iPhone manufacturer Foxconn is replacing 60,000 workers with robots

Lending an arm.
Lending an arm.
Image: AP Photo/Vincent Yu
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The next time you buy a new iPhone, it’s possible that it will have been made by a robot.

Foxconn, the manufacturing company that builds electronic devices for a range of companies including Apple, Samsung and Microsoft, has reportedly replaced 60,000 human workers from one of its factories in China with robots, according to the South China Morning Post.

In an article describing the growth strategies in the country’s Kunshan county, Xu Yulian, a department head at Foxconn’s factory there, told the paper:

“The Foxconn factory has reduced its employee strength from 110,000 to 50,000, thanks to the introduction of robots. It has tasted success in reduction of labour costs.”

A representative for Foxconn told the BBC that it was indeed automating jobs, but said that did not mean mass job losses. Foxconn also said that the robots allow human workers to spend more time focusing on “higher value-added elements in the manufacturing process” like research and development, and quality control. (Quartz has reached out to Foxconn to confirm this.)

This will not be welcome news for those who have argued that increasing automation could lead to widespread unemployment. Earlier this week, Ed Rensi, the former CEO of McDonald’s USA, told Fox Business that a robot that costs $35,000 to buy was cheaper than supporting a worker at $15 per hour—an increase to the US minimum wage that many have called for.

While robots have occupied factory floors for decades, they have mainly preformed basic tasks. As technologies improve like computer vision, giving robots the ability to see and perceive the world as humans do, and machine learning, allowing robots to be taught how to perform tasks, rather than programmed, it’s likely that robots will be able to do increasingly complex jobs. Even today, much of Amazon’s warehouses are automated, and the company is working on creating bots that can fulfill orders without human help.

Foxconn has in the past been criticized for the apparently draconian conditions it makes its factory workers live and work in. Multiple suicides have been reported, and the company even installed safety nets, reportedly to prevent workers from jumping to their deaths from factory rooftops.