American companies installed a record number of robots in the workplace in 2018, according to a new report. Automation helps companies cut costs and stay competitive, but the bots face a growing backlash.
In 2018, 35,880 robots were shipped, a seven-percent increase over 2017, states a report from the Association for Advancing Automation, a robotics industry lobby group. All kinds of firms stepped up their orders last year, with notable growth happening in the food and consumer goods (48 percent), plastics and rubber (37 percent), life sciences (31 percent) and electronics (22 percent) sectors.
Factory robots have long been most closely associated with the automotive industry. However, the auto industry’s orders fell in 2018 to just 53 percent of the robots shipped, its lowest share of the market since 2010.
“These sales and shipments aren’t just to large, multinational companies anymore,” AAA president Jeff Burnstein said. “Small and medium-sized companies are using robots to solve real-world challenges, which is helping them be more competitive on a global scale.”
For these companies, the advantages are obvious. Plastics company boss Ken Hahn told Reuters that he used to employ three forklift drivers to haul finished parts from the production area to quality inspectors. Now those three workers and their vehicles have been made redundant by a $40,000 robot.
Online retail megacorporation Amazon employs thousands of robots in its warehouse facilities, and recently trialed an unmanned delivery vehicle on the streets of Tacoma, Washington. Unlike their human colleagues, Amazon’s robots never collapse from exhaustion, don’t have to relieve themselves into bottles to meet their production quotas, and don’t agitate to unionize.
A Gallup poll taken last year found that 58 percent of Americans see artificial intelligence, robotics, and automation as a bigger threat to jobs than immigration and outsourcing over the next 10 years. Artificial intelligence expert Kai Fu Lee told CBS News last month that automation will likely wipe out 40 percent of the world’s jobs by 2035, just one of a number of equally dire predictions.
Aside from the economic threat, some conspiracy enthusiasts fear more imminent physical danger from our new machine overlords. Twitter erupted with talk of a “robot uprising” when an Amazon warehouse robot ‘accidentally’ punctured a can of high-strength bear mace at a New Jersey facility last December, hospitalizing 24 employees and irritating another 30.
“Amazon’s robots pepper-sprayed Amazon’s human workers which is both horrifying and… right about on schedule for 2018,” one commenter mused.
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