It's debatable whether or not sophisticated workplace robots will destroy millions of jobs around the world, or simply change the nature of many jobs. But one Chinese manufacturing company is making a huge bet on robots — and preparing a boatload of pink slips for its human workers.
The South China Morning Post reported today that Shenzhen Evenwin Precision Technology Co., a manufacturing company that makes cell phone parts and other electronics, is planning to replace roughly 90 percent of its 1,800-person workforce with machines, leaving roughly 1,600 people out of work. The company, whose chairman became a billionaire in March, is planning to spend $322 million on a new factory in Dongguan that will use "only robots for production," according to the outlet, with a small human staff of 200 to keep tabs on the machines.
This is not a one-off occurrence. Foxconn, China's largest employer and the company that assembles parts for the iPhone and iPad, is working with Google to develop a line of robots capable of replacing human workers. (Its CEO famously said in 2011 that the company would eventually employ a million robots, in addition to its human workers.) And according to the SCMP, pressures both from US tech companies and local politicians may be to blame:
Robots are set to take over in many factories in the Pearl River Delta, the area of southern China known as the ‘world’s workshop’ because of the huge export manufacturing industry there, as labour shortages bite and local authorities face the need to spur innovation to counter the economic slowdown.
Concerns about an all-robot workforce are probably premature. As many leading roboticists have said, it's not possible to replace 90 percent of workers at just any company with robots. And if the past is any indication, the future may not actually look as grim as we think. Robots may not be able to do certain jobs no matter how sophisticated they become, and technology may create new jobs to replace the ones being lost to automation.
"If we look at the last 100 years, even though we've seen significant shifts in the jobs that are out there, we haven't seen significant changes in the unemployment rate," said Andra Keay, Managing Director of the industry group Silicon Valley Robotics, during a panel discussion on robotics and the economy at WeRobot, a robotics, law and policy conference held at the University of Washington last month.
Still, technology has — and will continue to — put people out of work. The dawn of Chinese robo-factories doesn't mean we'll all be jobless anytime soon, but it does serve as an indicator of things to come. As AI and robots become increasingly sophisticated, they're going to be ever more tempting to cost-cutting CEOs, and ever more dangerous to the livelihoods of human workers.
Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.