The story of robotics replacing workers in manufacturing is nothing new but now it seems that robots are moving into the once unthinkable sector of service jobs. The kind of work some previously thought only humans could do.
If you meet Baxter, the latest humanoid robot from Rethink Robotics – you should get comfortable with him, because you’ll likely be seeing more of him soon…
Rethink will launch a software platform that will allow Baxter to do a more complex sequencing of tasks – for example, picking up a part, holding it in front of an inspection station and receiving a signal to place it in a “good” or “not good” pile. The company is also releasing a software development kit soon that will allow third parties – like university robotics researchers – to create applications for Baxter.
These third parties “are going to do all sorts of stuff we haven’t envisioned,” says Scott Eckert, CEO of Rethink Robotics. He envisions something similar to Apple’s app store happening for Baxter. A spiffed-up version of the robot could soon be seen flipping burgers at McDonalds, folding t-shirts at Gap, or pouring coffee at Starbucks.
Given that there has not been an actual “recovery” for people in the economy just people leaving the workforce and taking lower paying jobs, this is kind of a problem. If robots can now do the minimum wage jobs along with the advanced manufacturing work… what are the vast majority of humans supposed to do?
There isn’t really an answer. Some interesting theories have been proposed, but no one really knows. What happens when the Neoliberal treadmill stops? With no jobs there is no wages – even the current meager wages. That means no demand and without demand what kind of economy can you really have?
The plutocrats are likely to be able to survive at least initially being both immune to the business cycle from government bailouts and having work that has yet to be rendered obsolete by technology. They can, at least briefly, continue what Citigroup labeled the plutonomy – the high end luxury economy that is increasingly detached and isolated from 99% of the world’s population. But even that will have its limits if mass demand collapses due to technological unemployment.
What will the next economy look like?