Will This Robotic Arm Destroy Jobs or Save Society?

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(This post originally appeared on Inc.)

The company is called Sewbo, and what it does could have an enormous impact on the way clothes are manufactured – and the people who manufacture them.

Sewbo makes a robotic arm that is able to sew a T-shirt without any human intervention – a “long sought goal of automation for garment production,” according to its website. The company believes that its technology will allow manufacturers to make clothing at a much lower cost and shorten supply chains.

The breakthrough is not really just the robotics. It’s about the fabric. Sewing a shirt is complicated because the fabric shifts during production, and manipulating or straightening the materials has been something that only humans could do. Sewbo’s product temporarily stiffens the garments, making them rigid like sheet metal, using a water-soluble stiffener. That makes it easy for the arm to do its thing. Simple. Brilliant.

The company’s founder, Jon Zornow, is a web developer with no previous background in robotics, manufacturing or even the apparel business. “When I looked into it, it seemed that the standard approach to robotic sewing has been to counter the complexity of working with fabrics, with equally complex machines,” he said in this Singularity Hub article. His simple idea has created a buzz in the industry – and it’s creating problems as well.

The problems, of course, have to do with society. Can you imagine the cost savings that large clothing manufacturers could enjoy by using robotics to make their clothing instead of people? Think of the safety issues that could be avoided, let alone the public relations messes that have embarrassed many well-known brands over the years when news of foreign sweatshops making their products was made public. Also, by using Zornow’s process of stiffening and then making clothing with robotic arms, much of that process could be brought back to the U.S. instead of outsourced overseas, an attractive story in these protectionist times. Those are the benefits.

The downside, once again, is jobs.

“The garment workers of New York, Chicago, London, and all points West were put out of business by globalization,” writes John Biggs in TechCrunch. “Now, thanks to a robot arm and some water-soluble thermoplastic, the workers who took up their sewing machines may also soon be obsolete.”

So here’s yet another story of another company introducing another technology that will drive another stake into the employment numbers…both here and around the world. There is no question that businesses will invest in technologies that reduces their costs and that makes them more profitable. They have an obligation to do so for their shareholders and to remain competitive. But as each new Sewbo arm is deployed, another human will be out of a job. Thousands and thousands of human beings.

Is that a problem? I’m going to remain optimistic and say no. Just keeping “busy” on pennies a day doesn’t mean being happy or successful or living the kind of life humans were meant to live. The more technologies that replace mundane, low-skilled human tasks, the more opportunities humans will have to better themselves, educate themselves and do other productive things. Maybe the enormous profits made by the apparel industry will be shared more equally to create shorter workweeks for everyone. Maybe new technologies will create new innovations, new products and new markets that will employ people in other ways. Maybe robotics will one day do so many things that a great many humans will have more time to paint, read, travel, eat, make love.

Regardless, we can’t stop technologies from companies like Sewbo from happening. All we can do is enjoy them.

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