Don't sweat the singularity

·6-min read

Monday is Labor Day here in the States. In most households, it’s come to mean one final three-day weekend to mark the end of the summer. It’s a bittersweet feeling that stirs up all sorts of back-to-school excitement/dread buried deep down inside my lizard brain. It’s neither surprising nor particularly upsetting that the day has lost its meaning for many — that’s just how society and cultures roll.

It's also an indication that America has made a good deal of progress on the labor front since President Grover Cleveland signed the national holiday into law in 1894 — and a dozen years later, when Upton Sinclair published "The Jungle," a scathing novel that doubled as a takedown of America’s wildly unsafe and unsanitary meatpacking industry.

As you take the day off to grill, go to the beach or sit in horrified silence about having to start school again, take a moment to think about how far workers' rights campaigns have come — and how far we still have to go. (May Day, too, but that's a conversation for another newsletter.) It’s a subject I bring up from time to time on these pages, because it’s one I believe is central to conversations around automation and robotics’ relation to human workers.

There’s genuine — and, I think, largely good faith — consensus that robotics will benefit working conditions, short-term. Automating dull, dirty and dangerous jobs can dramatically improve workers’ quality of life. It’s also true that many of these companies are having trouble filling a lot of these roles at present. There’s even a compelling argument to be made that such technologies will ultimately create more — and better — jobs.

The question I keep coming back to is what we do for those workers in the interim. Like most of you, I have some ideas, but not an answer. Maybe it’s job protections, maybe its training, heck, maybe it’s the expansion of a social safety net or UBI. Some suggestions are no doubt more controversial than others, but now is precisely the time to be having them.

Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser talks with Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh as they tour the construction site atop the new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge on May 19, 2021 in Washington, DC
Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser talks with Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh as they tour the construction site atop the new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge on May 19, 2021 in Washington, DC

Image Credits: Drew Angerer / Getty Images

At our Robotics event a few months back, I put the question to both an Amazon VP and U.S. Labor secretary, Marty Walsh. Both parties implied that they can and should be doing more to prepare workers for the future. Here’s what the latter said:

Government needs to look at the way we invest in workforce development and make sure we put the money into good training programs, community college programs, Job Corps centers and places like that. I think companies need to invest more in their workforces and potential workforces. This is their opportunity to create a workforce that works for them. This public-private partnership is important, but I think companies are going to start investing more in human capital, because what they want is that loyalty to the company.

Image Credits: Association for Advancing Automation

As I write this, robotic sales continue at an all-time high. Citing some new figures from the Association for Advancing Automation here, the advocacy group says figures hit a record high for the third quarter in a row — a promising sign amid mounting recession woes. According to the firm, 12,305 industrial robots were sold in North America in Q2, and 59% of those came from the automotive industry. Food and consumer fulfillment saw a 13% year-over-year jump for the quarter, between April and June. Says the group’s president, Jeff Burnstein:

While automotive entities have long been the frontrunner in deploying robotics and automation, the last few years have seen food and consumer goods, life sciences and other industries grow at even higher rates. While this quarter shows a marked shift back to historic norms with more robots going to automotive than to any other industry, the continued growth of robotics in food and consumer goods companies especially demonstrates the ongoing need to automate warehouse logistics for handling the exploding growth of e-commerce.

warehouse robot
warehouse robot

Image Credits: Boston Dynamics

Another big order to toss on that list for Q3: New Jersey–based supply chain firm NFI just inked a huge deal to buy Boston Dynamics’ logistics robot, Stretch. The $10 million partnership follows a $15 million BD/DHL deal announced in January. Stretches will be deployed at an NFI warehouse in Savannah, Georgia, next year, with more locations to follow.

Says Boston Dynamics CEO, Rob Playter:

We designed Stretch to automate box moving, an operationally and physically challenging task across warehouses. Demand for goods continues to rise, and robots like Stretch can help NFI alleviate some of the challenges associated with that surging demand. Stretch makes truck unloading a safer and more efficient task, and NFI can pass that efficiency along to its customers.

Image Credits: Chong Hong

Some cool research here, pointing to the creation of a tiny, magnetically actuated gearbox measuring less than 3 millimeters that can be used to wirelessly control millirobots. Per the paper:

These characteristics enable us to achieve a peristaltic robot that can crawl on a flat substrate or inside a tube, a jumping robot with a tunable jumping height, a clamping robot that can sample solid objects by grasping, a needle-puncture robot that can take samples from the inside of the target, and a syringe robot that can collect or release liquids.

Image Credits: American Robotics

Good news for drone firm American Robotics, which scored FAA exemption to operate its Scout drones autonomously and scale up for commercial operations. The company notes:

The new Exemption, along with American Robotics’ Waiver for fully-automated beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations, provides the company with the authority to operate its autonomous Scout System drone commercially without limitations on use.

And finally, via Politico, some hopeful news out of France for those worried about the upcoming robotic singularity. Quoting an official involved in the declaration:

There are two ways of thinking. One of which is mostly from across the Atlantic, where science fiction takes control, another which is much more realistic, dealing with possible usages which remain tied to reality. All the scientists that we talked to think that [singularity] is a fantasy, pure and simple, and it amounts to mere marketing. We can confirm the revelation that none of us are, in fact, robots.

So take that worry off your list...for now.

Quick note before I leave you: Actuator is going to be a day late next week (Friday), due to the big Apple event that’s going to have my full attention on Wednesday.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

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