More linebacker than running back, Baxter is a tough, reliable worker. His arm span is wide and he takes instruction well, all valuable assets on a manufacturing shop floor.
Baxter is a robot and made by Rethink Robotics, a start-up founded by Rodney Brooks, who produced the Roomba vacuum when he was at iRobot in the 2000s. Robots and more broadly automation have been around for decades, especially in the auto industry. We're talking six-figure robots in cages that are so big they could hurt workers if the machines toppled onto humans.
Robots have since advanced and are smaller, nimble and more affordable. Small- to medium-sized businesses are introducing automation onto shop floors. Some economists see a future where robots will push down labor costs and lift productivity so companies will think twice before offshoring U.S. jobs.
Automation is forecast to raise productivity by as much as 30 percent in many industries, and cut labor costs by at least 18 percent in the coming decade, according to recent research from The Boston Consulting Group. As an example, "We're thinking about something like a 16 percent drop in the labor costs for manufacturing plants over this time period," Hal Sirkin, a senior partner at The Boston Consulting Group, told CNBC. The researchers did not spell out how labor cost savings might translate into potential number of jobs lost to automation.
This is the embedded "botsourcing" fear. More robots = lost jobs. Or seen another way, higher wage pressures = more automation. And maybe even more worrisome is a suspicion that robots will not only jeopardize jobs but make it even harder for less-skilled workers to remain employed, let alone get ahead.
From 1995 to 2013, technological changes accelerated America's output per worker. But those gains were offset by income inequality and a drop in labor force participation. Those working or looking for work have declined to around 62.8 percent from prerecession levels of around 66 percent, suggesting more Americans are getting discouraged and disappearing permanently from the workforce. President Barack Obama laid out how middle-class stagnation is dragging down the economy in the 2015 Economic Report of the President released by the White House last month.
So if advanced robots knock out more automatable jobs, will lower-skilled workers fall further from the pack and essentially vanish from the American jobs landscape? This is a big debate among economists and experts on robotics.