Foxconn, an electronics manufacturer from Taiwan with huge factories in China, generates about 40 percent of the global consumer electronics revenue by creating things like iPhones and computer components on giant assembly lines staffed by humans. Until recently, you'd probably never heard of Foxconn, but a series of worker suicides made us all take a hard look at where our electronics were coming from. Foxconn has made some improvements (including nets around tall buildings), but by all accounts, the core of the problem (the work) remains "repetitive, exhausting, and alienating."
Yesterday, Foxconn announced (at an employee dance party of all places) that they're planning on buying some robots to replace their human workforce. And by some robots, they mean one million robots over the next three years. So for every one robot Foxconn currently has working at their manufacturing plants, they're going to buy a hundred more.
At this point, it's not sounding like Foxconn is trying to augment its human workforce with robots to make things easier on the humans. Foxconn employs something like 1.2 million people, and it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that one robot could probably work as efficiently as 1.2 humans, especially considering that the robot can be less productive (even substantially less productive) if it just works more hours than a single human is capable of. I'm not suggesting that Foxconn is considering replacing the entirety of its production line -- which by the way will keep expanding at a furious pace -- with robots, but when you think about how much they spend providing food and housing for their human workers as well as the recent suicides, you can sort of see where their train of thought is heading here: This could be a shift from "mostly human" to "mostly robot," with about a million jobs in the balance.
While Foxconn's manufacturing plants are certainly not ideal places for humans to work, lots of people do currently work there, and those Foxconn employees depend on their jobs to the same extent that the rest of us do. I think we all realize that robots replacing humans when it comes to repetitive manufacturing jobs is a gradual inevitability, but it's a bit of a shock to consider a million robots over such a short span of time.
Rumor has it (and we should stress that these are rumors) that the actual robots being deployed at the Foxconn plants will come from ABB. Specifically, they'll be ABB's Frida robot, although funnily enough, ABB "insists that its robot isn't designed to replace human workers, but rather to work alongside them:"
So, in a nutshell, this might be great news for ABB. It might be good news for Foxconn. But for any of the million or so people with a job, a home, and a life at a Foxconn plant, things may be about to get even worse.
Evan Ackerman is the senior writer for IEEE Spectrum's award-winning robotics blog, Automaton. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and emerging technology, covering conferences and events on every single continent except Antarctica (although he remains optimistic). In addition to Spectrum, Evan's work has appeared in a variety of other online publications including Gizmodo and Slate, and you may have heard him on NPR's Science Friday or the BBC World Service if you were listening at just the right time. Evan has an undergraduate degree in Martian geology, which he almost never gets to use, and still wants to be an astronaut when he grows up. In his spare time, he enjoys scuba diving, rehabilitating injured raptors, and playing bagpipes excellently.