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The Rise of the (Industrial) Robots: Pondering the Latest Statistics

As the pandemic reminded everyone the world’s economy is still far from being thoroughly automated — or even automatable — with the hype about progress in this area in the years before the pandemic, and the hype about some rush to automate in the wake of the disruption, both a stark contrast with the little changed reality of 2022.

A glance at the statistics supplied by the International Federation of Robotics this very week makes the point. In 2021 the world still had just one industrial robot for every seventy manufacturing workers.

Still, if we are far away from that world some long for and others fear in which robots will relieve us of drudgery and put us out of our jobs it is still the case that the use of robots is rapidly increasing in this area — for if one robot for every seventy workers does not sound terribly impressive, it is a doubling of “robot density” in six years’ time. (The figure had been 1 per 150 manufacturing workers in 2015.)

Moreover, this global average conceals significant disparities. At last report Russia had perhaps 1 robot for every 1600 workers, and even Britain just 1 for every 100. But in the U.S. the figure was more like 1 for every 36, in China 1 for every 31, in Germany and Japan 1 for every 25 — while in South Korea (an outlier here as in so many other areas) it is 1 for every 10.

Indeed, as this list suggests one can already argue for the “robot/worker” ratio in industry as a useful index of a country’s level of industrialization, and especially how much high-capital, high-tech, high-productivity manufacturing it does (it being no accident that fields like car and electronics production are especially robot-intensive). And it seems a safe bet that, even if the progress in automation continues to run far behind the extravagant claims of fashionable futurists about how far it will go, how fast, it seems a safe enough bet that that index’s usefulness will only grow in the coming years.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.