"With every mistake we must surely be learning ..." — "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," as performed by The Beatles
Recently, I read about a fast food restaurant chain that is investing millions into computerized food service. The customer programs his food selection, then robots make each hamburger to order, adding desired condiments and even slicing whole pickles with millimeter precision.
Artificial intelligence has also been utilized recently in an attempt to recreate a Beatles song. Critics called the final product somewhat "emotionless," and noted that it sounded more like the Beach Boys than the Beatles, but the very fact that we've got the technology to attempt such an endeavor is disconcerting to human artists.
Our ability to control, regulate and direct AI represents a significant signpost toward a healthy economy in the 21st century. So the viability of using cobots, or collaborative robots, in the manufacturing sector is especially encouraging. A 2016 study by the International Federation of Robotics reveals that fewer than 10 percent of jobs can be completely automated. Of course, that statistic suggests that 90 percent of tasks can be at least partially automated. Most of those jobs are currently filled by low wage, low skilled workers.
Traditional robots require extensive programming. They are often cumbersome, relatively immobile and dangerous for nearby workers, and many perform their functions locked away from employees. Perhaps most importantly, their presence was a threat to employees because they replaced human hands.
Specialized machines called cobots work in tandem with human workers and can help boost productivity, which then increases overall employment. Designed to shut down if a person crosses their path, cobots minimize worksite injury. Most require no sophisticated coding and are generally lighter and more mobile than traditional robots. Just under a quarter million global industrial robots were sold last year, and only 5 percent of these were cobots. But cobots, sometimes called flexible robots, could soon become an important component of the profitability of small manufacturing plants.
As economist Gary Schilling wrote, "Collaborative robots that work alongside humans ... are getting cheaper and easier to program. And they’re safer and more user-friendly than earlier models that had to be caged to protect humans ... Cobots are being used in warehouses and are much cheaper in moving goods than miles of conveyor belts."
Integrating technology like cobots into industrial manufacturing makes imminent sense to me, from a human standpoint. We simply cannot afford to invent and program ourselves into a state of high unemployment. But using technology as a complimentary feature on the factory floor is an evolved solution that can simultaneously assist us in achieving maximum efficiency and high employment.
Margaret R. McDowell, ChFC, AIF, author of the syndicated economic column “Arbor Outlook,” is the founder of Arbor Wealth Management LLC (850-608-6121 — www.arborwealth.net), a “fee-only” registered investment advisory firm located near Sandestin.