. Whether this is "seeing" depends on the definition of sight.

Which industries use robots?

Examples include: automobile and aeroplane manufacturing, shipbuilding, electronics assembly, appliance manufacturing, tool and die making, mining, warehousing, transportation, and undersea exploration.

In what manufacturing environments do they work best?

o where the products are hard items that must be moved about and stacked.

o (so far) where the items being moved are relatively large.

o where the actions required are relatively simple and are repeated in exactly the same way every time until a reprogramming is done.

o where decisions are simple, have few options, and do not call for shades of judgement (i.e., the domain of action has clear and strict boundaries).

o where any visual inspections can be handled with a low resolution, monochrome, two dimensional vision scan.

o where quantities are great enough to warrant using robots, but not so large as to make fixed machinery more economical.

o where the plant can be run in continuous shifts.

o where labour, land, buildings, and other costs are high, but capital is easy to obtain, and interest rates are reasonable.

o new factories where the entire building and assembly line can be designed with robots in mind.

o where conditions are too hazardous to risk many (or any) human beings (inside a volcano or nuclear plant, inspecting or disassembling bombs, or exploring in space).

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises