Faculty on 60 Minutes: Robots and Job Growth?

by Nancy DuVergne Smith on January 22, 2013

in Engineering, In the News, Modern Geekhood

MIT Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee say technology both creates and destroys jobs.

MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee say technology both creates and destroys jobs.

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.

Warehouse robots, pictured here in orange, can quickly move a stack of merchandise to a packing station and then scoot under stacked shelving to find the next load.

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.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Todd Gregory January 22, 2013 at 11:07 am

I see shows on TV that report about the use of robots and how they have made there companies much more profitable (KIA) . If the use of robotic technologies is going to increase the companies bottom line they will be used . You can not stop progress is an old saying that is absolutely true in this case . This is an example were technology wins hands down . Jobs will be lost due to the use of robotics ! The only way that people can compete in the work place with them is to learn how to program them . There are other technologies that could completely change our lives in a positive way if we use them . They are not being used because they will effect some companies bottom line in a negative way . I guess that at the end of the day every thing is about the dollar . I do not make the rules that we live by but I like every body else must live by them too . Todd G.

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