[This article was published in the Winter 2007 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies,  pp. 397-420.]



Robotics: a Route to the Survival of the Advanced Societies?


Dwight D. Murphey

Wichita State University, retired 


            The world’s more advanced economies and their societies are facing crises posed by the competition of vast pools of low-wage foreign labor and by the aging of their populations.  Globalization has caused low-wage foreign labor, some of it of excellent quality, to come into direct competition with the firms and workers within the advanced economies through imports, offshore production, outsourcing and immigration.  The result for many individuals and firms within the developed societies is growing economic displacement, a struggle for economic survival, and downward pressure on salaries, wages and living standards.  At the same time, the populations in the developed societies are growing older, raising the question of how an ever-growing number of the elderly are to get by in a time, soon to come, when there will be relatively few working-age adults.  Further, the West faces demographic swamping by the waves of immigration, both legal and illegal.  Solutions for all of these problems are hard to come by, but one that is receiving increasing attention is for the advanced economies to turn their reliance primarily to their capital.  They can do this by accelerating their development of non-labor-intensive technologies and business processes.  The growth of robotics looms large as perhaps the preeminent future form of such a technology—one with far-reaching social implications.

Key Words: Robotics, labor-saving technology, low-wage labor, demographic swamping, aging of populations, economic displacement, social implications of technology.

In Thomas Friedman’s phrase, the world has “become flat.”  The advance of modern communications and transportation and the international flow of capital have put the world’s enormous pools of low-pay workers right “on the doorstep,” so to speak, of the advanced economies.  Imported goods made cheaply, the use of outsourcing and offshore production, and a long-continuing flood of immigrants from throughout the world have made it difficult for firms to survive if they don’t themselves join the rush toward low-cost labor.  For their part, individual workers are pressed into increasing competition with that labor, which commands neither the salaries nor benefits that workers in the advanced economies have so long received. During all of this, an important palliative is that the low-cost goods keep inflation in check for items they include and provide a boon to consumers, even as the central bank’s policy of increasing the quantity of money stimulates the stock market.  The most salient fact about it is that it is no longer labor that receives significant remuneration, but capital, since it is capital that is able to harness the global pool of low-cost labor.

At the same time, the populations of the advanced societies are growing older and are shrinking (if immigration is not counted) because of below-replacement birth rates.  Unless a society allows the entrance of large numbers of immigrants, there is the looming question of “who will do the work that will support a largely elderly population?”  In the absence of an alternative, this would point toward even further immigration.

Moreover, the immigration, amounting to a flood, poses a virtual certainty of demographic swamping that over time will transform the societies of the West (which are the ones that permit and often invite the influx) beyond recognition.  This amounts to an existential crisis for the West, which will within a historically short time cease to exist as such.

These crises may seem insoluble (except to many adherents of a now conventionally-held reductionist free market ideology to whom everything is acceptable if it arises out of market transactions).  One prominent analyst, speaking in the context of the threat that all of this poses to Europe’s “social safety net,” has written that Europe has “three options: trillions of dollars in new tax revenues must be found; European women must begin bearing two and three times as many babies; or Europe must import millions of workers each year.  These are the stark choices the Old Continent faces.”[1]  But our point in this article is that this overlooks a force of incalculable potential, one that will build on scientific and technological trends of long standing: for capital to turn increasingly not toward low-cost labor but toward non-labor-intensive technology. 

Labor-saving processes have been developing over thousands of years.  The Neolithic Revolution ten thousand years ago was earthshaking when it saw societies turn away from hunting/gathering and toward the in-place cultivation of crops and domestication of animals.  Today, people living in the developed economies are so used to labor-saving technology that they hardly think of it in those terms.  In the home, they use, among other things, dishwashers, disposals, electric can openers and mixers, clothes washers and driers, and central heating and air conditioning.  In business, there are barcodes on consumer items, self-checkout machines in grocery stores, self-service gasoline pumps, telephone answering systems, palletization, containerization, harvesters that replace plowing—and many others.

It is by now quite archaic, however, simply to point to these customary devices.  An interplay of science, technology, capital and above-all the computer has for several decades been revolutionizing human productivity, shifting ever more toward non-labor-intensive processes.  Although this shift has been occurring rapidly over several years, what is most significant is that it is just in its infancy, with its potential hardly having been tapped.  As we will see, several factors have slowed its progress, while several others, potentially far more powerful, militate toward its acceleration.

In what follows, we will discuss robotics itself, giving a brief history, a summary of its current and potential uses, and a look at the factors affecting its growth.  Then we will see how robotics and other labor-saving processes will help address the economic and social issues mentioned above (and will do so in a manner acceptable to free-market adherents).  Finally, we will gain some glimpse into how different a world of high productivity but little human labor will be from the world we now live in.  It will have untold social, political and economic implications.


Robotics as a Rapidly Increasing Presence

                        What is a “robot”?  The International Standards Organization (ISO), a non-governmental organization with representatives from 157 countries, has defined an industrial robot as “an automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multipurpose manipulator programmable in three or more axes.”  Although most people know generally what a robot is, the value of this definition is that it draws attention to the attributes of automation, flexibility and multi-tasking.  It is those attributes that give robots their immense potential for diverse uses.

                        A brief history of robotics.  Westinghouse, located in Mansfield, Ohio, created eight robots during the 1930s, starting in 1931.  These included Elektro, a “human simulation” seven feet tall, that was displayed at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.  Elektro is said to have been “the first true robot ever built in the United States.”[2]  It may now be seen in the Mansfield Memorial Museum.

                        George Devol applied for the first robotic patents in 1954.  He and Joseph Engelberger established Unimation in 1956 as the first firm to manufacture robots.  By 1959, they had constructed a robotic prototype.  Automobile manufacturers were quick to get into the industrial use of robotics, with General Motors starting as early as 1961.  Advances came when in 1969 Stanford University’s Victor Sheinman designed the “Stanford arm,” and later the “MIT arm.”

                        The early robots were hydraulic, but by “the early 1980s… builders began introducing models using servomotors and microprocessor-based controllers.”[3]  This led to a rapid increase in the use of robots by the late 1970s, with a number of companies, including some large Japanese conglomerates, entering the field.  By the mid-1980s there was a robotics “boom.”  An illustration of the growing variety of uses is that at that time Pepperidge Farms began using robots to handle cookies, eliminating the repetitive-motion injuries suffered by human workers.  As is typical during the first wave of development of a new technology, the initial competition during the boom forced many companies out of business, in this case leaving mostly Japanese companies. 

                        From that point forward, the onrush of computerization and technology makes a simple chronology next to impossible.  (It reminds the author of what happened in surgery.  Until World War I, a history of surgery can follow the individual developments.  But since that time the innovations have been so prolific that the trail branches off in many directions.)  New technologies for robots have now come to include “tool changers, machine vision, force feedback, [and] integrated software application packages.”[4]  Cameras are used by robots either to allow human guidance or to allow the robot itself to view products and to reposition itself.  To continue our Pepperidge Farm illustration, that firm now uses over a hundred robots that feature “flexible automation” for reprogramming robots as they move from one task to another. 

                        Robotic use set a record in 1999, but was slowed by the economic downturn at the turn of the century, bouncing back strongly by 2004, at which time 137,000 robots were in use in the United States and Canada.  Automobile manufacturers still employed 50 to 60 percent of the robots at that time, but other industries were coming in rapidly.  Even now, it is perhaps an understatement to say that “we are [still] in the early stages of the robot business.”[5]  A new field called “mechatronics” is emerging, said to be “an interdisciplinary area that combines mechanical engineering with electrical engineering, computer science and information systems.”[6]   As might be expected, universities and research centers in many countries are actively involved.  One of the major recent advances in computer usage comes through “networking,” linking many individual computers together to produce enormous computing power.  It is not surprising, then, that South Korea is working on networked robots that form teams.  Current management theory takes all of this into account when it calls for firms’ making “process innovation an equal partner with product development.”[7]

                        The specifics of the current situation enhance the picture of a looming giant:

                        In 2004, Japan adopted a new industrial strategy, which includes research into and the commercialization of robotics.  In popular Japanese culture robots are personalized into virtual human beings—heroes and partners—and this points toward an intimate use of them for housekeeping and other day-to-day purposes, although housekeeping robots are still in the developmental stage.[8]  Japan has tied into the decision U.S. President George W. Bush announced in 2004 to join with others in building a lunar base in preparation for the human exploration of Mars.  This base is projected for the year 2020.  Japan supplements this with a 20-year plan, called “JAXA Vision 2025,” that calls for the use of advanced humanoid robots at the base, where they will perform such tasks as telescope-building and the mining of minerals.[9]

                        South Korea is one of the world’s most advanced high-tech societies.  Although it is behind Japan in industrial robots, it, too, “has identified robotics as a key economic strategy,” and looks ahead especially to each household’s using domestic service robots by 2010 (or 2015, depending on the source of the prediction).  It has brought together 30-plus companies and over a thousand scientists for the effort, into which it is investing large sums. Work is planned to start in 2009 on building “Robot Land,” an industrial city centered on robotics.[10]

                        Industrial robotics is expanding rapidly in Denmark, with 4,000 now in use.  The current emphasis is on employing robots for “low-volume, high mix operations” as well as for mass production.  This is feasible now that robots have become increasingly flexible.[11]

                        In the United Kingdom, the food-and-drink industry has seen ahead to growing competition within the next decade from Eastern Europe, where workers’ pay is just a third of what it is in the U.K.  Technology has extended the shelf-life (and hence transportability) of ready-made meals.  We are told that “according to two recent food industry meetings, robots will be the saviours of the UK food industry—if only it would wake up to what is happening to it.”  When the concern was first voiced in 2004, only three percent of the U.K.’s sale of robots was to that industry.  The industry was seen to have had less than a ten-year window of opportunity “to develop standard off-the-shelf machines specifically for the food industry that can get down and dirty on the processing line.”[12]

                        As of March 2006, Japan was far ahead in the worldwide use of robotics, with 46 percent.  The United States followed with 17.2%, Europe with 16.1%, Asia (not counting Japan) with 18.5%.  All others made up the remaining 2.2%.[13]

                        A major step toward the global use of robotics came in late 2006 when Microsoft released its “Microsoft Robotics Studio,” a “new Windows-based development environment for creating robotic software for a wide variety of hardware platforms.”   This will address a “persistent challenge,” which “has been the lack of a common development platform.”  Microsoft is allied with a Japanese company in creating programming software, and has invited other  companies to join in “a new third-party partner program.”  Thirty companies signed up almost immediately.[14]

                        Uses—now and prospective.  The most tangible feel for the role robotics is coming to play comes when we see the uses to which they are being put and that are planned for the near future.

                        Automobile manufacture and other industrial uses.  The extensive uses here include parts manufacture and assembly, handling hazardous or heavy materials, spraying chemicals or paints, parts inspection, storing finished parts, and cutting and polishing parts.  It is said that in industry “perhaps the most popular applications of robots” come in spot, arc and laser welding.  The electric/electronics industry, where they are employed in electronic assembly, has become second only to the automotive industry as a user of robots. The semiconductor industry especially needs a “clean room environment.”  Robots are most suitable for this because they “don’t breath, sneeze, or have dandruff.”[15]  An industry magazine, American Machinist, says that in industry “the simplest forms of automation are automatic tool changing and automatic pallet changing… But, to catapult machine utilization… shops must take the next step in automation—multiple pallet systems… For example, an 8-pallet system could accommodate eight or more different jobs… Essentially, these systems ramp up machine utilization without requiring a shop to increase its labor resources.”  The magazine speaks in terms of “pallet-management systems with a cell controller.”  It is called “lights-out manufacturing” when human beings no longer need be present to see what is going on.[16]

                        Agriculture.  In an article “We Need New Technology, Not Cheap Labor,” James Pinkerton of the New America Foundation tells how “in agriculture, the big breakthrough came in 1831, with the invention of the McCormick Reaper.  Mass-produced in Chicago, the reaper enables two men to cut as much grain in a day as a dozen of more men using traditional reaping hooks.”  The result of this and other technical developments has been that today “four-fifths of the farming in this country [the U.S.] is already done with machines.”  To see what further is being developed, he urges his readers to “go to the Web site of the University of Illinois and look up the robotics work of Prof. Tony Grift; he and his colleagues have built harvesting ‘agbots’ for as little as $150 each.  And that’s before mass production.”[17] 

                        In the United States, there was a conscious government decision in 1979 precisely not to substitute technology for what was seen by the Secretary of Agriculture as an “adequate and willing work force.”  This was followed by the 1986 amnesty of three million illegal immigrants, of which more than a million were employed in agriculture.  Eduardo Porter of the New York Times tells us that “farmers’ investments in labor saving technology all but froze.” More recently, however, foreign competition is forcing the Florida orange industry, for one, to seek a sharp growth in productivity.  The late Sam Francis reported in 2004 how growers “are now desperately trying to deploy mechanized ‘canopy shakers’ that rake some 35,000 oranges out of a tree in 15 minutes.  It would take four workers all day to do that.”[18]  An industry’s need for such technology is highlighted not just by the imperative to out-perform low-cost labor, but by the fact that its competitors in other countries have by now for several years been moving toward advanced technology.  The Italian National Project on Robotics, for example, began work in 1994 on a stereo-vision-driven mobile robot to harvest asparagus.[19]  University researchers in Japan report that “research on tele-robotics for agriculture has been carried out since 2001 by our research group in order to realize robots for agricultural use.”  The robot can discriminate which fruits are ripe, and then harvest those.[20]

                        Looking ahead to the future, John K. Schueller of the University of Florida foresees that in this century “every commodity will be tracked in time and space from the field’s fertility to the consumer’s fork.  Intelligent machines will do what they think best for each plant without human intervention… The technologies making this possible include advances in sensors, computing, and actuation.”[21]

                        Construction.  Robotics has been slow coming to construction, partly because of low-cost labor and partly because of the “unstructured, dynamic nature of the construction site.”  There is, however, an increasing use of modular components, which can be set in place at the construction site.  The modules are themselves subject to automated prefabrication.

                        Meat processing.  Meat stacking and de-stacking is labor-intensive.  The industry has for the most part addressed this with low-cost labor.  In October 2006, though, KUKA Robotics Corporation, one of the world’s largest makers of industrial robots, became the robotics supplier to AMF Automation Technologies for AMF’s new meat distribution system in which a palletizing robot will be used to handle the stacking and de-stacking.[22]  New Zealand got into something similar six years earlier with “the first robotic technology for meat processing that combines manual operations with automated, robot-assisted sections and fully robotic operations, including a machine vision system that can locate large pieces of carcass, grasp individual pieces with a robot-mounted gripper, and move the pieces to the boning room for further processing.”[23]

                        Medical.  A part of the South Korean government’s drive to put South Korea on the cutting edge of robotics involves increasing its use in medicine.  BBC News recently announced that “a recent [South Korean] government report forecast that robots would routinely carry out surgery by 2018.”[24]

                        Household.  We have seen how South Korea aspires to have robots at work in each home within the next decade.  Similarly, the Web site “Trends in Japan” reports that robots “are appearing one after the other” that will “take care of household chores or watch the home while residents are away.”  It goes on to say that “the development of robots that can assist people with everyday activities—something that holds promise in an aging society—is continuing.”  One of the innovations includes “powered suits” that can “support disabled or elderly individuals in their physical activities.”[25]  Needless to say, much domestic work is now being done by illegal immigrants.

                        So, too, is lawn care.  But an article in August 2007 says that “it appears that with the crackdown on illegal aliens many people are needing to mow their own lawns, so what we need now is a reliable robotic lawnmower that uses hover technology to float across the lawn, using hydro-craft technologies while it cuts it.  How far away are such realities?  Well there are currently several models capable of doing this now.”  The prospects depend, the article says, on how much low-cost labor becomes unavailable and how readily the cost of the robots can be brought down, especially through mass production.[26]   We can suppose that the first users will be golf courses, parks, homeowners’ associations, and commercial properties.

                        Military.  By May 2007, the U.S. Army was using robotic gunships, and the next month it was announced that Israel is using robotic snipers on the Gaza border.  It isn’t surprising that South Korea has immediate plans to have machinegun-armed robotic sentries on duty along the DMZ (the demilitarized zone separating it from North Korea).  Even though as stationary light-machinegun posts they can be knocked out rather quickly by tanks, artillery and airpower, they are seen as a way to allow a more efficient use of army personnel and to serve as a “tripwire” in case  North Korea invades.[27]

                        The presence of landmines in many of the world’s past and present war zones is internationally recognized as a major problem.  Their discovery and removal is, of course, extremely hazardous. Trends in Japan reported in mid-2002 that “Japanese universities and research institutes have been actively looking into robotics as a solution.”[28]

                        Undersea exploration.  We are reminded that not all developments in robotics are new or prospective.  As long ago as 1990, The New York Times reported that “a number of small technical advances in devising undersea robots have combined to make vast reaches of the ocean floor accessible to exploration… The gains have enabled salvagers to locate and recover a fascinating array of material and treasure from sunken ships, planes, missiles, submarines and other artifacts lost at sea over the ages.”  Even then, there was routine use of “complex robots that have computer ‘brains,’ lights, television cameras, sonar-mapping systems, manipulator arms and long tethers.”  The U.S. Navy pioneered the use of undersea robots in the early 1960s.  “By 1966, the robot swam into the limelight when it was used to recover a hydrogen bomb that had been accidentally dropped into 2,310 feet of water off Spain.”[29]  

                        Interacting with humans.  Robots that are given human form are dubbed “humanoids.”  As a part of its recent robotics initiative to develop a common programming platform, Microsoft teamed up with Tmsuk, a Japanese humanoid manufacturer, in September 2007.  The president of Tmsuk said “we’ve developed various sorts of robots with different partners, but right now we can’t adopt one technology used in robot A to robot B.  If this Microsoft software comes to be used by many developers, then technological advances in robotics will dramatically accelerate.”  An article in Robo Space says that “Japan’s most famous humanoid is ASIMO, which Honda Motor Co. gave birth to in 2000.  ASIMO has danced and dined with dignitaries as a Japanese ambassador of sorts and has been put to use as a coffee-serving office receptionist.”[30]   In South Korea, a robotics design engineer and his bride were married in June 2007 with a robot as the master of ceremonies and other robots as performers and as ushers to guide guests to their seats.[31]  A robot manufacturer in that same country has produced robotic dogs as household pets.  The dogs, which resemble bull terriers, understand up to 100 words, respond to commands, and show emotion when petted.[32]

                        Most such uses are still prospective.  The report on “Trends in the Japanese Robotics Industry” in March 2006 said that “at this point, companies are still putting more effort into technical development than market development.  While interactive robots are increasing in number, they need further development before being ready to market.”[33]

                        For sheep shearing, snowplowing, disaster relief and road repair.  There seems little limit to what the human imagination can envision by way of uses for robots.  We will mention just a few more:

                        In Australia, the Curtin University of Technology reports that “in the case of the sheep shearing robot, productivity of sheep stations can be increased, with fully automated sheep shearing plants taking over from teams of shearers.  After all, robots do not get tired, and don’t require lodging, feeding or backpay!... The Australian Wool Corporation is continuing its research….”[34]     

            Almost seven years of research by five organizations in Niigata, Japan, have produced Yuki-taro, an autonomous snowplow robot “armed with GPS and two video cameras embedded in its eyes.”  [This is the first time here we have noticed the use of GPS.]  Once the robot takes in snow, it “compresses the snow into hard blocks… that can then be stacked and stored until summer, when they can be used as an alternative source of refrigeration or cooling.”[35]

                        After an earthquake or other natural disaster, searching for survivors and clearing rubble are extremely hazardous and must be done quickly.  Just as with landmine removal, robots would seem ideal for the purpose.  It is no surprise that “a disaster relief robot was put to use clearing rubble after a powerful earthquake hit central Japan in July” 2007.[36]  The team at the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at the University of South Florida in the United States has helped at the World Trade Center site after Sept. 11, 2001, and at other disasters.[37]

                          It is now common in the United States to come upon groups of Spanish-speaking workers who are employed constructing or repairing roads and highways.  Oddly, in light of the prospect that these workers will gradually be displaced from their jobs, an article in the Daily Nebraskan says “road construction crews may be thanking UNL [University of Nebraska-Lincoln] students in the future.”  It says that “two robots developed [at the University] may make road repair easier and more efficient.”  The robots that have been created may “be used to paint lines or seal cracks in a road,” and might even “function as a ‘general’ to an ‘army’ of barrel robots,” moving a large number of construction barrels simultaneously to keep abreast of the work.[38]  (The ordinary motorist takes it for granted, but the moving of barrels is said to be a time-consuming, labor-intensive task.)  We can well suppose that road-construction uses will eventually go far beyond these.

                        Factors affecting the growth of robotics and other labor-saving technology.  In historic perspective, today’s movement into new technologies is more rapid than ever before in human history.  Just the same, a number of factors slow the growth.

                        Perhaps the most obvious of these is the presence of the vast pools of low-cost labor in the global economy.  (It is ironic that international business sees the cheap labor as a necessary resource while that very resource is standing in the way of the next leap in technology and productivity.)  James Pinkerton writes, in the context of American agriculture, that “so long as labor is cheap, there’s no incentive for food producers to invest in productivity-improving technology.”[39] Sam Francis has commented on how “the cheap labor that mass immigration provides has helped keep American farm technology in the Dark Ages.”[40]

                        During the period of initial development, and until markets can be created that will support mass production, the acquisition and deployment cost of industrial robots is higher than many potential users can afford.  One Web site pictures a six-axis robot and tells us that it “costs about $60,000.  What I find interesting,” the author says, “is that deploying the robot costs another $200,000.  Thus, the cost of the robot itself is just a fraction of the cost of the total system.  The tools the robot uses combined with the cost of programming the robot form the major percentage of the cost.”[41]  Users accordingly look at the “payback period,” the length of time it will take for the savings to match and exceed the costs.  In the context of the food industry, one professor says “payback periods of two to three years are not good enough… Paybacks have to be between one to two years.”[42] It is not likely that this will prove a serious impediment for long, since costs continue to fall, as they do with any new technology.  We have noted that there was a robotics boom in the late 1980s.  We are told that by that time “a critical mass of robots had gone to work in a variety of industries, which translated to lower robot prices…[T]he number of companies that could afford them grew significantly, which quickly spurred more development.”[43]

                        We have seen that much of the innovation is now coming from such countries as Japan and South Korea, not from the United States or Europe.  Economist Paul Craig Roberts often writes about the deindustrialization of the American economy, and observes that “when manufacturing moves abroad, engineering follows.  R&D follows engineering, and innovation follows R&D.  The entire economy drains away.”  Most tellingly, he warns that “the notion that the United States can lose everything else but hold on to innovation is absurd.”  It is a mistake, he says, for the Bush administration and Congress to believe that “the United States can keep its edge in science and technology if the federal government spends $9 billion a year to ‘fund innovative, big-payoff ideas’ that have the potential to transform the U.S. economy.”  Roberts argues that the pressure of low-cost labor will undercut even such “big-payoff ideas” if that pressure is permitted to continue.[44]   For the United States and other western economies, his point is a pivotal one, since it raises the question of whether they are retaining the wherewithal to compete in the world economy of the near future.  The massive and long-continuing trade deficits involve a trading of capital for consumer goods, a telling fact in a world where the return will increasingly be to capital and not to labor.

                        The countries that insulate themselves from low-cost labor place themselves in a position to emphasize technology.  In fact, they find such an emphasis essential, given their aging populations and declining birth rates. 

                        A number of factors militate in favor of the increasing use of labor-saving automation.   One of these, as we have seen, is the imperative many industries and firms, like the Florida orange-growing industry and the food industry in the United Kingdom, feel to use technology as a way to survive.  This is a widespread phenomenon, so much so that FANUC Robotics, the world’s largest manufacturer of industrial robots, has started a “Save Your Factory” initiative to stress the value of labor-saving technology over outsourcing to low-cost-labor areas overseas.[45]  One source on industrial robotics reports that “many companies in the United States and Canada have been forced to close in such areas as die casting and injection molding because they could not compete with foreign firms.  The introduction of robotics into this process has allowed the same companies to remain viable.”[46]  [It hasn’t escaped us that the statement is itself contradictory when it says the same companies have “been forced to close” and yet “remain viable.”  But we understand the point.]   Charles Bates in the American Machinist writes that “shops in high-mix, low-volume production environments no longer can expect to compete simply by running lines of stand alone machining centers with an operator at each one.”[47]

                        The simultaneous labor shortage and increased demand for services caused by the aging of populations in the advanced economies, combined with the long-declining birthrate, will spur the development of robotics.  After pointing out that “the big bubble of ‘Baby Boomers’ will [soon] begin to retire,” Dan McClenathen, president of Advanced Machines, Inc., writes that “we are standing on the edge of a forced transition to a robot-manufacturing arena.  Any company that chooses to ignore the signs to heavily introduce robots into their plants to cover the future labor shortage may go out of business.”[48]

                        McClenathen also points to the declining willingness of younger American workers to do factory work in which they work at an assembly line.  “They want to work in offices or on computers.”

                        Unless there is recourse to low-cost foreign labor with little remuneration and few benefits, the cost of human employees is high.  One author points to “the cost of ‘maintenance’” involved, citing “lost production due to lunch and breaks, the cost of lunch room and supplies, protective clothing and safety devices, parking lots, insurance, workers compensation, retirement and 401K contributions, lost time due to injuries, vacations, training and retraining, and the cost of inconsistent and unpredictable production.”  By comparison, “most robot automation projects have a payback of 2 years or less.  After that initial investment, you gain all the benefits of a 30-cent per hour worker.”[49]

                        In the United States in particular, there has been a public backlash against the influx of illegal immigrants, although the divisions that exist within American society about the issue make its resolution far from clear.  If a substantial reduction of the immigration occurs, the demand for labor-saving technology will increase enormously in all areas now using immigrant labor.  (An important incidental feature is that consumer costs are predictably going to rise sharply in the absence of cheaply-made goods.  Labor-saving technology will need to come in quickly to offset that.)


A Route to Survival in a Global Economy?

                        At the beginning of this article, we pointed to three crises facing the advanced societies: economic displacement, deindustrialization, and the undercutting of jobs and wages; the demographic swamping from mass immigration; and the decline and aging of native populations.  We left any detail about these to this later point in the article.  Even here, however, there seems  little reason to discuss them exhaustively, since each receives considerable attention independently.  Our purpose will be simply to recreate a feel for their reality.

                        Deindustrialization; displacement of industries and workers.  One of the best descriptions of what is happening comes from Doug Bartholomew, writing in IndustryWeek.com.  He says “it’s no secret there’s a civil war going on out there.  The U.S. manufacturing landscape is being ripped apart by a series of attacks on its traditional strongholds that has left few industries intact.  Already tens of thousands of small and midsized manufacturers have gone under.  Those that remain are struggling.  Whole industries such as furniture, shoes, textiles and many computer components—once hallmarks of American ingenuity, productivity and competitiveness—have virtually disappeared, the victims of the rapid emergence of easily accessible low-cost labor overseas.”  He points out that “only a single major machine-tool manufacturer—Haas Automation of Oxnard, Calif.—is left in the U.S. out of a once vibrant, thriving and innovative industry.”  Bartholomew adds that small manufacturers have been hit the hardest so far, while the large multinational companies often encourage the trade policies that have allowed the hollowing-out.  Those big companies, themselves pressed by global competition, have often insisted upon “relentless price-cutting” by their smaller suppliers, causing many to fail.  This has created a “schism… within the membership of the… National Association of Manufacturers.”[50]

                        This marks a hard-to-recapture loss to the economic system.  Dave Frengel of Penn United Technology points out that “the people and the technologies to make some of these products are being lost.  To get an industry… back can take 10 to 15 years.  Precision tooling, for example, is difficult to make, and the innovation and creative manufacturing culture is all being lost.  It’s a huge cost, a loss that is very hard to recover from.”[51]

                        The decimation of industry has been accompanied by a parallel impact on workers.  The economist Paul Craig Roberts looks at the employment reports and tells us that “almost all the net new U.S. jobs in the 21st century have been in domestic services.”  In late 2006 he wrote that “since [George W.] Bush took office, the United States has lost 3 million manufacturing jobs.”  The personal devastation caused by this is described when he says that “I receive a constant stream of emails from unemployed and underemployed engineers with many years of experience and advanced degrees.  Many have been out of work for years.  They describe the movement of their jobs offshore or their replacement by foreigners brought in on work visas… Some are now working in sawmills, others in Home Depot, and others are attempting to eke out a living as consultants.  Many describe lost homes, broken marriages, even imprisonment for inability to make child-support payments.”[52]

                        Unemployment, underemployment and part-time employment strike hard at those affected.  The American work force in general, meanwhile, has experienced a fall in real wages.  Writing in September 2007, Roberts says “the latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the real wages and salaries of U.S. civilian workers are below those of five years ago.”  A year earlier, he reported that “in the 21st century, real income growth has been limited to a few at the top.”  He says that “in the Sept. 15, 2005, Business Week, Michael Mandel compared starting salaries with those in 2001.  He found a 12.7 percent decline in computer science pay, a 12 percent decline in computer engineering pay and a 10.2 percent decline in electrical engineering pay.  Psychology majors experienced a 9.3 percent fall in starting salaries, marketing a 6.5 percent decline, business administration a 5.7 percent fall, and accounting majors were offered 2.3 percent less.”[53]

                        It would be a mistake to think that all of this is caused by the world pools of cheap labor.  Although it is the labor that is driving much of what happens in the global market, we have entered the computer age, and non-labor-intensive processes have continued to enhance productivity.  An October 2003 article in Fortune refers to a “stunning new report from Alliance Capital economist Joseph Carson showing it isn’t just the U.S. that’s losing factory jobs—it’s the whole planet… The global economy has been annihilating them.  Carson found that the world’s 20 largest economies lost 22 million manufacturing jobs from 1995 to 2002.  Even China, which is supposed to be where most of our factory jobs are going, lost 15 million jobs in that period, vs. America’s loss of just two million.”[54] 

                        Declining native populations and their advancing age.  Patrick Buchanan notes “the population crisis of the West.  “The baby boom that began in 1946 and ended in 1964 was the largest generation in U.S. history.  But it failed to reproduce itself.”[55]  Contraception, abortion, the majority of women working outside the home, an increased desire to enjoy life free of the burdens of children, and several other factors have all contributed to a below-replacement birthrate.  In his recent book The Last Days of Europe, historian Walter Laqueur cites statistics from the United Nations and the European Community to show the falling native population of Europe:

                                    Germany: now 82 million, to be 61 million by 2050 and 32 million by 2100.

                                    United Kingdom: 60 to 53 to 45.

                                    Italy: 57 to 37 to 15.

                                    Spain: 39 to 28 to 12.

                        In Eastern Europe, he says, by the year 2050 Ukraine will lose 43 percent of its population; Bulgaria 34 percent; Latvia and Lithuania 25-27 percent; the Russian Federation 22 percent; Croatia 20 percent, Hungary 18 percent, and the Czech Republic 17 percent.[56]

                        The aging of the native populations appears when he tells us that “for the first time in history there are more people aged over sixty than under twenty in major European countries.”[57]  Buchanan gives the figures: “In 2000, there were 494 million Europeans aged fifteen to sixty-five.  That will plunge to 365 million by 2050.  But the 107 million Europeans over sixty-five today will soar to 172 million.  In fifty years, the ratio of European young and middle-aged to seniors and elderly will fall from five to one to two to one.”[58]

                        The demographic invasion.  During the first five years after the turn of the century, eight million immigrants entered the United States, of which 3.7 million were illegal.  Buchanan says “our foreign-born population today [at 36 million] is almost equal to the 42 million who came over the three and a half centuries from 1607 to 1965.”[59]   CNN anchor Lou Dobbs reports that “each year an estimated twenty thousand illegal aliens cross our [the U.S.] border with Canada.  Each year as many as three million illegal aliens cross our border with Mexico.”  He says “no one… knows precisely how many illegal aliens are now living in this country,” and that “the estimates range from eleven million all the way up to twenty million.”[60]

                        A similar influx has taken place into Europe, much of it Muslim.  Walter Laqueur speaks of  “millions of new immigrants from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.”  He says of them that “unlike the earlier guest workers, they had no intention of returning to their homelands.  But many of them also had no desire to integrate into European societies….”  1.6 million Muslims, mostly from Bangladesh and Pakistan, live in Britain, where “some cities now have more mosques than churches” and where Africans commit four-fifths of the crime in the London Underground.  Turkey has been the source of 75 percent of the immigration into Germany, where “a parallel society has emerged,” bringing “ghettoization, re-Islamization, high youth unemployment, and failure in the educational system.”  The outer suburbs of Paris contain the largest number of Muslim immigrants to France.  Most are from Algeria and Morocco.  A yawning cultural gap is felt in many parts of Europe: a clash between French secularism, say, and a Muslim insistence on wearing the hijab; the “honor killing” of Turkish women if they choose to live like Germans; and the revulsion most Europeans feel toward female circumcision and forced marriages.[61]

                        Is labor-saving technology, including especially robotics, a solution?  Free-market economic theory is now almost universally accepted, most particularly at the top levels of world leadership.  That thinking has had little hesitation in accepting a global system of cheap-labor arbitrage, with competition for the least expensive production of goods and services.  Nor will it have any hesitation in continuing to move toward a much more thorough-going substitution of non-labor-intensive processes for that cheap labor, if that is the direction international business chooses to take.  The fact that this is so means that what would otherwise be a major ideological hurdle does not exist.

                        If the advanced economies move further into robotics and other such technologies, that will itself address the deindustrialization and hollowing-out we have noted by making their industry competitive both with cheap labor and other nations’ advanced technology.  They will be putting their capital to work rather than exporting it.

                        If the automation leads further toward vastly increased productivity, that will go far toward addressing the problem of an aging population.  It may very well be, then, that a relatively few number of younger people will be sufficient to provide the economic wherewithal to sustain a much older populace.  (We need to recall that the savings of the elderly, like all savings, are in essence claims upon the on-going production coming from the economy.  This is as true of accumulated investments as it is of the various features of the “safety net,” such as Social Security.)  There may be another way, too, that much-augmented productivity can reverse the world’s population issues.  If there is a causal relation between affluence and lowered birthrates, the falling rates may over time spread to the presently less developed nations, reversing the population explosion there.  Among other things, this will go far toward alleviating environmental dangers.

                        If an economy relies very largely on non-labor-intensive processes, that by its very nature reduces proportionally the demand for cheap labor through imports, outsourcing, offshore production and immigration.  Billions of people in the world will no doubt continue to desire to migrate from their condition of poverty to the affluence of the advanced economies, but the absence of jobs for them in those economies will serve as a major deterrent unless those societies choose to extend to them a sustaining array of support and social services.  There is reason to doubt that the advanced societies will be willing or able to make this latter choice, both because it will no longer profit large business and agricultural interests to bring in those millions and because the demand for such sustenance will be endless if left to itself.[62]  

                        Recent years has seen a distinct clash between global market orientation and each nation’s desire to retain its own cultural existence.  Labor-saving processes will certainly help the West, in particular, retain its identity as against the demographic swamping-out.


Earth-shaking Social, Cultural and Economic Implications

                        There are already enormous pockets of unemployment and underemployment in the world, even in the advanced economies.  Now, on top of it, we are seeing movement toward what Jeremy Rifkin has so aptly called “the end of work.”          This is nothing less than a revolution in human affairs.

                        A conventional response to this is that “since human wants are without limit, we will simply move to a new set of demands for production, and hence labor.”  This will certainly be true, up to a point.  It will require a large number of very bright people to develop and operate the technology.  Remembering, however, that those bright people will be on the far right end of the bell curve of intelligence, we know that we are left with hundreds of millions, indeed billions, of people who can benefit from the productivity but will have contributed little, if anything, to it.  It will be necessary that they somehow receive remuneration sufficient for them to receive a portion of the production.  This will be needed both because they will need a livelihood and because the production itself will grind to a halt if there are not masses of people to consume it.  (Just as with the production that came from the Industrial Revolution, the technology won’t be producing goods just for the rich, who are relatively few; it will mainly be turning out goods and services for the total population.  Now, however, the production will go far beyond that which we have been accustomed to seeing since the Industrial Revolution.)  It will be extremely unseemly if that remuneration will have to come from those many millions of peoples’ competing for largely frivolous work, anxious for a trickle-down from the owners of the technology.

                        If this sounds like the scenario socialist authors have for so long articulated about capitalism, with its “overproduction” and “under consumption,” it does.  The difference is in the timing.  Those socialist authors used those projections to damn an innovative, competitive system during the period when the expanding production gave rise to a ubiquitous middle class, whose work and creativity both built the economy and made it fully feasible for them to share in it.  The socialists used economic arguments to mask the alienated intelligentsia’s profound revulsion against virtually all aspects of that society.  It does not “prove them correct” for us to say that there is now, indeed, a looming question of how, in a relatively labor less context, massive production will be matched with everyone’s enjoyment of it.  There will be both the means and the need for a vast expansion of “the commons” within which people will receive goods and services they will not have “earned” through work.  At the same time, the most assured way of keeping the economic engine dynamic is to retain the competitiveness of a market, which can well be a global market.  This can be accomplished through competing firms, each of which has a large number of stockholders who possess diversified holdings.  Widely dispersed ownership in a competitive market can, under the new circumstances, retain the market economy while assuring it of customers and making its affluence available to them.  This is the concept of “a shared market economy.”[63]

                        To look ahead to all of this is to go only slightly beyond the imperatives we have discussed in this article: the need to address deindustrialization, aging and immigration.  Those issues do need to be addressed; and then, as they are, the incredible social, cultural and economic implications also need to be worked through.  The way this can be done is conceptually clear, but the road to it is strewn with difficult social, political and economic issues.       



[1]  Patrick J. Buchanan, The Death of the West (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002), p. 98.


[2]   From Roland Piquepaille’s Technology Trends, Feb. 10,. 2005, found at www.primidi.com.

[3]   Donald A. Vincent, Robots: Flexible Automation for a Strong Economy, posted on the Internet on Feb. 11, 2005; to be found at www.robotpackaging.com/Article 3.php.

[4]   Ibid.

[5]   Andrew McLaughlin, Robots to Take Over South Korea by 2015!, April 3, 2006, to be found at www.ehomeupgrade.com/entry/2341/robots_to_take.

[6]   Sharon Kolbet, UNL Students Design Road Construction Robots,  April 26, 2001, found at www.dailynebraskan.com.

[7]   John Dunn, “Efficiency Needs a Pick-Me-Up,”  Food Manufacture, August 1, 2004, found at www.foodmanufacture.co.uk/news.

[8]   “Trends in the Japanese Robotics Industry,” JETRO Japan Economic Monthly, March 2006. 

[9]   Paul Kallender, “Japan Dreams of Robot Moon Base in 2025,” June 20, 2005, found at www.pcworld.com.

[10]   Ian Kerr, “Minding the Machines,” Ottawa Citizen, May 4, 2007, found at www.iankerr.ca; “How to Survive a Robot Uprising in South Korea,” The Business Innovation Insider, April 11, 2006, found at www.businessinnovationinsider,com; Andrew McLaughlin, “Robots to Take Over South Korea by 2015!,” April 3, 2006, found at www.ehomeupgrade.com.

[11]   “Robots are Flocking into Danish Companies,” Copenhagen Capacity, Sept. 11, 2007, found at www.copcap.com;  Charles Bates, “Automate or Die,” American Machinist, Feb. 20, 2007, found at www.americanmachinist.com.

[12]   John Dunn, “Efficiency Needs a Pick-Me-Up,” Food Manufacture, op.cit.

[13]   “Trends in the Japanese Robotics Industry,” JETRO Japan Economic Monthly, Mar. 2006.

[14]   “Microsoft Teams Up in Japan to Set Robotics Standards,” Space Daily, Sept. 7, 2007, found at www.spacedaily.com/reports; “Microsoft Robotics Studio Now Available to Provide Common Development Platform,” www.microsoft.com/presspass/press.

[15]   See www.robotics.utexas.edu.

[16]   Charles Bates, “Automate or Die,” American Machinist, Feb. 20, 2007, found at www.americanmachinist.com. 

[17]   James Pinkerton, “We Need New Technology, Not Cheap Labor,” Newsday, April 12, 2006.

[18]   Sam Francis, “Economic Man Turning Against Mass Immigration,” Apr. 1, 2004, at www.vdare.com/asp.

[19]   Paolo Grattoni et. al., “Automatic Harvesting of Asparagus: An Application of Robot Vision to Agriculture,” at http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1994SPIE.2058.

[20]   Monta Mitsuji et. al., “Tele-Robotics for Agriculture Tomato Harvesting Experiment,” http://sciencelinks.jp.

[21]   John K. Schueller, “Automation and Robotics in 21st Century Agriculture,” Nov. 14, 2006, http://a-c-s.confex.com/crops.

[22]   “KUKA Robotics Selected by AMF Automation Technologies…,” posted Oct. 2, 2006 at www.roboticsonline.com.

[23]   Rural Migration News, October 2000, at www.migration.ucdavis.edu.

[24]   “Robotic Age Poses Ethical Dilemma,” BBC News, Sept. 24, 2007, on web at http://newsvote.bbc.co.uk.

[25]   “Evolving Trends—Robot,” Trends in Japan, http://web-japan.org/trends/ev/robot.html.

[26]   L. Winslow, “Illegal Aliens, Agriculture and Robotics,” Ezine Articles, August 24, 2007, on the Web at http://ezinearticles.com.

[27]   Lewis Page, “South Korea to Field Gun-Cam Robots on DMZ,” The Register, Mar. 14, 2007, to be found on the Web at www.theregister.co.uk/2007.

[28]   “Evolving Trends—Robot,” Trends in Japan, op. cit.

[29]   William J. Broad, “Undersea Robots Open a New Age of Exploration,” The New York Times, Nov. 13, 1990, available on the Web at http://query.nytimes.com.

[30]   “Microsoft Teams Up in Japan to Set Robotics Standards,” Robo Space, Sept. 7, 2007, on the Web at http://www.spacedaily.com.

[31]   Sydney Morning Herald, June 18, 2007, on the Web at www.smh.com.au.

[32]   Korea’s Own Robot Pet Dog Unveiled,” Digital Chosunilbo: Daily News in English About Korea, April 27, 2006, on the Web at http://english. Chosun.com.

[33]   “Trends in the Japanese Robotics Industry,” JETRO Japan Economic Monthly, March 2006, op.cit.

[34]   “Robots in Agriculture,” Curtin University of Technology, on the Web at http://kernow.curtin.edu.au.

[35]   On the Web at www.pinktentacle.com/2007/02/yuki-taro-autonomous-snowplow-robot/

[36]   “Microsoft Teams Up…,” Robo Space, op.cit.

[37]   “Robotics Get to Work,” Wichita Eagle, Oct. 19, 2007.

[38]   Sharon Kolbet, “UNL Students Design Road Construction Robots,” Daily Nebraskan, April 26, 2001, available on the Web at www.dailynebraskan.com.

[39]   James Pinkerton, “We Need New Technology, Not Cheap Labor,” New America Foundation, op.cit.

[40]   Sam Francis, “Economic Man Turning Against Mass Immigration,” Vdare.Com, op.cit.

[41]   “Industrial Robots,” Learn About Robots, www.learnaboutrobots.com/industrial.

[42]   Quoted in John Dunn, “Efficiency Needs a Pick-Me-Up,” Food Manufacture, op.cit.

[43]   Donald A. Vincent, “Robots: Flexible Automation for a Strong Economy,” at www.robotpackaging.com/Article3.php.

[44]   Paul Craig Roberts, “Elites Ship U.S. Economy Overseas,” Middle American News, April 2006, p. 21.

[45]   See www.saveyourfactory.com.

[46]   See www.robotics.utexas.edu.

[47]   Charles Bates, “Automate or Die,” American Machinist, op.cit.

[48]   Dan McClenathen, “Will You Still be in Business Ten Years from Now?,” at www.robotpacking.com/Article6.php.

[49]   Ron Potter, “How to Compete with Offshore Low Labor Costs,” at www.robotpackaging.com/Article4.php.

[50]   Doug Bartholomew, “A House Divided: Manufacturing in Crisis,” Nov. 1, 2005, in www.industryweek.com.

[51]   Ibid.

[52]   Paul Craig Roberts, “U.S. Corporations Ruining America’s Trade Balance,” Middle American News, Oct. 2007, p. 23; Roberts, “Elites Ship U.S. Economy Overseas,” Middle American News, April 2006, p. 21.

[53]   Paul Craig Roberts, “Return of the Robber Barons,” Middle American News, Sept. 2007, p. 19; Roberts, “Lost Wars and Lost Economy,” Middle American News, Nov. 2006, p. 21; Roberts, “Can America Afford Neocons’ Belligerent Policies?,” Middle American News, May 2006, p. 14.

[54]   Geoffrey Colvin, “Worrying About Jobs Isn’t Productive,” Fortune, Oct. 27, 2003.

[55]   Patrick J. Buchanan, The Death of the West (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002), pp. 25-50.

[56]   Walter Laqueur, The Last Days of Europe: Epitaph for an Old Continent (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007), pp. 24, 25.

[57]   Ibid, p. 25.

[58]   Buchanan, Death of West, p. 97.

[59]   Patrick J. Buchanan, State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006), p. 10.

[60]   Lou Dobbs, War on the Middle Class (New York: Viking, 2006), pp. 131-2.

[61]   Laqueur, The Last Days of Europe, op.cit., pp. 14, 4, 47, 37, 61, 49, 56, 60.

[62]   It is necessary here to leave an issue of world dimensions to a mere footnote.  Are the peoples of the advanced societies simply to “shut out” the billions from the Third World?  There is no need for that even though those billions can’t feasibly be “let in” to become immigrants.    An immensely productive technology allows much potential for humanitarian assistance, but the possibilities go further and include a sharing of technology so that each of the world’s many peoples can sustain its own life and culture through its own economy.

[63]   For a much more complete discussion of these implications and how they may be addressed,  see the present author’s book The Emerging Crisis of Economic Displacement, which appears in full on his Web site, www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info.