Henrik Christensen

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San Diego wants to be “Robot Alley,” or at least that’s the ambitious goal of Henrik Christensen, leader of UCSD’s Contextual Robotics Institute. In an excellent San Diego Union-Tribune Q&A conducted by Gary Robbins, the engineer comments on the impact of autonomous vehicles (which he believes are “10, 15 years out”), technological unemployment (“we’ll see significant displacement of taxi drivers, truck drivers”), Universal Basic Income (“in the U.S., that would be a really hard thing”) and robots that learn (“they’re going to use potentially all of the data that’s available about you.”)

On the last topic, Christensen believes machines that know every last detail about us will be especially useful in the care of our graying population, though he realizes this elaborate stream of info can be abused–and it certainly will be, especially in societies that value markets above all else, where people are often thought of as consumers rather than citizens. Are such invasions of privacy more driven by political and economic systems than the technology itself? Will robots be kinder in Sweden?

The opening:


Automation and robotics are advancing quickly. What impact will this have on employment in the United States?

Henrik Christensen:

We see two trends. We will use robots and automation to bring manufacturing jobs back from overseas, primarily from Southeast Asia. At the same time, we will see some jobs get displaced by automation. There will be fully automated, driverless transportation in this country by 2020, and that will eliminate some jobs now held by workers like truck drivers and taxi drivers. 


Will there be a net increase or decrease in jobs?

Henrik Christensen:

To be honest with you, we don’t know. There was a recent study on this by the National Academies, but there wasn’t enough good data to make it clear what the outcome will be. We do see a lot of change occurring. Amazon is printing books at its local distribution centers, then sending them on to customers. They print the book, put a cover on it, and off it goes. That cuts down on transportation jobs and costs. 


Are you saying that Amazon is just beginning to do this?

Henrik Christensen:

It’s happening today. This program has been in existence for more than a year. The last estimate I heard was that 65 percent of the books Amazon delivers are printed in its local distribution centers. Amazon wants to do (widespread) deliveries of groceries, too.


But doesn’t this assume that the technology of driverless vehicles is much further along than it actually is?

Henrik Christensen:

My own prediction is that kids born today will never get to drive a car. Autonomous, driverless cars are 10, 15 years out. All the automotive companies — Daimler, GM, Ford — are saying that within five years they will have autonomous, driverless cars on the road.•

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The next robots will be more agile, the cords cut. They’ll be nimble enough to move around a warehouse, and manufacturing may be reshored to the United States. Of course, that won’t add up to as many jobs as you might think, because while they’ll be safe enough to collaborate with humans, they won’t require too many in the short run and hardly any in the longer term.

An excerpt from James Hagerty’s Wall Street Journal article about the nouveau machines:

Today, industrial robots are most common in auto plants—which have long been the biggest users of robot technology—and they do jobs that don’t take much delicacy: heavy lifting, welding, applying glue and painting. People still do most of the final assembly of cars, especially when it involves small parts or wiring that needs to be guided into place.

Now robots are taking on some jobs that require more agility. At aRenault SA plant in Cleon, France, robots made by Universal Robots AS of Denmark drive screws into engines, especially those that go into places people find hard to get at. The robots employ a reach of more than 50 inches and six rotating joints to do the work. They also verify that parts are properly fastened and check to make sure the correct part is being used.

The Renault effort demonstrates a couple of trends that are drastically changing how robots are made. For one, they’re getting much lighter. The Renault units weigh only about 64 pounds, so “we can easily remove them and reinstall them in another place,” says Dominique Graille, a manager at Renault, which is using 15 robots from Universal now and plans to double that by year-end.

Researchers hope robots will become so easy to set up and move around that they can reduce the need for companies to make heavy investments in tools and structures that are bolted to the floor. That would allow manufacturers to make shorter runs of niche or custom products without having to spend lots of time and money reconfiguring factories. “We’re getting away from the [structures and machinery] that can only be used for one thing on the factory floor and [instead] using robots that can be easily repurposed,” says Henrik Christensen, director of robotics at Georgia Institute of Technology.•

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