People who work in knowledge-based fields like information technology, accounting, graphic design or legal research are probably well aware that their jobs are susceptible to being outsourced to a low wage country. In fact, I suspect that economists underestimate the impact that this practice will have on the job market as improving technology makes offshoring cheaper and more accessible to smaller businesses. That may be especially true if weak consumer demand continues to push businesses to focus on cost-cutting rather than revenue growth.
But what about people who have jobs that involve physically interacting with their environment? Those jobs can’t be offshored, right? Well…
There’s an article in the San Jose Mercury News today on the emerging remote-controlled robot industry:
The declining prices for telepresence robots will encourage experimentation among companies and entrepreneurs, who will find new uses for them, analysts say.
“These robots will have a network effect,” said Hyoun Park, an analyst at the Aberdeen Group, a technology research firm. “The more robots there are, the easier it will be to work remotely in ways we haven’t thought about before.”
As as these technologies become more prevalent, I think one of the new ideas that will emerge will be offshoring the control function. So you’ll have a worker in India or Bangladesh who can do a job that requires physical proximity in a developed country. Some jobs that “can’t be outsourced” … might just get outsourced.
I have a section on this in The Lights in the Tunnel:
Those jobs that require significant hand-eye coordination in a varied environment are currently very difficult to fully automate. But what about offshoring? Can these jobs be offshored?
In fact they can, and we are likely to see this increasingly in the near future. As an example, consider a manufacturing assembly line. Suppose that the highly repetitive jobs have already been automated, but there remain jobs for skilled operators at certain key points in the production process. How could management get rid of these skilled workers?
They could simply build a remote controlled robot to perform the task, and then offshore the control function. As we have pointed out, it is the ability to recognize a complex visual image and then manipulate a robot arm based on that image that is a primary challenge preventing full robotic automation. Transmitting a real-time visual image overseas, where a low paid worker can then manipulate the machinery, is certainly already feasible. Remote controlled robots are currently used in military and police applications that would be dangerous for humans. We very likely will see such robots in factories and workplaces in the near future.