Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What Are People Good For Redux

Yesterday I flagged this article in The New York Times. Not much to say, except it confirms everything we’ve been saying here on the HCV since our inception. It’s also a rebuke to those who believe that that fossil fuel shortages will cause massive amounts of labor-intensive jobs to be resurrected. Here’s a taste:
Inside a spartan garage in an industrial neighborhood in Palo Alto, Calif., a robot armed with electronic “eyes” and a small scoop and suction cups repeatedly picks up boxes and drops them onto a conveyor belt.

It is doing what low-wage workers do every day around the world.

Older robots cannot do such work because computer vision systems were costly and limited to carefully controlled environments where the lighting was just right. But thanks to an inexpensive stereo camera and software that lets the system see shapes with the same ease as humans, this robot can quickly discern the irregular dimensions of randomly placed objects.

The robot uses a technology pioneered in Microsoft’s Kinect motion sensing system for its Xbox video game system.

Such robots will put automation within range of companies like Federal Express and United Parcel Service that now employ tens of thousands of workers doing such tasks.

The start-up behind the robot, Industrial Perception Inc., is the first spinoff of Willow Garage, an ambitious robotics research firm based in Menlo Park, Calif. The first customer is likely to be a company that now employs thousands of workers to load and unload its trucks. The workers can move one box every six seconds on average. But each box can weigh more than 130 pounds, so the workers tire easily and sometimes hurt their backs.

Industrial Perception will win its contract if its machine can reliably move one box every four seconds. The engineers are confident that the robot will soon do much better than that, picking up and setting down one box per second.

“We’re on the cusp of completely changing manufacturing and distribution,” said Gary Bradski, a machine-vision scientist who is a founder of Industrial Perception. “I think it’s not as singular an event, but it will ultimately have as big an impact as the Internet.”
Skilled Work, Without the Worker (New York Times)

The article is getting a lot of attention, and today on Naked Capitalism I see a link to an article by independent analyst Michael “Mish” Shedlock running down all the developments in automation of late. I love it when other people do my work for me:

Robots to Rule the World? Taking All Jobs? Replace Women? (Michael Shedlock)

Although the female robot thing is a little creepy. Looks like The Windup Girl was more realistic than I thought.

And don't forget, it's not just automation, it's the effect of computers on how we do our transactions as well:
Best Buy made just $12m in profit on revenues of $10.6bn in the last quarter, falling from $150m over the same period last year. With stock and sales alike slumping, the firm suspended its profit forecast and share buybacks. Best Buy knows exactly what the problem is—it freely admits that everyone uses it to check out gadgets they then buy cheaper online—but hasn't found a way to turn the tide. [BBC and Dealnews]
Best Buy a bad buy for investors (BoingBoing)

Something to consider while hearing the blowhard politicians talking about "creating jobs." Capitalism is not nor ever was about creating jobs- it's about making as much profit with as few jobs as possible.


  1. escape,

    Have you checked out Mander's latest book, The Capitalism Papers? I've been reading it and it's been a nice synthesis of many threads of argument on, broadly, the problems the industrialized world faces today.

    1. I read a review of it on EB, and it looked like something to take note of. Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television was one of the most influential books on my thinking (about so much more than the title implies), so it's nice to see him writing again.

  2. Are you tired of your packages being smashed and mangled by careless and fatigued package handlers? Industrial Perception's robots can do it much faster and with less effort!


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