5.2 Robots and the New Industries

Robotic devices have gone far beyond the realm of science fiction, having become a day-to-day reality in the lives of many people. Home appliances have built-in microprocessor controllers and timers. Automobiles include diagnostic centres and several computers to control their operations. Golfers ride about on robotized caddy-carts. Computers have revolutionized the writing and publishing industries by automating many tedious functions. However, such devices have not caused dramatic large-scale changes in basic living and working patterns for most people. Instead, they have produced simple, small-scale changes to the existing industrial society. To constitute anything revolutionary, they would have to be capable of displacing large numbers of workers from their positions. However, both on the assembly line and in the office, that displacement has now begun.

There is a fundamental difference between the Industrial Revolution and this second revolution. Many of the workers who have kept their jobs up to this time because of the (human) ability to be retrained will now lose them, for the new types of automated manufacturing machinery are indeed reprogrammable. Machines can now be given not only computational and routine work, but also something that passes for decision-making ability. Robotic tools are used extensively in such situations as automobile assembly lines, where the fact that robots cannot make wrong decisions makes them more economical than human workers. Many of these are heavy equipment models, with limited and rigid capabilities, but these are rapidly giving way to much more flexible devices.

It was long a piece of American folklore that one ought not buy a car made on a Monday or a Friday because the workers were not at their peak on those days. However, robots do not get hung over, bored, angry, sleepy, or careless. They do not require time-and-a-half, lunch breaks, sleep at night, salaries, pensions, washrooms, or stock-sharing plans, nor do they go on strike or make demands. Robots require a substantial capital expense but small operating cost, for they are paid no salary. They are reliable, and can be retrained without expensive courses.

A robot can replace between five and ten assembly-line workers and pay for itself in three years or less. It will do exactly the right job time and time again, welding two parts with the right temperature and pressure and in the right place, or applying a nut to a bolt with exactly the specified torque. Parts fit better and are stronger, and the final product can be counted on to be of uniform quality every time. Small pieces can be attached to machines or electronic devices with any desired degree of precision, and this can be done quickly as well as accurately throughout an entire production run, then reprogrammed for a different run.

Most important, technological changes can be worked out ahead of time and new computer programs devised to direct the manufacture of new products. With reprogrammable tools, the assembly line can be retooled with much less scrapping of machines and very little lost production time. Ultimately, it should be possible for a new automobile to be designed entirely by computer and for the assembly line to be switched over to the new product automatically and with minimal human intervention on the factory floor.

The first four-hundred-fifty-nine vehicles made some future day could be four-wheel drive trucks, and the four-hundred-sixtieth could be a newly-designed compact car--with no intervening space or time on the assembly line. The line could then switch back to trucks until the prototype is tested. For the foreseeable future, the decision to make the switches would be a human one--there is no method yet of automating the reasoning leading up to it.

While the kind of flexibility suggested here is not yet available, robotic devices are already used extensively in Japanese automobile assembly and seem destined to take over the same functions in North American plants as well, if their owners wish to stay in business. Ultimately, assembly lines of all types will be automated in this fashion, and most consumer goods will be produced with few or no human workers in the plant.

The resulting changes will be as sweeping as were those following the original Industrial Revolution, for millions of skilled and semiskilled jobs in manufacturing, mining, forestry, materials processing, warehousing, and other smokestack industries will no longer be required. Most of the small staff remaining in such industries will be white collar workers, accounting for and running the machines that operate the machines--and doing so from the office environment, rather than from the factory floor. Other employees will be the highly trained and versatile technicians whose task it will be to effect the inevitable repairs.

Eventually, factories also will be designed and built to order largely by machines, and can be placed in remote or uninhabitable regions without blighting either the urban or rural landscape. They could be built beneath the ground, inside mountains, under the ocean, in outer space, or on the moon. Of course, some people must continue to work on the design and operation of factories. However, the consumers who benefit from their production will need neither to know nor care where those factories are physically located, so long as the flow of goods continues unhindered. In many cases it might be difficult or impossible for an unprotected human being to pay a physical visit to the floor of one of these factories; ultimately it will perhaps be almost entirely unnecessary.

Some mark 1956 as the watershed year in the progress of automation, for in that year the number of service jobs in North America exceeded the number in manufacturing and farming (i.e., in production) for the first time. The next four decades saw a steady growth in the number and sophistication of available consumer goods and in the general standard of living even while jobs continued to shift to the service and information sectors. Recessions notwithstanding, there was during that period a level of economic expansion and prosperity such as has never before been seen. If this could be projected into the future, those who have jobs of any kind would probably be able to afford far more technological luxury than ever before.

Even now television antennas sprout on the roofs of the most primitive tin shacks in the barrios of South America and Asia. Video cassette recorders and tapes of dubbed American movies can be rented in small Pakistani towns. There are few but the remotest of jungle dwellers who lack radios or who are unfamiliar with at least some modern technological amenities. Even in such settings, the local missionary-cum-Bible translator is likely to come equipped with a microcomputer, word-processing software, and a portable electric generator.

As familiar as people are with the recent economic impact of existing technology, they may not be very well prepared for the changes that are coming. The Industrial Revolution took over a century to run its course in England with the most dramatic changes between 1780 and 1850. A critical mass of new industrial technology has again collected, but the changes this time may take place over a much shorter period. Some forecasters predict that the transition to robotic goods production could be essentially complete in a few decades. By another generation after that, few people would have much detailed knowledge of what a factory is, or where any are located. Industrial production could then be as invisible and as much taken for granted as a farm is now.

The economic impacts would be as profound as those of the industrial age, for even as smokestack industries all but disappeared from sight, consumer goods could simultaneously improve in quality and sophistication and be reduced in price. The distribution chain could also be shortened, for there would be much less need for retailers and wholesalers in any of the big-ticket items. Stereos, televisions, refrigerators, and many other products could be ordered by the customer directly from the factory (through the Metalibrary) and delivered to the door without the need of intermediaries such as wholesalers. Smaller appliances, clothing, shoes, and such other goods as household robots could be obtained in the same fashion (It could be a long time--or never--before robotic truck drivers are deployed, however). Information providers on the Internet already allow such direct ordering of a variety of goods and conduct business activities electronically on a large scale, so these comments are saying little that is new.

If such methods were to become more widely adopted, stores and shopping centres as they now exist could be much reduced in size and importance, perhaps becoming manufacturers' showrooms. If Metalibrary terminals eventually had three-dimensional colour-projection ability, many items could be accurately previewed in the home. With fully automated factories, clothing could be guaranteed to fit, for single items could be made-to-order for the customer's measurements with no loss of production line efficiency. Indeed, goods might only be made to order, with mass production disappearing altogether.

Such large scale automation also suggests to some observers that the new era would see more planned economies, though presumably not along the lines of the now discredited and abandoned communist statism. Planning could consist of surveys and projections of customer wants by the companies engaged in satisfying those wants, and not involve government at all. This requires no new techniques other than better information access and processing, for decision making by polling for public opinion has long been a feature on both the commercial and political scene in North America. Naturally, the advertising industry will continue to seek out new ways to change those wants so that consumers focus on new products. Indeed, even a full Metalibrary's entertainment facilities would undoubtedly be as heavily commercialized as are today's television networks.

Looked at optimistically, and only from a material point of view, the robotic manufacturing technologies appear to promise a rosy future. However, the people of this projected new society would be profoundly affected in ways other than simply having more and better products available to buy, consume, and dispose of.

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