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Jobs could return to America, but robots might take them

Workers exchange spools of thread as a robot picks up thread made from recycled plastic bottles at the Repreve Bottle Processing Center, part of the Unifi textile company in Yadkinville, N.C. (AP photo)

If you go by the published manufacturing numbers, 2017 begins with American factories humming once again.

“They call it advanced manufacturing, which sounds really good, but it’s basically robots and a series of engineers who look after the robots,” said Dr. Richard Baldwin, an economist who worked in the first Bush White House and now studies the global economy from his teaching post in Geneva.

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“The ‘man’ in manufacturing is being taken out and it’s going more to compufacturing, basically where men are helping machines make stuff instead of machines helping men make stuff.”

So that Amazon box you got over the holidays was likely stuffed by one of its 45,000 robots. I just saw a piece in Forbes about robots moving into those iPhone factories in Shenzen to replace even low-cost Chinese workers. Which is Baldwin says President-elect Trump should focus not on saving jobs, but on helping workers by getting them ready to design and run those robots, and figuring out how to take care of the workers who can’t change.

“That’s the big mistake that Trump seems to be heading towards, because in a year or two those jobs could easily have evolved or be replaced by automation and who will remember the deal done in the fall of 2016,” said Baldwin.

Dr. Baldwin says that, yes, Trump can keep his most famous promise:

“I’ll bring back our jobs from China, from Mexico, from Japan, from so many places.”

He can bring back those jobs, but robots will be doing them.

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