Baxter is designed to help manufacturers automate tasks inside their factories so that human workers are free to do more complicated jobs. And at a price of $22,000, Baxter is much cheaper than traditional manufacturing robots and could even be cost effective for small manufacturers. Brooks told Bloomberg Businessweek:
“We are spending hundreds of billions of dollars doing this kind of work in China. We want companies to spend that here, in a way that lets American workers be way more productive.”
Indeed, the problem of U.S. manufacturing isn’t that the manufacturing sector is hurting. It’s actually thriving. Manufacturing output – the total worth of goods manufactured in the U.S. – has increased steadily over the last several decades, except for intermittent dips during recessions. The problem with manufacturing is that it used to be a place where lower-skilled workers could go to make a decent living. Having even more work done by robots will make the global economy more efficient. More goods will be produced with less. But the fundamental problem of our age is figuring out how we distribute the gains of this efficiency in a way that everyone can get a decent piece of the pie. Baxter won’t solve that.
Income inequality is a growing problem in America and in much of the developed world, and one of the main factors promoting it is the lack of good paying jobs for lower-skilled workers. The rise and fall of both agricultural and manufacturing employment show how a modern capitalist economy, through technology, can make production more efficient, freeing up workers for more productive and sometimes more rarified tasks. Aristotle once said, “When the looms can operate themselves, all men will be free.” A heartwarming thought, but is it realistic? The truly troubling question of the coming age of robotics is how will the men who don’t own the machines provide for themselves?