Is the twentieth century dream of robots helping humans do practically everything faster and cheaper turning into a nightmare with efficient machines replacing workers and driving up unemployment? 60 Minutes host Steve Kroft recently asked MIT Sloan’s Professor Erik Brynjolfsson PhD ’91 and Principal Research Scientist Andrew McAfee ’88, ’89, SM ’90 to discuss how robots are revolutionizing the workplace.
The segment, Are Robotics Hurting Job Growth, explores how robots are contributing to the jobless recovery. Technology and increased automation is a factor, the MIT scientists say. “Middle-skilled jobs that involve routine tasks,” like checking in luggage at the airport, are increasingly being filled by software robots or physical robots, says Brynjolfsson.
Any surprising uses? “There are very heavily automated warehouses where there are a surprisingly few or no people around. That absolutely took took me by surprise,” says McAfee.
They point to a warehouse in Devens, MA, where robots move 10,000 pieces of merchandise a day more efficiently and cheaper than people could. Customer orders are transmitted via wifi antennas to the 69 robots in a warehouse that measures about the size of two football fields. The bots pick up a load, take it to packing station, then zip off to the next order.
In other examples, a California hospital has a fleet of robots that carry food to patients, blood samples to labs, and dirty linen to the laundry. Robots also are used to automate prostate surgery and fill prescriptions in pharmacies.
“Technology is always creating jobs and destroying jobs but right now the pace is accelerating,” says Brynjolfsson. “As a consequence, we are not creating jobs at the pace we need.”
The episode also introduces former MIT professor Rodney Brooks, in his new startup, Rethink Robotics, who contributing to the revival of manufacturing—with robots.
The 13-minute segment is followed by another featuring the faculty: Helping humans stay ahead of the curve.