The idea of the "Uncanny Valley" is fascinating to me - just like the people out there who fear clowns. It's a fun, interesting idea, but it's hard to wrap my head around how someone can be afraid of a robot, unless it's telling jokes and imitating people. I think I'd be more thrown off by a robot if it were making fun of me ....
I think many of us who have worked with robots in industry can attest that robots do have a sense of humor, it's just that what they find funny is not always funny to us. For example, many robots seem to think that creating large quantities of scrap is totally hilarious.
I think robots are already affecting the view of labor by management. I've always thought the reduction in wages, health care and pensions subsidized the investment in robots in the auto industry. The joke goes that GM is a health care company that happens to also make cars. Deploying robots is one small move to reverse decades of growing labors costs.
Rob, automation doesn't have to be a bludgeon for management to use against labor. In an ideal world, higher wages encourage greater use of automation, which increases productivity, which leads to a higher standard of living for everybody. I think this is what used to be called "progress."
Conversely, low wages hold back technological progress. I'm sure all of us can think of examples of manufacturing processes which in developed countries are performed by a single machine, and which in developing countries are performed by a room full of people. This is certainly not because people in developing countries are foolish or backwards. It's simply because it's cheaper for them to do it that way, and it's cheaper for them to do it that way because their workers are so poorly paid. A side effect of this is that the quality and consistency are usually much worse.
Many engineers like to complain about unionized workers, excessive benefits, labor costs being too high, etc. I think this is probably a case of Stockholm syndrome, and in any case I have never once heard an engineer complain that wages and benefits are too high for engineers. The fact is that wherever workers have organized to fight for higher wages, they have pushed the cause of technological progress forward, and we owe them a debt of gratitude.
Dave, don't get me wrong. I'm actually pro labor, even as I recognize the auto industry is seeking every way it can to get out from under the cost burden of labor, partly through automation. I grew up in Detroit. My first real job (other than a Detroit Free Press paper route) was in an automotive paint lab. In the late 60s, you could get a great job in the auto industry with just a high school diploma. In those days, Detroit was a wonderland for labor.
That changed with competition from non-Detroit producers who were deploying a pretty high level of engineering -- and a lower labor burden. What are you going to do? Turn to automation. The plus side is the increase in smart workers and the decrease in mind-killing, bolt-tightening work. The down side is closed plants and massive layoffs over the past few decades.
A middle school team from Rochester, Mich., has again nabbed the grand prize in the annual international Future City Competition, which drew students from 37 regions of the United States, as well as from England and China.
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