There's a new industrial revolution afoot, one in which there could be more victims than winners
A few weeks back, Google's newly acquired Motorola unit launched the first phone that was conceived in the post-Google phase. Called the Moto X, this is a landmark device that could eventually be seen as a turning point in way that the world economy is organised. Does that sound like an exaggeration? It probably does. After all, the last few years have seen a lot of innovative gadgets from Apple, Samsung, Nokia et al. What could be so special about the Moto X?
The answer to that question does not lie in the phone itself. Oh, the phone has come pretty innovative features too, but that's not the point I'm making. It is this: the Moto X is the first smartphone to the assembled in the United States. In a world where it is automatically assumed that China is the only country where high tech assembly could be done at a low enough cost, that's a turning point. And while the Moto X is the first such device, there's a lot of talk from other major consumer electronics companies about similar shift. Apple has said that the its next generation notebooks and possibly iPads could be assembled in the US. Dutch electronics giant Philips too has set up a new factory in Europe where consumer electronics manufacturing is returning after a generation.
For decades now, manufacturing of low cost devices has moved away from the richer countries to Asia. First to Japan, then to Korea, then Taiwan, and then finally to China, with Thailand getting some attention too. It has been a fair assumption that electronics assembly requires a combination of manual skill and low cost that can no longer be provided in developed world. So what has changed now? The answer is simple, and potentially world-shaking: robots.
The fine vision and manual manipulation skills that are need for the assembly and packaging of electronic devices can increasingly be done by robots. Those vast rows of Chinese workers painstakingly assembling iPhones are going to be replaced by computer eyes and hydraulic hands working tirelessly around the clock. The jobs are not coming back to factories in the US and Europe, the jobs are disappearing.
Over the last few years, we have gotten used to the fact that while computers and electronics devices are getting cheaper and more capable all the time, these devices do not often interact with the physical world--they deal only in information. There are big automated robot-like machines that assemble parts of cars but they do highly pre-programmed and predictable tasks by rote. This is now changing and changing fast. And the development that has made the difference is computer vision. Those of you who have a recent-model digital camera must have noticed the uncanny way in which the camera detects and focuses on human faces. Some cameras can even detect whether the face is smiling. This is just one aspect of the technology that is changing the industrial use of robotics.
There's more--vision has made a new generation of robots capable of venturing out of the factory and into more messy and variable environments. A number of companies have demonstrated agricultural robots that can do jobs that are uniquely human till now. There are robots that can pick strawberries and tomatoes from trees and vines. These are not just dumb machines like harvesters. They are completely autonomous machines that can be just be told to go and pluck all ripe strawberries in a field and they go and do it. And then there's the ultimate example of computer vision--self-driving cars... but that's a separate story.
Another area where robotics could make an unexpected impact is that of domestic work. In the US, there is a robotic vacuum cleaner named Roomba, from a company iRobot, which is becoming popular. The Roomba learns the layout of your house and after you have left for work, it goes around and cleans the floor of the entire house. It costs $650 right now, which makes it eminently usable in the US but probably sounds expensive for India. However, these things change fast. A couple of decades ago, there was hardly any urban Indian household that found washing machines worthwhile compared to getting clothes washed manually. Today, the situation has completely reversed. This could happen in many other areas.
In a sense, there is not much use trying to enumerate the fields of human labour where robots could make inroads. It will be much like computers, which first appeared to be useful only in some roles like accounting, data processing and the like. Then, when they hit a certain point in price, size and flexibility, suddenly they were everywhere. Today, everything from your phone to your car is essentially a computer with different peripheral capabilities.
It will be the same with robots. Right now, it looks like robots could take over some specific fields. However, at some point, the advancement in robot vision, dexterity and intelligence reach a tipping point level of low cost and high quality. After that, within a few years, almost everything that a human being can do will be possible for a robot to do, but with lower cost and higher reliability and consistency. In two decades, it could well be possible to run not just factories but even a small business--like a restaurant, for example--entirely with robot labour. Or think of a car service center entirely staffed with robot mechanics, where self-driving cars will take themselves to get serviced.
And let's not even talk about military robots. If you want to frighten yourself, watch the videos on the YouTube channel of a company called Boston Dynamics (http://goo.gl/ 0uNMip). These are real military robots that exist today.
The first, mild effect of this revolution will be that the whole shift of manufacturing and labour from the west to Asia will get reversed. This is not another shift from one part of the world to another-it could mean a turning point as fundamental as the industrial revolution. But what does it mean for a country like India, where we have in any case missed the Asian manufacturing revolution? That's an uncomfortable question, and there are no easy answers.