By Robert Hickson 17/09/2013

There’s been a debate in the US that robots and other technologies will steal jobs (a recent study suggests 45% of US jobs are at risk from computerisation). Others disagree, pointing out some robots are filling in gaps where its hard to get workers (like farm labourers), or suggesting that these technologies (like the industrial and computer revolutions before them) will create new jobs for carbon-based life forms. That’s now being put to the test with BMW installing robots to work alongside humans on car assembly lines.

These so-called “collaborative robots” are part of a trend resulting from the slimming down robots and  improvements in design, software and artificial intelligence so that robots can safely work alongside people and be more adaptable in the tasks they can perform. Rather than being aggrieved, some of the workers welcome their new work mates because they take on the dull repetitive jobs. As you’d expect, The Economist likes the idea of greater productivity resulting from human-robot collaborations.

Cheaper robots are also making it possible for small firms to invest in robots and improve their productivity.

For New Zealand, forestry and meatworks are obvious places to install robots to improve health and safety. IRL developed  a robot to help cut up lambs a few years ago, but it doesn’t seem to have been widely adopted. Elsewhere more robots are being added to the chain. Scion has found that rural communities can feel threatened if robots start helping in the forestry sector. Adding robots to these sectors also won’t dramatically improve the value we get from these commodity products.

Someone has suggested that Iceland is a great place to build lots of robotic factories – plenty of cheap power, lots of water to cool everything down, stable government, and close to some large markets. Once the Tiwai point smelter closes here there could be lots of cheap electricity to power our own robotic manufacturing empire. Problems for us, though, are that we aren’t close to markets, and robots are being brought into existing industries rather than establishing greenfield sites.

Will it matter if robots pass us by? Yes, because it will mean that we probably still won’t be  producing much of high value, and our productivity will continue to fall behind countries we like to compare ourselves with.


Update 18 Sep: Transpower is deploying robots to help maintain the power grid. Not the same as collaborative robots, but we’re on the path. Farming systems may be next.