Where Is the Luddite Movement in Light of the Robotic Revolution?

May 15, 2019
by Bob Adelmann

In 1779, Ned Ludd, an apprentice hand weaver, smashed two stocking frames because of his fear that the improved machinery would put him out of a job. The resistance to automation began in Nottingham, England, and became widespread in the early 1800s. Over time, its attractiveness waned thanks both to government intervention and the awareness that lowering the cost of textiles through automation benefited everyone wearing clothes.

Ned would be astonished at the automation taking place in the U.S. today. Amazon is quietly installing machines called CartonWraps and SmartPacs in its never-ending quest to serve its customers more quickly at lower cost. In busy warehouses serving Seattle, Frankfurt, Milan, Amsterdam, and Manchester, the company is taking the tiring work employees were doing – each spending up to 10 hours a day taking products and building shipping boxes to fit them for shipping – and giving it to robots.

The robots work four times faster than humans – packing up to 700 products in an hour – allowing the people who were doing this work to move on to more interesting and higher paid work. The CartonWrap machine, for instance, uses its 3D scanner to measure the product coming down the conveyor belt and then build the box to the exact size for shipping. Likewise the SmartPacs create envelopes custom-fitted for books and small flat items. The savings are so substantial that the cost of each machine – more than $1 million – is amortized in less than two years.

An Amazon spokesman makes clear that the company isn’t doing this to replace its human workers: “We are piloting this new technology with the goal of increasing safety, speeding up delivery times [to our customers], and adding efficiency across our network…. We expect the efficiency savings will be reinvested in new services for customers where new jobs will continue to be created.”

Its pilot program is expected to be rolled out to more than two dozen other fulfillment centers in the next few years.

Robots are everywhere. Office tasks such as double-checking payroll figures, responding to customer and client emails, completing regulatory paperwork, compiling and sharing notes from sales meetings, and making reservations for a business lunch, are increasingly being done by smarter and smarter robots.

Hospital robots –a mini-fridge on wheels – zip up and down hallways delivering pills and meals to patients while ferrying specimens and medical supplies to various labs. Some even help with surgeries, stabilizing a surgeon’s instruments during surgery and delivering instruments when needed. Nearly commonplace are the offsite robots that assist a surgeon during prostatectomies: the surgeon sits in a room next to the operating room, using big screens and robotics to direct his hands and fingers to perform tiny incisions on his patient.


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Other hospital robots are beginning to serve as caregivers, checking on a recovering patient’s wellbeing and vital signs while cleaning the room and assisting him or her to get out of bed and into the bathroom.

There are dental robots doing teeth whitening and cleaning. There are underground robots working in the mining industry, monitoring environmental conditions, and exploring for minerals. They even work under water, mapping flooded passages and revealing dangerous or poisonous environments.

There are “co-robots” that work alongside human workers, using different skill sets. As Hao Zhang, a computer scientist at the Colorado School of Mines, expressed it: “People and robots have different skill sets, and we need both.”

Robots are increasingly being used for search and rescue operations that would otherwise put first responders in mortal danger. There are underseas robots exploring wrecks and retrieving lost valuables and cargoes.

One company, Automation Anywhere, has already shipped more than three million of its custom robots to its customers. It has lots of competition as the demand for such machines continues to grow.

Are these robots putting jobs in jeopardy? Is the Luddite movement about to be resurrected? At present, the economy is absorbing every worker who wants a job, and then some. There are currently 7½ million job openings and only 6¼ million people who are unemployed. The record low unemployment rate is evidence that someone who is being displaced, or might be, has plenty of opportunity to work elsewhere, often at higher wages. But most companies, like Amazon, are loathe to let someone go whose position has been displaced by a robot. They provide other opportunities for him or her in order to avoid the expense of finding, hiring, and training a new employee.

As a result, there is no evidence of a resurgence of the Luddite movement to destroy the robots that are destroying jobs. Instead, robots are being welcomed, or at least accepted, as ways to perform menial tasks more efficiently while freeing workers to put their time and skills to better use.

Ned Ludd would be astonished at how much automation has improved the standard of living across the world. Thanks to the robotic revolution, the cost of living is steadily being reduced in nearly every area of the economy across the globe.

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Sources:

History of Luddite movement

Reuters: Exclusive: Amazon rolls out machines that pack orders and replace jobs

The Wall Street Journal: Automating Workplace Tasks Can Backfire if Employees Shun the Technology

PCMag.com: Amazon’s New Robots Pack 700 Boxes Per Hour

Fast Company: Robots are coming to a hospital near you

EOS.org: Underground Robots: How Robotics Is Changing the Mining Industry

Background on Robotics

Unemployment vs. Job Openings

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