Can China reboot its manufacturing industry—and the global economy—by replacing millions of workers with machines?
Will Knight writes: Inside a large, windowless room in an electronics factory in south Shanghai, about 15 workers are eyeing a small robot arm with frustration. Near the end of the production line where optical networking equipment is being packed into boxes for shipping, the robot sits motionless.
“The system is down,” explains Nie Juan, a woman in her early 20s who is responsible for quality control. Her team has been testing the robot for the past week. The machine is meant to place stickers on the boxes containing new routers, and it seemed to have mastered the task quite nicely. But then it suddenly stoppedworking. “The robot does save labor,” Nie tells me, her brow furrowed, “but it is difficult to maintain.”
The hitch reflects a much bigger technological challenge facing China’s manufacturers today. Wages in Shanghai have more than doubled in the past seven years, and the company that owns the factory, Cambridge Industries Group, faces fierce competition from increasingly high-tech operations in Germany, Japan, and the United States. To address both of these problems, CIG wants to replace two-thirds of its 3,000 workers with machines this year. Within a few more years, it wants the operation to be almost entirely automated, creating a so-called “dark factory.” The idea is that with so few people around, you could switch the lights off and leave the place to the machines.
But as the idle robot arm on CIG’s packaging line suggests, replacing humans with machines is not an easy task. Most industrial robots have to be extensively programmed, and they will perform a job properly only if everything is positioned just so. Much of the production work done in Chinese factories requires dexterity, flexibility, and common sense. If a box comes down the line at an odd angle, for instance, a worker has to adjust his or her hand before affixing the label. A few hours later, the same worker might be tasked with affixing a new label to a different kind of box. And the following day he or she might be moved to another part of the line entirely.
Despite the huge challenges, countless manufacturers in China are planning to transform their production processes using robotics and automation at an unprecedented scale. In some ways, they don’t really have a choice. Human labor in China is no longer as cheap as it once was, especially compared with labor in rival manufacturing hubs growing quickly in Asia. In Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia, factory wages can be less than a third of what they are in the urban centers of China. One solution, many manufacturers—and government officials—believe, is to replace human workers with machines
The results of this effort will be felt globally. Almost a quarter of the world’s products are made in China today. If China can use robots and other advanced technologies to retool types of production never before automated, that might turn the country, now the world’s sweatshop, into a hub of high-tech innovation. Less clear, however, is how that would affect the millions of workers recruited to China’s booming factories.
There are still plenty of workers around now as I tour CIG’s factory with the company’s CEO, Gerald Wong, a compact man who earned degrees from MIT in the 1980s. We watch a team of people performing delicate soldering on circuit boards, and another group clicking circuit boards into plastic casings. Wong stops to demonstrate a task that is proving especially hard to automate: attaching a flexible wire to a circuit board. “It’s always curled differently,” he says with annoyance.
But there are some impressive examples of automation creeping through Wong’s factory, too. As we walk by a row of machines that stamp chips into circuit boards, a wheeled robot roughly the size of a mini-fridge rolls by ferrying components in the other direction. Wong steps in front of the machine to show me how it will detect him and stop. In another part of the factory, we watch a robot arm grab finished circuit boards from a conveyor belt and place them into a machine that automatically checks their software. Wong explains that his company is testing a robot that does the soldering work we saw earlier more quickly and reliably than a person.
After we finish the tour, he says, “It is very clear in China: people will either go into automation or they will go out of the manufacturing business.”
Automate or bust
China’s economic miracle is directly attributable to its manufacturing industry. Approximately 100 million people are employed in manufacturing in China (in the U.S., the number is around 12 million), and the sector accounts for almost 36 percent of China’s gross domestic product. During the last few decades, manufacturing empires were forged around the Yangtze River Delta, Bohai Bay outside Beijing, and the Pearl River Delta in the south. Millions of low-skilled migrant workers found employment in gigantic factories, producing an unimaginable range of products, from socks to servers. China accounted for just 3 percent of global manufacturing output in 1990. Today it produces almost a quarter, including 80 percent of all air conditioners, 71 percent of all mobile phones, and 63 percent of the world’s shoes. For consumers around the world, this manufacturing boom has meant many low-cost products, from affordable iPhones to flat-screen televisions.
In recent years, though, China’s manufacturing engine has started to stall. Wages have increased at a crippling 12 percent per year on average since 2001. Chinese exports fell last year for the first time since the financial crisis of 2009. And toward the end of 2015 the Caixin Purchasing Managers’ Index, a widely used indicator of manufacturing activity, showed that the sector had contracted for the 10th month in a row. Just as China’s manufacturing boom fed the global economy, the prospect of its decline has already started to spook the world’s financial markets.
Automation appears to offer an enticing technological solution. China already imports a huge number of industrial robots, but the country lags far behind competitors in the ratio of robots to workers. In South Korea, for instance, there are 478 robots per 10,000 workers; in Japan the figure is 315; in Germany, 292; in the United States it is 164. In China that number is only 36. Read the rest of this entry »
Climate change is an urgent topic of discussion among politicians, journalists and celebrities…but what do scientists say about climate change? Does the data validate those who say humans are causing the earth to catastrophically warm? Richard Lindzen, an MIT atmospheric physicist and one of the world’s leading climatologists, summarizes the science behind climate change.
A team of researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory just published their technique on simultaneously printing both rigid and soft materials in hydraulic robotic parts. What can we do with this? If you’re thinking about soft, flexible robots, the possibilities are endless…
Source: Applied Technotopia
In the same way that computer language tells a machine how to operate, researchers have shown it is possible to write DNA ‘code’ and insert it into bacteria to alter how they function.
“You use a text-based language, just like you’re programming a computer. Then you take that text and you compile it and it turns it into a DNA sequence that you put into the cell, and the circuit runs inside the cell.”
They hope that one day cells could be programmed so they could release cancer drugs on encountering a tumour, or allow plants to fight back with insecticide when a pest comes near. Read the rest of this entry »
“Musk isn’t a newcomer to the idea of a carbon tax. He’s been calling for one for years. But the evolution of his businesses and the advent of Tesla Energy, his power-storage undertaking, appear to have sharpened his pitch.”
“We have to fix the unpriced externality,” he told the audience, shifting into the wonky quasi-academic mode that he actually appears to enjoy indulging in, when he isn’t running two companies and serving as the Chairman of a third, Solar City.
His entire speech hinged on this simple observation: that the addition of carbon to the atmosphere is effectively a worldwide subsidy that’s contributing to global warming and preventing humanity from freeing itself from the fossil fuel era.
Musk called this a “hidden carbon subsidy of $5.3 trillion per year,” citing the IMF. In response to questions after his speech, he said that a good outcome of the current UN Climate Summit (COP21) taking place in France would be that governments “put their foot down” and use a revenue neutral, gradually applied carbon tax to accelerate the shift from an economy driven by fossil fuels to one driven by sustainable energy.
Musk is convinced that the current fossil fuel era will end — it’s just a question of when. In his analysis, the transition will occur simply because we’ll run out of carbon-based stuff that we can dig out of the ground and burn. But the existing carbon subsidy, in his estimation, is slowing down progress. Read the rest of this entry »
Kerry Picket reports: A new Pew Research Center poll shows that 40 percent of American Millennials (ages 18-34) are likely to support government prevention of public statements offensive to minorities.
It should be noted that vastly different numbers resulted for older generations in the Pew poll on the issue of offensive speech and the government’s role.
— Pew Research Center (@pewresearch) November 21, 2015
Around 27 percent of Generation X’ers (ages 35-50) support such an idea, while 24 percent of Baby Boomers (ages 51-69) agree that censoring offensive speech about minorities should be a government issue. Only 12 percent of the Silent Generation (ages 70-87) thinks that government should prevent offensive speech toward minorities.
The poll comes at a time when college activists, such as the group “Black Lives Matter,” are making demands in the name of racial and ethnic equality at over 20 universities across the nation.
Some of the demands include restrictions on offensive Halloween costumes at Yale University to the deletion of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s image and name at Princeton University to “anti-oppression training” for employees at Brown University.
“Woodrow Wilson obviously … had a very ill-informed and ignorant view of race,” 1968 Princeton graduate Eric Chase told Reuters. “But he is a big piece of Princeton history and he should stay a big piece,” noting that it’s a push to “erase history and whitewash it and put something else in its place.” Read the rest of this entry »
[VIDEO] White House ‘Wasn’t Forthcoming’ on Gruber’s Obamacare Role: Mark Halperin: ‘They were right. The Republicans were right’Posted: June 23, 2015
Emails show Jonathan Gruber, the economist who said Obamacare was written deceptively in order to pass the attention of stupid American voters, played a far wider role in the law’s instrumentation than the White House previously said.
Longtime political journalist and pundit Mark Halperin says he owes his Republican sources “an apology” after apparently doubting their claims that MIT economist Jonathan Gruber played a major role in crafting ObamaCare.
Halperin, Bloomberg Politics managing editor, addressed the controversy on MSNBC‘s “Morning Joe” on Monday, after a Wall Street Journal report first revealed emails showing Gruber playing a deeper role than previously thought.
“I owe all my Republican sources an apology because they kept telling me he was hugely involved, and the White House played it down,” Halperin said. “They were right. The Republicans were right.” Read the rest of this entry »
Researchers at MIT have developed a robot that enhances the grasping motion of the human hand. Learn more…
Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been sentenced to death today by a jury in a Boston federal courthouse.
Tsarnaev was convicted by the same jury of seven women and five men last month of all 30 counts related to the deadly April 15, 2013 bombing. Three people were killed, including an 8-year-old boy, and another 260 were injured when Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan, detonated twin explosive devices near the finish line of the marathon. Three days later, the brothers murdered MIT police officer Sean Collier.
The jury today found death the penalty was “appropriate” for six of the 17 death penalty eligible counts against Dzhkohar Tsarnaev. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in a shootout with police four days after the explosions….(read more)
BOSTON — The jury has reached a verdict in the Boston Marathon bombing trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev after two days of deliberations, the U.S. attorney’s office announced Wednesday.
The statement, posted on Twitter by the federal prosecutor’s office, did not indicate when the jury would announce the results.
“Seventeen of the counts carry the death penalty. Fifteen of the counts contain a series of subclause questions that jurors must take up one by one and try to answer unanimously.”
Federal Judge George O’Toole met earlier with attorneys for both sides for about 30 minutes to address the questions raised by the seven-woman, five-man jury, which deliberated for more than seven hours Tuesday before ending the day without a verdict.
“The jury’s last question sought clarification on the difference between aiding and abetting. Twenty-five of the 30 counts charge Tsarnaev with aiding and abetting, sometimes in conjunction with a broader charge.”
The charges against Tsarnaev — totaling 30 counts — fall into four main categories. Twelve pertain to two pressure-cooker bombs used at the marathon on April 15, 2013, when three people died and more than 260 were injured. Three other charges deal with conspiracy; another three cover the fatal shooting on April 18, 2013, of MIT security officer Sean Collier.
The final 12 address what happened after Collier’s murder, including a carjacking, robbery and use of improvised explosives against Watertown, Mass., police officers.
Seventeen of the counts carry the death penalty. Fifteen of the counts contain a series of subclause questions that jurors must take up one by one and try to answer unanimously.
“Can a conspiracy pertain to a sequence of events over multiple days or a distinct event?”
If Tsarnaev is found guilty, the second phase of the trial will consider whether he should be sentenced to death or life in prison without parole.
O’Toole began Wednesday’s proceedings by reading the jurors’ questions, one of which had two parts, and delivering his answers.
“Can a conspiracy pertain to a sequence of events over multiple days or a distinct event?” was the first question.
“Duration is a question of fact for you to determine,” O’Toole told the jury. It could be limited to one event or apply to more than one. Tsarnaev is charged with conspiracy in three counts, all of which name four victims who were killed during the week of April 15, 2013.
Jurors also asked whether they need to consider all the subclauses in each count, or if reaching unanimity on the overall question of guilt for that count is sufficient.
O’Toole said they must consider every subclause only if they determine Tsarnaev is guilty on that charge. Read the rest of this entry »
“I say robot, you say no-bot!”
Jon Swartz reports: The chant reverberated through the air near the entrance to the SXSW tech and entertainment festival here.
About two dozen protesters, led by a computer engineer, echoed that sentiment in their movement against artificial intelligence.
“Machines have already taken over. If you drive a car, much of what it does is technology-driven.”
— Ben Medlock, co-founder of mobile-communications company SwiftKey
“This is is about morality in computing,” said Adam Mason, 23, who organized the protest.
Signs at the scene reflected the mood. “Stop the Robots.” “Humans are the future.”
The mini-rally drew a crowd of gawkers, drawn by the sight of a rare protest here.
The dangers of more developed artificial intelligence, which is still in its early stages, has created some debate in the scientific community. Tesla founder Elon Musk donated $10 million to the Future of Life Institute because of his fears.
Stephen Hawking and others have added to the proverbial wave of AI paranoia with dire predictions of its risk to humanity.
“I am amazed at the movement. I has changed life in ways as dramatic as the Industrial Revolution.”
— Stephen Wolfram, a British computer scientist, entrepreneur and former physicist known for his contributions to theoretical physics
The topic is an undercurrent in Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, a documentary about the fabled Apple co-founder. The paradoxical dynamic between people and tech products is a “double-edged sword,” said its Academy Award-winning director, Alex Gibney. “There are so many benefits — and yet we can descend into our smartphone.”
As non-plussed witnesses wandered by, another chant went up. “A-I, say goodbye.”
Several of the students were from the University of Texas, which is known for a strong engineering program. But they are deeply concerned about the implications of a society where technology runs too deep. Read the rest of this entry »
“Would you agree to supplement your Exhibit B, so that we would have . . . your state revenue that you would’ve also received, since ultimately it’s Affordable Care Act-related?”
Fresh from The Corner, Brendan Bordelon reports: Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber repeatedly refused to answer how much money the government paid him for advice on crafting and explaining the Affordable Care Act — prompting incredulous responses from Republican lawmakers, who reminded the professor he was under oath.
“I’m sure my counsel would be happy to take that up with you.”
— Jonathan Gruber
GOP Oversight chairman Darrel Issa informed Gruber that due to a misfiled form, the committee did not receive the complete compensation data for his work on Obamacare.
“Actually I was asking would you agree to provide it.”
— Oversight chairman Darrel Issa
“Why doesn’t he just tell us? How much money did you get from the state taxpayers and the federal taxpayers? He’s under oath, why doesn’t he tell us how much he got paid by the taxpayers? We don’t have to wait for him to send something to us, he should just be able to tell us.”
— Ohio Republican Jim Jordan
“As I said, the committee could take that up with my counsel.”
— Jonathan Gruber
Brendan Bordelon writes: Jonathan Gruber, the MIT professor and Obamacare architect behind a series of revealing and offensive comments on the health-care law, has agreed to testify before the House Oversight Committee next month.
Gruber became notorious earlier this month after a series of videos surfaced showing him explaining how Obamacare was deliberately designed to be deceptive — and belittling the intelligence of American voters in the process. Read the rest of this entry »
Howard Kurtz: I’ve been trying to figure out why the mainstream media has all but decided to ignore one of ObamaCare’s chief architects saying the administration played on the public’s stupidity in passing the law.
After all, the press usually loves when hidden video surfaces, as it did this week with MIT professor Jonathan Gruber, and we get unvarnished comments showing what someone really and truly believes.
And yet there hasn’t been a mention on the network evening newscasts. CNN’s Jake Tapper, to his credit, played the clip twice, asked two senators about it and wrote an online column on the subject, but that was about it for the network. Nothing in the Washington Post but for a couple of online items.
(Update: The Washington Post finally got around to covering the controversy today, three days after it broke.) Not a word in the New York Times, which in 2012 ran a puffy profile of Gruber (“It is his research that convinced the Obama administration that health care reform could not work without requiring everyone to buy insurance”).
This is utterly inexplicable, except as a matter of bias. No matter what you think of ObamaCare, on what planet is this not news? Maybe on that comet where the spaceship just landed.
I tried to think of the possible excuses. Too busy covering other stories? Hey, nobody in America has Ebola anymore! The only real competition is a big winter storm and Eminem disgustingly dropping F-bombs at HBO’s Veterans Day concert.
Was Gruber’s point about health care taxes and mandates too complicated? Then explain it. Besides, it isn’t that this argument never came up before; it’s that Gruber fesses up to the attempt at deception. Read the rest of this entry »
A team of engineers at Harvard and MIT have designed and built a flat-packed robot that assembles itself and walks away. Learn more at http://hvrd.me/A2mM9
Born in Waterville, New York in 1854, the self-educated Eastman patented the first practical film in roll form in 1884, and perfected the Kodak camera, the first camera designed for roll film, four years later.
He founded the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester in 1892. One of the first firms to mass-produce standardized photography equipment, it also made the flexible, transparent film, invented by Eastman in 1889, that was vital in the development of the movie business.
David Rotman writes: Given his calm and reasoned academic demeanor, it is easy to miss just how provocative Erik Brynjolfsson’s contention really is. Brynjolfsson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and his collaborator and coauthor Andrew McAfee have been arguing for the last year and a half that impressive advances in computer technology—from improved industrial robotics to automated translation services—are largely behind the sluggish employment growth of the last 10 to 15 years. Even more ominous for workers, the MIT academics foresee dismal prospects for many types of jobs as these powerful new technologies are increasingly adopted not only in manufacturing, clerical, and retail work but in professions such as law, financial services, education, and medicine.
Economic theory and government policy will have to be rethought if technology is indeed destroying jobs faster than it is creating new ones.
That robots, automation, and software can replace people might seem obvious to anyone who’s worked in automotive manufacturing or as a travel agent. But Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s claim is more troubling and controversial. They believe that rapid technological change has been destroying jobs faster than it is creating them, contributing to the stagnation of median income and the growth of inequality in the United States. And, they suspect, something similar is happening in other technologically advanced countries.
Kay S. Hymowitz writes: When I started following the research on child well-being about two decades ago, the focus was almost always girls’ problems—their low self-esteem, lax ambitions, eating disorders, and, most alarming, high rates of teen pregnancy. Now, though, with teen births down more than 50 percent from their 1991 peak and girls dominating classrooms and graduation ceremonies, boys and men are increasingly the ones under examination. Their high school grades and college attendance rates have remained stalled for decades. Among poor and working-class boys, the chances of climbing out of the low-end labor market—and of becoming reliable husbands and fathers—are looking worse and worse.
Economists have scratched their heads. “The greatest, most astonishing fact that I am aware of in social science right now is that women have been able to hear the labor market screaming out ‘You need more education’ and have been able to respond to that, and men have not,” MIT’s Michael Greenstone told the New York Times. If boys were as rational as their sisters, he implied, they would be staying in school, getting degrees, and going on to buff their Florsheim shoes on weekdays at 7:30 AM. Instead, the rational sex, the proto-homo economicus, is shrugging off school and resigning itself to a life of shelf stocking. Why would that be?
This spring, another MIT economist, David Autor, and coauthor Melanie Wasserman, proposed an answer. The reason for boys’ dismal school performance, they argued, was the growing number of fatherless homes. Boys and young men weren’t behaving rationally, the theory suggested, because their family background left them without the necessary attitudes and skills to adapt to changing social and economic conditions. The paper generated a brief buzz but then vanished. That’s too bad, for the claim that family breakdown has had an especially harsh impact on boys, and therefore men, has considerable psychological and biological research behind it. Anyone interested in the plight of poor and working-class men—and, more broadly, mobility and the American dream—should keep it front and center in public debate.
Boston Dynamics’ four-legged robot named WildCat can gallop at high speeds
Google confirmed on Friday that it had completed the acquisition of Boston Dynamics, an engineering company that has designed mobile research robots for the Pentagon. The company, based in Waltham, Mass., has gained an international reputation for machines that walk with an uncanny sense of balance and even — cheetahlike — run faster than the fastest humans.
It is the eighth robotics company that Google has acquired in the last half-year. Executives at the Internet giant are circumspect about what exactly they plan to do with their robot collection. But Boston Dynamics and its animal kingdom-themed machines bring significant cachet to Google’s robotic efforts, which are being led by Andy Rubin, the Google executive who spearheaded the development of Android, the world’s most widely used smartphone software.
The deal is also the clearest indication yet that Google is intent on building a new class of autonomous systems that might do anything from warehouse work to package delivery and even elder care.
They make it their business to mind your business. And recently busybodies have made it their business to ban doorknobs in Vancouver (next stop: your town?), and fraternity parties in Boston–if thrown by MIT students (who sometimes jump up and down on plexiglass skylights, fall four stories, and injure their head and genitals).
But this time the busiest bodies of all can be found in Bartow, Florida, where code officials threatened to fine residents who stuck “God Bless America” signs on their lawns. Some residents were outraged by what they regarded as an attack on religion and patriotism. The city says its beef is with temporary lawn signs themselves and not the content of the signs, but many residents were outraged the sign ban exists at all.