Fire the robot


Toyota, which just yesterday announced a recall of more than six million cars for a variety of defects, is having second thoughts about its robot culture. A longtime pacesetter in factory automation, the company is putting a new stress on nurturing human expertise and craftsmanship, reports Bloomberg:

“We need to become more solid and get back to basics, to sharpen our manual skills and further develop them,” said [Mitsuru] Kawai, a half century-long company veteran tapped by President Akio Toyoda to promote craftsmanship at Toyota’s plants. “When I was a novice, experienced masters used to be called gods, and they could make anything.” These gods, or Kami-sama in Japanese, are making a comeback at Toyota, the company that long set the pace for manufacturing prowess in the auto industry and beyond. Toyota’s next step forward is counter-intuitive in an age of automation: Humans are taking the place of machines in plants across Japan so workers can develop new skills and figure out ways to improve production lines and the car-building process.

The trend in manufacturing is to turn workers into robot tenders who feed parts into automated machines and watch for breakdowns. The shift of core manufacturing tasks from people to robots may boost productivity in the short run. But the cost is a decay in human know-how and a loss of the unexpected insights that come with that know-how. Robots, for all their speed and precision, lack perspective and understanding. They can monitor and optimize measurable aspects of production processes, but they can’t view those processes from different angles, and they have no feel for the goods being produced. So-called “smart factories” are actually pretty stupid.

Recognizing the dangers in allowing craftsmanship to decay, Toyota is giving pink slips to some of its robots, returning their jobs to people in order to promote the development of deep know-how:

Learning how to make car parts from scratch gives younger workers insights they otherwise wouldn’t get from picking parts from bins and conveyor belts, or pressing buttons on machines. At about 100 manual-intensive workspaces introduced over the last three years across Toyota’s factories in Japan, these lessons can then be applied to reprogram machines to cut down on waste and improve processes, Kawai said. In an area Kawai directly supervises at the forging division of Toyota’s Honsha plant, workers twist, turn and hammer metal into crankshafts instead of using the typically automated process. Experiences there have led to innovations in reducing levels of scrap and shortening the production line 96 percent from its length three years ago.

Much of the current thinking about the future of automation adopts the viewpoint of the robot. It overstates the importance of the things computers are good at (things that tend to be easily measured) and understates the importance of the things that people are good at (things that often are not easily measured). The flaw in that view manifests itself only over the long run, after masters have begun to lose their mastery and companies have begun to lose the intangible benefits mastery brings. Just because a robot can take over a job doesn’t mean it should.

Photo: Wikipedia.

8 thoughts on “Fire the robot

  1. lee

    “these lessons can then be applied to reprogram machines to cut down on waste and improve processes, Kawai said.”

    sounds more to me like they are just stepping back for a short time to see how the robotic processes can be improved, and once they have that knowledge it will be back to fully automating those processes. the long term trend hasn’t changed, it’s just being refined a bit in the short term.

  2. Nick Post author

    Reprogram once, and you’re done forever? The end of progress?

    That’s not how I read it.

  3. lee

    reprogram periodically, as needed. as the robots get “smarter”, the less often this will be needed. once the singularity happens, it will be a moot issue. :)

  4. Drew Quiriconi

    Isn’t society as a whole moving toward a more automated society? Isn’t society giving the jobs that don’t need to be done by humans to robotics? Who’s to say that the job of the factory worker is not turning into the software developer and electrical engineer? Why do you see this is a negative? If humans don’t have to use unnecessary man power for something, why is that a bad thing? Civilization is advancing, and jobs that can only be done by humans like any research science, engineering, and the arts are quickly becoming easier for people to move into because the manual labor is being roboticized. Are you afraid of the future?

  5. Nick Post author


    Those are a lot of questions, all good ones. You’ll find my full reply here.

    Pardon the marketing.


  6. Malcolm

    Nick, great post.
    We should read some Hegel: the book is Phenomenology of Spirit, the chapter on lord and slave. It’s a key chapter that later inspired a good deal of Marx’s thinking. Here Hegel describes a kind of wasting away of the lord, who produces nothing because the lord is served by the slave. The slave, the producer, has a future in Hegel’s account, the lord does not.

    Also, you write “the things computers are good at (things that tend to be easily measured) and understates the importance of the things that people are good at (things that often are not easily measured).” I wonder if this is true for robots 1.0 and 2.0, but what about robots 3.0 and 4.0? Robots ten years from now, with possibly a whole cloud of computational expertise? Could a robot 4.0 write a novel? If they can whip us at chess and Jeopardy… I’ve heard some folks say that robots will soon be taking away white collar jobs.

    Just a few thoughts!

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