This Labor Day piece was not written by a robot. But it won't be long before it is.
In the early 1880s, unions led by machinist Matthew Maguire held a labor day event to honor the "workingman." The idea caught on as many cities and states began celebrating human effort.
In 1894, Congress designated the first Monday in September as Labor Day, the day to celebrate the social and economic contributions of workers … human workers.
The Industrial Revolution was more than 100 years old then and machines were rapidly replacing strong backs, arms, legs and hands as they made cloth, tools and more machines. It moved fast, for that time, and created a lot of job-loss anxiety, but in the end humans still dominated the machines. A good reason to celebrate.
A century later, we are evolving again — in a robot revolution.
Technology is advancing at unprecedented speed. Some believe human smarts will still trump the machines. Skeptics see robot capacity closing in on that magic moment when the machines are as smart has humans, very different form the past. Huge social, political and economic change may be necessary to accommodate the impact of technology, but will our human ability to adapt remain?
Right now, smart, cheap, fast, job-eating robots are rapidly showing up as many industries move to those newly affordable, highly capable machines.
BAXTER, a very skilled robot made by Rethink Robotics, costs only $22,000. That's nine months' pay for a $15-an-hour factory worker — excluding taxes, benefits and overtime. Baxter can go about three years, 24/7, with minimal human intervention.
High wages depress corporate profits and businesses are always challenged to find ways to increase their bottom line. BAXTER eliminates wages, benefits and union contracts. Bingo!
Foxconn is a profitable, million-plus employee electronics manufacturer. Its Chinese workforce saw close to a 300 percent pay jump over the last decade with wages reaching $3 an hour. BAXTER-type robots soothe wage problems non-stop; no rest, bathroom breaks, sick time, labor dormitories or international labor group investigations for plant safety or human worker abuses.
Foxconn knows the math and decided in 2011 to create a "million robot army." The human employees will all become engineers and technicians as robots gobble up their jobs, according to company officials. There are 20,000 robots at work now and more coming.
While BAXTER has limited skills, Honda is developing a full-boat, multifunctional humanoid robot named ASIMO that they say will "make our lives nicer." It walks, it talks, moves its arms, hands and fingers, and thinks to the current artificial intelligence capacity.
Boston Dynamics is building ATLAS, a bigger, badder, stronger, more agile machine that functions in disasters and dangerous situations and could eventually protect humans. The Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency funds development of ATLAS.
A half-century ago, it took decades to develop simple robots. The first industrial one was built in Connecticut in the 1960s by Danbury-based Unimation. Robot job adaptation gains come in months now, almost faster than Moore's Law, which accurately predicted in 1965 that the number of transistors on integrated circuits would double about every two years.
Google robots drive cars. Da Vinci robots do surgery. Kiva robots move inventory in warehouses. Narrative Science robots write news stories. Haohai robots are restaurant cooks and waiters, AIST robots are catwalk fashion models — way cheaper than Bar Refaeli. Stepford robots … well, is there even a market for robot wives?
Post Great Recession, millions of good-paying middle-class human jobs were devoured by lower cost and risk automation. It happened all over the world. And, so far, there seem to be fewer humans needed to build or dominate the machines as this revolution spins toward us faster than our brains are processing it (a demonstrated human weakness). We need to guide the outcome as our world changes in tremendous ways — if it's the last human job we do.
A Luddite solution still won't work. But more technology awareness and more dialogue on social, economic and human options is paramount. We need to be more active designers in our own development for a human future. Look at IEET.org — based at Trinity College — an advancing technology information-filled website, to start that knowledge quest.
This robot revolution is taking off. Will we celebrate human labor for another century or will it be over when the robot writes the Labor Day op-ed?
Leo Canty of Windsor recently retired as second vice president of AFT Connecticut in Rocky Hill, a union that represents teachers, public employees, educational personnel and health care professionals.