This is an interesting article about a new breakthrough in easy-to-use industrial robots.

The author correctly calls out the possible threat to workers doing the jobs today this robot might do in the future.  But he and his commenters miss much and get much wrong.

They brush on, but largely miss, that we’ve priced our people out of industrial work with our kowtowing to unions and government’s imposing of regulations that are easily believed by the voting public to be free.  Regulations — about everything from bike helmets to car seats to what schoolkids have to provide to the teacher for the classroom — have made having kids hugely more expensive, resulting in fewer kids.  Similarly, layers upon layers of laws and regulations about what workers get in addition to their pay have made them ridiculously expensive, particularly for low-skilled industrial labor.  So you can still find wholly manual consumer goods packaging operations here and there, you won’t find them in any high-volume low-margin application.  And it gets easier and easier to justify simple automation even for those applications, since regulations are only ever added, never taken away.

“It takes significant resources for a company to set up a work environment for a robot,” saysJulie Shah, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, who studies the role of robots in manufacturing. “It requires suppliers providing materials in a certain way, it requires designing the whole factory infrastructure, and it requires caging the robot. If you need to reprogram these robots, it often takes special expertise or external consultants.”

Professor Shah is correct.  So what?  The high cost of workers make the challenges she lists minor hurdles to higher productivity through automation.  Special expertise, factory redesign, safety measures — those costs are easily justified by the savings of shedding overpriced workers.

Other experts agree that robots like Baxter could improve U.S. employment prospects in the long term. Willy Shih, a former IBM and Kodak executive who studies the relationship between manufacturing and innovation as a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, says manufacturing work moved to China partly because it was easier to use humans than to make automation more flexible. Baxter could change that calculation. “To the extent that they can reduce the setup overhead for changing over a line or something, then that becomes really interesting,” he says. “Anything that improves flexibility, that’s a huge deal.”

I hate to be snide (no, actually, I love to be snide, so I’ll take great pleasure in this).  But I’m not sure I’d be taking the perspective of someone who’s a former IBM and Kodak executive all that seriously.  And Shih misses the point entirely.  We moved work to China because it was cheaper to do so. We’ll replace the Chinese with robots for the same reason.  Regardless, it eliminates the manual labor of American workers, probably for good.  And no, robots won’t improve US employment prospects.  They’ll improve the prospects for skilled programmers and servicemen, but the need for those folks will be limited and of short duration — especially as robots become easier to program and more reliable.

Some fear that overcoming those obstacles could cost human jobs. But Brooks doesn’t agree. He says Baxter is designed to make human workers more efficient, not to replace them. “An electric drill makes a home contractor more productive,” he says. “Should we ban electric drills so there are more jobs for home contractors? You ask any home contractor that.”

More foolishness.  A power drill means you need fewer contractors to build the house.  A robot means you need fewer — and maybe no — manual laborers to build a car, make cereal, machine rifle barrels, and on and on and on.

He remembers marveling at the fact that so much electronics manufacturing was still done by hand and how much of this kind of manufacturing had moved to low-wage economies in Asia. “I thought, ‘Are we going to be doing this in 500 years—still chasing cheap labor? There’s got to be a different way,'” he says.

I like the notion.  But what happens to the displaced manual laborers?  They don’t go home and live the lives of the idle classes in The Time Machine or Zardoz.  They go home and go on welfare and take drugs and commit crimes.  The notion that government can price people out of manual labor and have no social repercussions is a colossally stupid one indeed.