As these machines get smarter, however, they're able to take on the more prosaic jobs as well, such as running a telephone switchboard, working retail in an e-commerce shop or assisting with the care of the elderly. Whether defined as a humanoid machine or a sophisticated piece of software, robots are now all around us, often taking over jobs once held by their human creators.
In the most recent episode of CBS's 60 Minutes, reporter Steve Kroft talked with two MIT professors about the current state of robots in the workplace as well as the competition between the American employee and his robotic counterpart.
"There are lots of examples of routine, middle-skilled jobs that involve relatively structured tasks and those are the jobs that are being eliminated the fastest," explained Erik Brynjolfsson, the Schussel Family Professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management. "Those kinds of jobs are easier for our friends in the artificial intelligence community to design robots to handle them. They could be software robots, they could be physical robots."
Brynjolfsson and his colleague Bruce Welty have conducted research into the rise of robots in the workplace, noting that these automated machines are partly to blame for the current job shortage in America. Those companies with a job to fill are now more than ever able to look to machines to fill these roles. Rather than pay for a human employee, which includes costs like healthcare, taxes and social security, these employers can pay one upfront fee for the machine. Smaller and less frequent payments are dolled out for maintenance and upkeep of these machines.
"Technology is always creating jobs," Brynjolfsson told Kroft. "It's always destroying jobs. But right now the pace is accelerating. It's faster we think than ever before in history. So as a consequence, we are not creating jobs at the same pace that we need to."
While these robots are saving employers money, and in some cases even allowing manufactures to bring production back to the States, they're also replacing many humans, leaving these workers to look for new employment in a still sluggish economy.
For example, Kroft had the chance to meet Baxter, the robotic co-worker created by Rodney Brooks, the man who helped create the iRobot roving vacuum cleaners.
With "eyes" and a "brain" to match, Baxter can be trained to perform a surprising array of ordinary tasks. Though Baxter is meant to work alongside other human beings, the robot is also much cheaper to employ than many of his flesh-and-blood colleagues. At $22,000, an employer can look at baxter as a $3.40 per hour employee, much cheaper than the national minimum wage and without all those extra healthcare costs.
The issue of how to balance a human and robotic workforce is one that will continue to play out for years to come. The 60 Minutes piece ends on a somewhat positive note, however, with the MIT professors saying they don't believe robots will soon become self-aware and begin rebelling against humans, a la HAL in Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.
"That part of science fiction, I think, is not very likely to happen," said Brynjolfsson.