The number of American workers who quit their jobs during the pandemic—over a fifth of the workforce—may constitute one of the largest American labor movements in recent history. Workers demanded higher pay and better conditions, spurred by rising inflation and the pandemic realization that employers expected them to risk their lives for low wages, mediocre benefits, and few protections from abusive customers—often while corporate stock prices soared. At the same time, automation has become cheaper and smarter than ever. Robot adoption hit record highs in 2021. This wasn’t a surprise, given prior trends in robotics, but it was likely accelerated by pandemic-related worker shortages and Covid-19 safety requirements. Will robots automate away the jobs of entitled millennials who “don’t want to work,” or could this technology actually improve workers’ jobs and help firms attract more enthusiastic employees?
The answer depends on more than what’s technologically feasible, including what actually happens when a factory installs a new robot or a cashier aisle is replaced by a self-checkout booth—and what future possibilities await displaced workers and their children. So far, we know the gains from automation have proved notoriously unequal. A key component of 20th-century productivity growth came from replacing workers with technology, and economist Carl Benedikt Frey notes that American productivity grew by 400 percent from 1930 to 2000, while average leisure time only increased by 3 percent. (Since 1979, American labor productivity, or dollars created per worker, has increased eight times faster than workers’ hourly compensation.) During this period, technological luxuries became necessities and new types of jobs flourished—while the workers’ unions that used to ensure livable wages dissolved and less-educated workers fell further behind those with high school and college degrees. But the trend has differed across industrialized countries: From 1995 to 2013, America experienced a 1.3 percent gap between productivity growth and median wage growth, but in Germany the gap was only 0.2 percent.
Technology adoption will continue to increase, whether America can equitably distribute the technological benefits or not. So the question becomes, how much control do we actually have over automation? How much of this control is dependent on national or regional policies, and how much power might individual firms and workers have within their own workplaces? Is it inevitable that robots and artificial intelligence will take all of our jobs, and over what time frame? While some scholars believe that our fates are predetermined by the technologies themselves, emerging evidence indicates that we may have considerable influence over how such machines are employed within our factories and offices—if we can only figure out how to wield this power.
While 8 percent of German manufacturing workers left their jobs (voluntarily or involuntarily) between 1993 and 2009, 34 percent of US manufacturing workers left their jobs over the same period. Thanks to workplace bargaining and sectoral wage-setting, German manufacturing workers have better financial incentives to stay at their jobs; The Conference Board reports that the average German manufacturing worker earned $43.18 (plus $8.88 in benefits) per hour in 2016, while the average American manufacturing worker earned $39.03 with only $3.66 in benefits. Overall, Germans across the economy with a “medium-skill” high school or vocational certificate earned $24.31 per hour in 2016, while Americans with comparable education averaged $14.55 per hour. Two case studies illustrate the differences between American and German approaches to manufacturing workers and automation, from policies to supply chains to worker training systems.
In a town on the outskirts of the Black Forest in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, complete with winding cobblestone streets and peaked red rooftops, there’s a 220-person factory that’s spent decades as a global leader in safety-critical fabricated metal equipment for sites such as highway tunnels, airports, and nuclear reactors. It’s a wide, unassuming warehouse next to a few acres of golden mustard flowers. When I visited with my colleagues from the MIT Interactive Robotics Group and the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation’s Future Work Lab (part of the diverse German government-supported Fraunhofer network for industrial research and development), the senior factory manager informed us that his workers’ attitudes, like the 14th-century church downtown, hadn’t changed much in his 25-year tenure at the factory. Teenagers still entered the firm as apprentices in metal fabrication through Germany’s dual work-study vocational system, and wages are high enough that most young people expected to stay at the factory and move up the ranks until retirement, earning a respectable living along the way. Smaller German manufacturers can also get government subsidies to help send their workers back to school to learn new skills that often equate to higher wages. This manager had worked closely with a nearby technical university to develop advanced welding certifications, and he was proud to rely on his “welding family” of local firms, technology integrators, welding trade associations, and educational institutions for support with new technology and training.
Our research team also visited a 30-person factory in urban Ohio that makes fabricated metal products for the automotive industry, not far from the empty warehouses and shuttered office buildings of downtown. This factory owner, a grandson of the firm’s founder, complained about losing his unskilled, minimum-wage technicians to any nearby job willing to offer a better salary. “We’re like a training company for big companies,” he said. He had given up on finding workers with the relevant training and resigned himself to finding unskilled workers who could hopefully be trained on the job. Around 65 percent of his firm’s business used to go to one automotive supplier, which outsourced its metal fabrication to China in 2009, forcing the Ohio firm to shrink down to a third of its prior workforce.
While the Baden-Württemberg factory commanded market share by selling specialized final products at premium prices, the Ohio factory made commodity components to sell to intermediaries, who then sold to powerful automotive firms. So the Ohio firm had to compete with low-wage, bulk producers in China, while the highly specialized German firm had few foreign or domestic competitors forcing it to shrink its skilled workforce or lower wages.
Welding robots have replaced some of the workers’ tasks in the two factories, but both are still actively hiring new people. The German firm’s first robot, purchased in 2018, was a new “collaborative” welding arm (with a friendly user interface) designed to be operated by workers with welding expertise, rather than professional robot programmers who don’t know the intricacies of welding. Training welders to operate the robot isn’t a problem in Baden-Württemberg, where everyone who arrives as a new welder has a vocational degree representing at least two years of education and hands-on apprenticeship in welding, metal fabrication, and 3D modeling. Several of the firm’s welders had already learned to operate the robot, assisted by prior trainings. And although the German firm manager was pleased to save labor costs, his main reason for the robot acquisition was to improve workers’ health and safety and minimize boring, repetitive welding sequences—so he could continue to attract skilled young workers who would stick around. Another German factory we visited had recently acquired a robot to tend a machine during the night shift so fewer workers would have to work overtime or come in at night.
How much do we need humans in space? How much do we want them there? Astronauts embody the triumph of human imagination and engineering. Their efforts shed light on the possibilities and problems posed by travel beyond our nurturing Earth. Their presence on the moon or on other solar-system objects can imply that the countries or entities that sent them there possess ownership rights. Astronauts promote an understanding of the cosmos, and inspire young people toward careers in science.
When it comes to exploration, however, our robots can outperform astronauts at a far lower cost and without risk to human life. This assertion, once a prediction for the future, has become reality today, and robot explorers will continue to become ever more capable, while human bodies will not.
Fifty years ago, when the first geologist to reach the moon suddenly recognized strange orange soil (the likely remnant of previously unsuspected volcanic activity), no one claimed that an automated explorer could have accomplished this feat. Today, we have placed a semi-autonomous rover on Mars, one of a continuing suite of orbiters and landers, with cameras and other instruments that probe the Martian soil, capable of finding paths around obstacles as no previous rover could.
Since Apollo 17 left the moon in 1972, the astronauts have journeyed no farther than low Earth orbit. In this realm, astronauts’ greatest achievement by far came with their five repair missions to the Hubble Space Telescope, which first saved the giant instrument from uselessness and then extended its life by decades by providing upgraded cameras and other systems. (Astronauts could reach the Hubble only because the Space Shuttle, which launched it, could go no farther from Earth, which produces all sorts of interfering radiation and light.) Each of these missions cost about a billion dollars in today’s money. The cost of a telescope to replace the Hubble would likewise have been about a billion dollars; one estimate has set the cost of the five repair missions equal to that for constructing seven replacement telescopes.
Today, astrophysicists have managed to send all of their new spaceborne observatories to distances four times farther than the moon, where the James Webb Space Telescope now prepares to study a host of cosmic objects. Our robot explorers have visited all the sun’s planets (including that former planet Pluto), as well as two comets and an asteroid, securing immense amounts of data about them and their moons, most notably Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus, where oceans that lie beneath an icy crust may harbor strange forms of life. Future missions from the United States, the European Space Agency, China, Japan, India, and Russia will only increase our robot emissaries’ abilities and the scientific importance of their discoveries. Each of these missions has cost far less than a single voyage that would send humans—which in any case remains an impossibility for the next few decades, for any destination save the moon and Mars.
In 2020, NASA revealed of accomplishments titled “20 Breakthroughs From 20 Years of Science Aboard the International Space Station.” Seventeen of those dealt with processes that robots could have performed, such as launching small satellites, the detection of cosmic particles, employing microgravity conditions for drug development and the study of flames, and 3-D printing in space. The remaining three dealt with muscle atrophy and bone loss, growing food, or identifying microbes in space—things that are important for humans in that environment, but hardly a rationale for sending them there.
There’s a scene in Swan Lake where the hunky, crossbow-toting protagonist, Prince Siegfried, loses his swan princess, Odette, in an enchanted forest. Suddenly, he finds himself confronted by dozens of identical ballerina swans. Bedazzled and confused, Siegfried runs uselessly up and down the doppelgänger ranks searching for his betrothed. He is beguiled by the multiplicity of swans and the scale of their shared, robotically precise movements.
By the time Swan Lake premiered in the late 19th century, the princely protagonist’s confusion amidst a slew of synchronous ballerinas was already a trope. Romantic ballets are littered with such moments, but they can be found in more contemporary choreographies as well. The American director Busby Berkeley became famous for films such as 42nd Street that featured dozens of dancers uncannily executing the same movements. In the last few decades, the Rockettes and any number of boy bands have brought similar styles to the stage. And throughout history, military marches, parades, and public demonstrations have brought the strategy to the streets. Choreographing groups so the part moves like the whole is both a technique and a tactic.
It is through this Venn diagram intersection of ballet, boy bands, and battalions that we may consider “Spot’s on It,” the latest dance video from robotics manufacturer Boston Dynamics. The clip, which commemorates the company’s acquisition by the Hyundai Motor Company, features quadrupedal “Spot” robots dancing to “IONIQ: I’m on It,” a track by Hyundai global ambassador and mega-boyband BTS, promoting the company’s niche electric car series. In the video, several Spot robots bop with astonishing synchronicity in a catchy-yet-dystopian minute and 20 seconds.
The video opens with five robots in a line, one behind the other, so that only the front Spot is fully visible. The music starts: a new age-y cadence backed by synth clapping and BTS’ prayer-like intoning of the word “IONIQ.” The robots’ heads rise and blossom with the music, pliably shaping themselves into a wavering star, then a helix, then a floral pose that breathes with the melodic line. Their capacity for robotic exactitude allows otherwise simple gestures (the lift of the head, a 90-degree rotation, the opening of Spot’s “mouth”) to create mirrored complexity across all of the robot performers. “Spot’s on It,” à la Busby Berkeley, makes it difficult to distinguish between the robots, and at times it’s unclear which robot “head” belongs to which robot body.
The choreography, by Monica Thomas, takes advantage of the robots’ ability to move exactly like one another. For the Rockettes, BTS, and in many ballets, individual virtuosity is a function of one’s ability to move undistinguished within a group. The Spot robots, however, are functionally, kinesthetically, and visually identical to one another. Human performers can play at such similitude, but robots fully embody it. It’s Siegfried’s uncanny swan valley amidst a robot ballet.
From a technical perspective, the robots’ capacity for movement variation demonstrates the increasing subtlety of Boston Dynamics’ choreography software, a component of its Spot Software Development Kit (SDK) appropriately called “Choreography.” In it, the robot’s user can select a choreo-robotic movement sequence such as a “bourree”—defined in the SDK as “cross-legged tippy-taps like the ballet move”—and modify its relative velocity, yaw, and stance length. In application across an entire dance, one move, such as the “bourree,” can be inverted, reversed, mirrored, done wide or narrow, fast or slow, with increased or diminished distortion across the group. Thomas’ choreography fully utilizes this capacity to execute all manner of kaleidoscopic effects.
Such complexity and subtlety marks “Spot’s on It” as a significant departure from previous Boston Dynamics dances. First and foremost, it’s clear this video had a more intense production apparatus behind it: “Spot’s on It” is accompanied by a friendly corporate blog post that, for the first time, narrates how Boston Dynamics deploys choreography in its marketing and engineering processes. It’s also, notably, the first time Thomas is publicly credited as the choreographer of Boston Dynamics’ dances. Her labor in viral videos like “Uptown Spot” and “Do You Love Me?” was rendered practically invisible, so Boston Dynamics’ decision to underline Thomas’ role in this latest video is a substantial shift in posture. Scholar Jessica Rajko has previously pointed out the company’s opaque labor politics and fuzzy rationale for not crediting Thomas, which is in contrast to choreo-robotic researchers like Catie Cuan and Amy Laviers, who clearly foreground dancerly contributions to their work. “Spot’s on It” signals Boston Dynamics’ deepening, complexifying engagement with choreographics.
Even though Boston Dynamics’ dancing robots are currently relegated to the realm of branded spectacle, I am consistently impressed by the company’s choreographic strides. In artists’ hands, these machines are becoming eminently capable of expression through performance. Boston Dynamics is a company that takes dance seriously, and, per its blog post, uses choreography as “a form of highly accelerated lifecycle testing for the hardware.” All this dancing is meant to be fun and functional.