We look back at history and it seems like a smooth, logical path as opposed to the chaos that we see around us in the present, but if you dig a little deeper you start to realize that chaos is the norm and it only looks logical after the dust has settled. Periods of high unemployment tend to be bad in terms of social unrest, so governments tend to find things for people to do. Large infrastructure projects are usually good for that, apropos to the initiative that Obama is starting now regarding upgrading and repairing our highways and bridges.
Education and retraining is a no-brainer for young and middle-aged workers, but it is a much harder proposition for older ones. At each age level there will be a percentage of people that are unwilling or unable to adapt (I once spoke to a new hire engineer right out of college who told me about how relieved he was that he didn't have to learn things anymore. I wonder where he is today?).
That is a good point. 'This time is different' often doesn't work out that way. The key thing to realize is that things will march forward in spite of whether it is different or just another instance of the same.
"There is already a return of manufacturing jobs to the US, but the jobs are programming the robots instead of actually working the assembly lines."
I think it's good that workers still have jobs. They don't necessarily have to work in the assmbly lines if that is slowing down the nanufacturing process. Learning new skills is something that we all should all keep on doing to stay updated.
Another benefit of this change is that people will be forced to upgrade their knowledge, to study something new, to learn a new skill. This, as a whole, improves the level of the society, which is a good thing. With so many open, free courses online there is no real excuse for not learning something new.
"But reliable robots—especially ones required to work beyond the safety cages of a factory floor—have proved hard to make, and robots are still pretty stupid."
This is about to change, but not only because of improvent in sensors, etc. Researchers are working to make robots that can be decision-makers and some others with other human characteristics that will be helpful in various industries including healthcare.
I believe you will find interesting some articles I have written about AI and robotics that will be here soon.
And it's not only risk and dangerous jobs, it's mechanical jobs as well. Something that is so boring to do that is equally bad for workers and it causes them to make mistakes.
You asked: "will these human workforces get job somewhere else? Who is making sure that they are placed somewhere else?"
In the history of humanity we have seen situations like this one with robots quite many times. Workers either get jobs doing something else, like you can see in the video below, or they have to learn new skills to do some other jobs which require new skills as jobs will also change and new jobs that don't exixt right now will be created.
Now, the ones who need to be making sure that they keep updated and learn new skills are the workers themselves. They will get relocated if they adapt to the new demands in the factories and learn to work together with the robots, as a team.
In the video below we can see a factory where robots, including one of the spider-like ones from ABB that you saw in the slideshow, help in a pretzel factory. You can see that there are also workers needed in the process and this is something that is likely to continue.
For the company, it would be out of the question to have workers doing all the job as the process would slow down so much that the business would have to close down. There is no coming back to slow manufacturing in any industry. From here on, everything will speed up even more.
@Susan: Thanks for your response!! I agree with you completely on the usefulness of Robots in making some of the tough jobs easier especially where health & safety of the worker is at risk...in a toxic environment, working in the furnaces, lifting heavy stuffs etc. My only worry is: will these human workforces get job somewhere else? Who is making sure that they are placed somewhere else?
@Susan, I completely agree in theory, but the reality of it on the ground will be more complex. There is already a return of manufacturing jobs to the US, but the jobs are programming the robots instead of actually working the assembly lines. Those jobs are preferable in a number of ways as you point out. They are safer, and they also pay better, but there are fewer of them and they demand a very different skill set. Eventually the market will adapt, as a new generation of workers grows into the skills required, but that doesn't happen overnight.
So far this has been a reasonable transition, or at least as reasonable as the complete revamp of a massive industry can be, but the rate of change is increasing. While the market is still going through this transition there is another right behind it. The current generation of industrial robots requires detailed programming, but the next will not. Labor shortages for programmers will make the new generation that much more attractive for manufacturers, speeding their adoption even more. Educating humans takes time, and the skills that they are learning could be obsolete before they get a chance to use them.
This could all eventually work itelf out into a much better environment, but there will be a lot of changes and change rarely happens smoothly.
" . . . but it seems like they may be moving more into taking over the majority of manufacturing and maybe even a wider spectrum of jobs."
If you look closely to what these industrial robots and AI systems do you will see that it's just about a change of who does what what they come to solve.
How many times we have heard horrifying stories about workers ending up suffering from irreversible health issues, in some cases life threatening illnesses because of the work they used to do.
Those workers dealt with toxic substances, gases, materials on a daily basis. Now all those jobs can be cafely done by robots.
Someone needs to keep see that everything is done and that robots are performing well. These are jobs that those workers can do now, among others.
The ROI of these robots is estimated in about a year, depending on the industry and the type of work they perform, of course.
Adopting these robots is cheaper for the manufacturer, factory, owner of the business, and safer for workers who will not risk their health and sometimes their life for a usually low-paid and risky job.
The adiption of automation also implies the need of new human skills. This is what workers need to focus on now.