back to article 'Robots can save America', says Obama

President Obama has announced an ambitious plan to revitalise the economic health of the USA by deploying a mighty nationwide task force of robots. In a speech delivered on Friday launching the National Robotics Initiative – part of the wider Advanced Manufacturing Initiative – the President sought to boost US efforts in …


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  1. Dave Murray

    Stepford President

    Is Obamy stuck in the 50s? He sounds like one of those crazy 50s predictions of the world of tomorrow. Next he'll be promising we'll all have flying cars by the year 2000!

  2. Dave 15

    Whats new?

    In the 1930's a lathe was operated by a man who turned the knobs and made the part - slowly. In the 1960's the lathe was automatic and driven by complex cams and levers requiring extensive setup, now the lathe is driven by computers, is fully automated, 10 or more can be looked after by one guy. Robots are used to assemble cars, cut metal, solder circuit boards, make silicon chips... They don't have to 'walk around' to be useful - that is sc-fi rubbish. What is really needed in the USA (and the UK) is some reeducation of the company bosses and accountants. Employing 1 Brit to oversee some machines vs 1 Chinese man is not so radicallly more expensive. Losing a container of goods at sea and missing the Christmas rush is somewhat more expensive (remember the Tracey Island fiasco a few years back)..

    The UK and US needs to educate the company leadership, they need to ensure cheap and plentiful energy, ensure cheap and reliable (rail probably) transport for goods, and above all cheap capital. If my machine costs 100k to buy but the interest rate is 10% then frankly I'm not going to buy it, I will go to China where the interest rate is near zero.

    1. Fred Mbogo

      Obama is a shill

      I don't rightly grasp how would adding robots into a job-scarce society would help reactivate the economy.

      In Isaac Asimov's stories, humanity had already resolved the poverty problem. Introducing robots would torpedo any improvement society could make.

      Historically, when cheaper means of production become available, it does not automatically improve standards of life. It just means money flows more easily to the already overpaid and overprivileged plutocrats.

      I find it quaint, when I read that introducing things that are supposed to make your life easier end up causing your quality of life to plummet. People are not working less and less. They are being forced to make more with less.

      I had dreams of robots improving life but a quick reality-check with the dystopian world we live at reminded me why this is a bad idea.

      1. James Micallef Silver badge


        " things that are supposed to make your life easier end up causing your quality of life to plummet. " Would you care to back that up with any facts instead of 60s nostalgia?? Quality of life isn't measured only by disposable income. People nowadays have much better health, much more access to travel, infinitely more access to information, knowledge and communication. There's lots more activities available to do and more free time to do it in.

        SOME people are having a tough time of it economically because they mortgaged themselves to the hilt and beyond to buy cheap crap that they didn't need, or because they don't have the necessary education to work in a knowledge economy (unemployment among graduates has been almost unaffected by the supposed crises)

        I'm not saying all is hunky-dory, and sure, some people are seeing a tough time. But arguing that it's because of the increased use of robots / machines is frankly ridiculous

        1. Pete 2 Silver badge

          Increased polarisation

          > because they don't have the necessary education to work in a knowledge economy

          That's the key. Never forget that half the population has a below average IQ. While robots are very good at boring, mechanical operations they don't increase net wealth if they displace people (for whom boring, mechanical jobs were at least a living) who society then has to support.

          Sure, you could just shrug your shoulders and say "get a job" but one thing an increase in automation has done is to make those jobs a whole lot scarer. Not everybody can work in a call centre.

          So ISTM, while robots are good at lowering the cost of manufacture, that is of the most benefit to the "haves": the people with the wealth and income to purchase those cheap things. For the people who find their jobs have been automated out of existence, who become the "have nots", life is quite a lot different. All you've done is increase the distance between the two extremes of of society and made some people dependent on the hand-outs and charity of others or the state.

          1. C 18

            RE: Never forget that half the population has a below average IQ

            I know it's a bit late to be arriving at the party but...

            Sample population

            Mr A, IQ 1

            Mr & Mrs B and their spawn comprising a family unit of ten individuals, freakishly all having an IQ of 2

            Mrs C, IQ 3

            Average IQ? 2

            Population? 12

            Half of the population? 6

            Number of people having less than the average IQ? 1

            Does 1 equal 6? Maybe Mr A thinks so...

        2. TheOtherHobbbes

          A lot of people are in debt

          because real average income hasn't risen since the 1970s. Most of the profit has been shunted upstairs, and turned into useless - and essentially meaningless - poker chips.

          In the 60s almost anyone with a job could afford to save a deposit for a house, and get an affordable mortgage.

          Asset price inflation - which is supposedly a good thing, not a bad one, unlike commodity inflation - has meant that housing is no longer affordable for most of the population. Hence the explosion of sharing among the under-30s, and a slightly smaller explosion of people still living with their parents in their 20s.

          So much for prosperity.

          As for robots - if they cost less than employees do, even with Dickensian wages, they're only going to be making the economy more profitable for the people who own them - until the market for the goods they produce collapses, because hardly anyone can afford to buy them.

        3. Ammaross Danan

          Have to start somewhere

          @James Micallef:

          "because they don't have the necessary education to work in a knowledge economy (unemployment among graduates has been almost unaffected by the supposed crises)"

          What about the young undergrads who are trying to pay their way to this "necessary education" you speak of? What will they do when fast food establishments no longer require burger flippers and fry tossers? Where are the uneducated going to work when there are no need for "sandwich artists" anymore? Just more people to support on welfare, meaning tax hikes, meaning those with the higher education still end up paying for it, perhaps?

          1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
            Big Brother

            What, not happy with the continual Keynesian pumping?

            "Asset price inflation - which is supposedly a good thing, not a bad one, unlike commodity inflation - has meant that housing is no longer affordable for most of the population."

            You could get 0-interest loans and mortgages with no collateral during the noughties IIRC. Now, after the inevitable trainwreck, house prices are way down and will in all likelihood sink further, and people are still complaining?

            Oh well, have another round of Quantitative Easing, that should at least keep the dollar prices stable.

        4. Anonymous Coward

          All well documented

          The earliest mechanisations in the Industrial Revolution put thousands of self-employed weavers and tradesmen/women out of business and that situation forced them to go to towns and cities to work in mill sweatshops to work for a great many hours in dangerous situations for **ck-all pay while the mill owners raked in obscene amounts of profit.

          What the poster is saying is that putting in a load of robots into a factory that used to be run by people and therefore putting them out of work is the best and quickest way to increase the rich/poor divide and fill the pockets of company directors. It is not a great way to raise the standard of living of the general population.

          The primary object of a company is to make money. But, ironically, increasing the profitability of companies is not necessarily the best thing for the economy at large if it only improves the net worth of a very small number of people at the expense of the remainder.

          1. Anteaus

            Same problem as today...

            In the Industrial Revolution, people weren't forced to work in the towns/mills, they went there of their own free will because the mills, despite their dangerous working conditions, offered them a better quality of life than scratching a subsistence-farming existence in the country under a greedy landlord.

            Which suggests that the mills themselves weren't the real problem, which was -as always- abuse of power by those with obscene amounts of money and land.

        5. Jeremy Chatfield

          TITF (This Is The F...)

          Americans believe in free market economics (FME). An article of faith is that FME benefits everyone. Try telling that to a working mother who had an unexpected birth complication, and whose teeth rot in her head seven years afterwards, because as a house cleaner she couldn't afford medical insurance that would have paid the hospital bill, and because she is in debt to the hospital, now can't afford the dentist to fix her teeth - yes, this is a real example from the USA. I can give you names, dates, places. Just one example of the brutality of real-world FME.

          Do I have confidence that the people eliminated from the workforce because they don't have the education, *or the accidental fortune to luck into a job at the right moment*, will be looked after? Not at all. Because FME also preaches that anyone who works hard will be successful; also an article of faith, denied by reality; and that article of faith allows ignoring those in poverty, because according to the faithful, poverty is their personal failure - it isn't.

          FME ignores some basics of risk and wealth. While the US is a lot freer a society than the UK (where "who you know" can count a lot for more final wealth outcomes than anything else), there is still a vast benefit to having access to capital. If you come from a wealthier family, you can afford to take more risks. If you are poor, and poorly educated (which may not be the conscious decision of a 4 year old, more a reflection of their parents and the school system available to them) then you will have less access to capital and fewer opportunities to recover from risky activities - and the primary risky activity for the very poor will be crime. Which will not endear the poor to the rich and result in job offers ('hi, as a consequence of you mugging me, I see you have the makings of an entrepreneur, let me give you $100k to set up a company" - this doesn't happen, but "as a consequence of being my child and because i have been well recompensed through my life, let me give you $100k to set up a company" - this does happen, just ask Michael Dell where his initial capital came from, or the Kennedys.).

          Mass scale accelerated industrialisation will lead to mass scale poverty unless the theology of Free Market Economics is challenged. I have lived in the US for about ten years, and the rest here. I've set up companies there and here, and health insurance in the USA, and here. The risks under an FME-believing system are much greater for the poor than in much of the rest of the world. And yes, that's relative risk - but you'd still get on average, better health care in poorer Britain than the richer USA.

          And, as an entrepreneur, with experience of businesses in the UK and the US, I can also affirm from that the wealth creation of the USA is a function of another component of FME, a belief that here in the UK we'd do well to emulate. That is, that to be successful you are good are selling. In the UK, when a company hits trouble, it saves first and focuses on preserving what it has. In the US, when a company hits trouble, it goes out and sells more - and if it goes bust, then bankruptcy is regarded as a transient blip making you a *better* prospect for your next venture, not worse - because you now have experience. Here, unless you have connections, you've burned and crashed. The risks of failure in business are worse in the UK, and the VCs here are wizened accountants, not gamblers - and that makes a huge difference to the likelihood of success of the ventures they invest in. Attitude affects outcomes - outcomes are not a consequence of some value-free system of economics.

          Megaphone because I'm as fed up with theology in economics as I am with deists.

      2. Bumpy Cat

        It's going to happen

        Robots will just get more and more capable, and continue to replace humans in a wide variety of jobs. The problem is, we can't simply say "We won't allow it!". In our globalized society, any nation that fearlessly adopts robots will quickly outstrip and dominate nations that don't.

        So, how to approach this mechanized future? I hate to say it, but our current system looks like one of the worst. The current division of capital and labour mean that as industries replace human workers with robotic workers, those humans will drop out of the working world and their share of wealth will just go straight to the business owners - the aforementioned plutocrats. What do we do with all that wasted human potential? This is especially crucial when key industries like retail or fast food can use robots.

        A lot of this is not mine, but comes from Marshall Brain (good name, I know):

        All we can do is push education and try to tell people that unskilled jobs won't exist in twenty years.

      3. JC 2

        @ Obama is a shill

        It has always been assumed that when a political leader needs to *convince* the people of something, it is because it is not in their best interests.

        Of course robots will take away jobs in the long term, but it will also lead to bigger profits for the big businesses which is what American government is all about, trying to manipulate anyone, even its own citizens, to increase wealth for a select few.

        We see it in all their ongoing campaigns for automobile efficiency, getting rid of greenhouse gasses, healthcare, etc. The scarey part is a lot of people have actually been snake charmed into believing the idealisms instead of seeing the results.

      4. CheesyTheClown

        Big vocabulary, little logic or common sense.

        You're making the mistake of believing that the U.S. is in fact job scarce. There are tons of jobs available all across the U.S., the issue is whether people consider themselves too good to work those jobs or not. There has been a tremendous cancer spreading across the U.S. for decades which has started at the top and moved downwards quickly. It's the "I'm special" cancer.

        The U.S. also is killing itself by being hostile to foreigners who come to the U.S. and increase the countries brain pool. The greatest innovating minds of America over the past century were neither born or bred in the U.S.. We imported them. Einstein, Oppenheimer, Sergey Brin, among many others came from elsewhere.

        People in the U.S. on a large scale are unemployed by choice. They're too busy sitting on their porches, drinking Schlitz, flipping through 600 channels and complaining on facebook about the shitty job market and how they can't get a job. When perfectly good jobs are available for the taking all over the place. Intelligent and creative people don't have these problems.

        For example, my best friend was downsized last month.... in Florida... a place where the economical market is a disaster at the moment. It took him about 3 hours to land a 6 month contract to hold himself over while he either decides if the new place is a good new home or to look for something better. He unfortunately had to move to make due. So instead of selling his house at a loss or letting it fall into foreclosure, he rented the house out and rented himself a smaller, much less comfortable apartment until he knows what he'd like to do.

        Creative people will always find a solution to their own problems. If they have to move, they'll move. If they have to work for half of what they made before, they'll cut cost and expenses until they find a way to solve the problem properly, but they certainly won't sit on the couch complaining about how the only jobs available are beneath them.

        A serious government investment in robotics will create a huge amount of jobs. The only true mistake I see in this plan was that Obama is investing in America owned companies as opposed to American owned companies. NASA, NSF etc... are all great organizations, but if there's one thing they CAN'T DO is make something on time or on budget.

        It would be better to go to any massive number of U.S. engineering firms who are shipping their manufacturing outside of the U.S. and offer them money instead to engineer robots to manufacture their products to keep them within the U.S. instead. When that company says "Well, we lack the specialties to design a robot", then the government can say "We can arrange for another U.S. company to design and build the robot for you. Then you'd only be responsible for finding a company which can operate it for you and paying them to use it." and when they say "We don't know how to find a company who can do that for us, the Chinese company we're using simply takes our design, builds it and drop ships it for us", then the government rep says "That's ok, we have a database of X number of U.S. companies who can acquire the raw materials and operate your robots for you".

        Now, instead of a stupid plan like Obama's which would just keep the republican bureaucrats in their comfortable offices, cars and houses (it oddly, they stand to profit the most his plan), a company will now cut their manufacturing costs by keeping it inline within the U.S., a U.S. company will get a contract to design, build and ship a robot, another company will get the job of manufacturing a product using a robot based production line which will need workers, another U.S. based company would get the contract to produce the packaging (cardboard, plastic etc...) using robots operated by Americans and the rail system can receive a major boon if the U.S. provides bonuses to the robot operating companies to be located along the rail lines.

        I used to run a U.S. based manufacturing business and chose NOT to upgrade to robotic assembly lines (I was too small for that) and simply had to leave the business. Now those robotic assembly lines are being run in China.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    robot butlers

    The US is that spaceship on wall-e so course they need robots.

  4. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

    They do the non-peaceful robots at DARPA.

    Death-drones patrolling autonomously as we speak over Afghanistan and Pakistan, and I think they take the occasional pot shot to relieve the monotony. Like every day or so.

  5. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    Ambitious America!

    "$50m of research cash annually"

    0.41 Afghanistanday per year? Not leaning out of the window here, I see.

    Obligatory bum icon.

    1. TheOtherHobbbes


      That's pretty funny.

      I'll bet the crowd went wild when they heard that.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Surely it would be simpler

    To require any CEO/Board jobs to be off shored to third world if they see fit to offshore jobs lower down the scale - it would make them think and invest accordingly

  7. Anonymous Coward

    I'm guessing he hasn't seen Transformers 3 yet

    there's some pretty damning evidence to the contrary in there

  8. Pete 43


    Did he not read about the robot revolution in 2000AD ?

  9. Bunker_Monkey

    3 Rules safe

    see title

    This has got nothing whatsoever to do with the planned iRobot Sequel?

  10. fishman

    The future

    If they expand the use of robots, eventually we will end up in a Skynet like future.

  11. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "paying decent wages and supporting its workers in comfortable middle-class lifestyles"

    Surely that should read "paying decent wages and supporting its robots in comfortable middle-class lifestyles" ?

    I mean, since when has American capitalism worried about the lifestyle of its workers ? If the robots are the ones working, then it is the robots who get the decent working conditions.

    You're not meaning to tell me that employers are going to keep humans on the payroll if it is the robots doing the job ? That would be counterproductive, and the beancounters will torpedo that idea after the first quarter.

    Especially if they've been replaced by robots as well.

    1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

      But robot beancounters

      could show more signs of humanity

  12. Solomon Grundy

    I Don't Get It

    How will automation help the economy? Or the job situation? Isn't the whole idea behind automation to eliminate some jobs? If automation doesn't eliminate jobs what's the point in automating it?

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Stop me if you heard this one before...

      Nixon goes to China. He sees 1000 workers digging a ditch and doing various manual labor on the job site. He goes to his Chinese translator and asks why are they using manual labor instead of more modern equipment and machines... the translator responds that by using picks and shovels that they are able to keep more laborers employed. Nixon thinks about this for a second or two and then asks... "Why don't you give them smaller hand shovels..."

      Ok, first I don't think it was Nixon but someone on his staff that said this.

      By leveraging machines, you can use less labor but they work more intelligently.

      Think about the productivity of companies that employed hundreds of secretaries and file clerks back in the 50's and 60's that are now replaced by the laptop on your desk, or your iPad2.

      This would allow people to do more advanced work.

      But to your point... the Japanese brought in robotics to the manufacturing of cars. Americans didn't. Popular myth is that the bean counters looked that the costs involved and the time to ROI was measured in decades. It was cheaper to continue to use manual labor even though the cars were not as well made. Fast forward 20 years. Car manufacturers use robots and fewer workers in order to compete.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward


        At least those secretaries knew how to write properly, and the file clerks kept things organized. Now we leave all that to managers who lack the time or patience to do it right. Same thing's happening in engineering, where drafters and other helpers (i.e. young engineers) are being replaced by software.

        It's ironic how automation has undone labor specialization. I suspect that we've already passed the point of diminishing returns in a lot of areas.

        1. Ian Michael Gumby


          Grammars change over the years.

          I'm not suggesting that Microsoft's hints on grammar should always be followed, however, not all 'admins' or secretaries are going to have an English degree.

          The point I was trying to make is that we can create makeshift jobs that may pay a wage, however that individual will have no future. Literally a slave wage earner. Currently in the US, there are a lot of jobs that go unfilled. Farm labor where you can't harvest the crop using machines. Try weeding a single field of Watermelons or picking them. Its hard work. I can honestly say you wouldn't last a week, let alone a single day. Try getting people who claim to want to work to take those jobs. Obama and his team are saying that as the technology evolves, so too does the workforce to meet its demands.

          With respect to automation undoing labor specialization, the reverse could be said about technology. As we become more advanced technologically, we become more specialized. I don't know about you, but I sit in front of a computer all day. While I can program it down to the microcode, I couldn't talk to you intelligently about microprocessor design or hardware design. I also doubt you'd see your family intern to perform open heart surgery. (You get the idea.)

  13. Bilgepipe


    The factory where my father used to work categorised employees as "Cost Units." I wonder what these robots will be classified as/

  14. sT0rNG b4R3 duRiD

    'As C-in-C I can assure you the machines seem peaceful'

    I LOL'ed.

    Mine's the miner's overallst. Gonna start digging Zion before it's too late. Anyone care to join me?

    1. Lamont Cranston

      Zion was a dump.

      Smart people surrender to the Matrix.

  15. Greencat


    Not just unskilled jobs that won't exist in 20 years - at lot of what are currently regarded as skilled jobs or professions won't exist either (either due to outsourcing or automation).

    At the moment, we have the interesting situation where every company is trying to maximise profit through reducing human based costs while conveniently forgetting that without money those humans are no longer customers.

    Perhaps nearly all of us will be claiming benefits in the future. If that's the case, there had better be something better to watch on daytime TV.

  16. Bernard M. Orwell

    Resouce Based Economics..

    There are queues of people, unemployed, willing to work.

    There are resources that can be gathered.

    There are products that people want.

    There are factories standing empty that can convert resources to products, given labour.

    What prevents us bringing these things together to create wealth? Globalism, debt and bankruptcy. These are concepts that mean nothing other than the meaning they have assigned to themselves, in the same way that making money has become about moving money around, creating the very debt and debt-structures that drive down our living standards day by day.

    All we have to do is stop using these concepts, walk over to the factory, tear down the "bankrupt" signs and start work. To not do so because concepts and words stop us is insanity.

    For more information on resource based economics look up the "Zeitgeist Movement".

    1. Robert Carnegie Silver badge


      The people that want the products you can produce don't have any money.

      So that's where it falls down, you see.

      Building stuff that people won't, can't buy - it's the sort of story we used to tell about the Soviet Union. The factory that converted to making platform shoes (it was a very long time ago, or seems so) just when nobody wanted them any more.

      In other words, cobblers.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        another problem

        Factories are cheap. Retooling isn't.

  17. NomNomNom


    they might be able to save america but will they ever understand love?

  18. Erroneous Howard

    Of course they seem peaceful...

    ....that's what they do right before they attack! Gain our trust and then strike while we are weak.

    I for one welcome our new robot overlords.

  19. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Is there a Unified Master Marshall Plan or a Crazy Assortment of Mismatched Disconnected Systems

    Err.... who/what presently delivers global instructions?

  20. Alan Firminger

    This is no change

    Mr President's contribution is trivial.

    Market and capital are improving productivity all the time.

    And the result has to be a minority of the population enjoying immense wealth and an ever increasing number of people in poverty, with no health care.

    But you cannot buck the market.

    The only humane solution is redistributive taxation and benefits.

    The Daily Mail won't like it.

  21. veti Silver badge

    Great idea.

    Oh yeah, that worked so well for Japan. Now there's a country that's seen unparalleled growth in living standards for the past 20 years.

    Oh wait...

    Seriously, if all the low-skilled jobs are done by robots, then how exactly are low-skilled people supposed to make a living? If your answer involves "retraining", then who is going to pay for that, and what happens if the training doesn't work, or if the new job is promptly robotised too?

    Just to clarify - I'm not a luddite. I'm all for getting robots to do as much as they can. But I'm also for a universal government benefit - say, 20% of national income, distributed evenly between all citizens, with absolutely no strings attached.

  22. Ray 8
    Thumb Down


    How will Corporations stay in business when their customer base has been replaced by robots and have no income to buy their products?

  23. Anteaus

    Beancounters beware...

    Almost all of the couner-robot arguments are based on the 'beancounter society' paradigm in which the GDP - the accumulation of money, not goods or services, is the measure of progress.

    The fact is that widespread use of robots will eventually make the 'beancounter model' of society untenable. But at the same time, robots will vastly increase our REAL wealth and quality of life.

    Roll-out the robots, I say.

  24. Peter Clarke 1


    Dick Jones about his ED209 project- 'Who cares if it works? We've got the maintenance/spares contract'

  25. myhandle
    Thumb Down

    An excuse

    Sounds like they just want an excuse to keep their massive military budgets in the age of having to deal with massive US debt.

  26. Anonymous Coward

    nothing to worry about here, folks.

    just more campaign promises from the Campaigner-in-Chief. He'll forget about all the inconvenient or non-expedient promises within a few minutes of re-election. It's been par for the course so far, I don't expect the leopard to change his spots any time soon.

    "the wars of ttomorrow will be fought by tiny robots. Your job is to build and maintain those robots".

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