Globalization, Robots and a Future Scenario


We all understand globalization as the free movement of goods, ideas and people. Buying Chinese products in European stores, working together with foreign colleagues, and taking an online-course from a physically distant university are all results of globalization.

Richard Baldwin, a Geneva-based economist, sees all these results as a consequence of a series of waves of globalization, namely the so called unbundlings. In his new book The Great Convergence: Information Technology and the New Globalisation Mr. Baldwin unfolds the three-cascading-constraints narrative: the unbundling of goods (1), ideas (2), and people (3).

According to the narrative, globalization’s first acceleration started with the Industrial Revolution, when the cost of moving goods fell. In other words, while before (in a pre-globalized context), the world economy was constrained by distance and the majority of trade happened at a village level, now roads, trains, ships and planes allowed people to move goods across borders.

Whereas shipping got cheaper, the costs of moving ideas and people remained high… until the next acceleration. Mr. Baldwin calls it the ‘second unbundling’, and refers to the 1990s, when the revolution of information and communication technology happened. The IT revolution radically changed the way we communicate and made it easy and affordable to move ideas across borders. In essence, while before the ‘second unbundling’ one had to travel far to capture and learn relevant know-how, then today all information is just ‘a click away’.

Now, with the constraints of goods and ideas unbundled, what about the third wave of ‘unbundling’ people? Naturally, both industrial and IT revolution made the movement of people much easier, yet we can still hardly speak about free and low-cost movement of people. Especially given the continuously unfolding political resistance to migration, many still remain ‘stuck’ home.

In his three-cascading-constraints narrative, Richard Baldwin argues that the next radical change in globalization is still to come and that it will be most likely driven by technology. But Mr. Baldwin doesn’t predict a cheaper movement of people, he is rather speaking about work being physically unbundled from workers.

How? Telerobotics and telepresence seem to be the answer.

Telerobotics refers to a robot, which is remotely controlled by a human on the other end. So for example, a qualified engineer, sitting in his office in country X, can do a job in country Y by means of steering a robot. Sounds like virtual migration, doesn’t it? Telepresence will do similar tasks to telerobotics, but instead of ‘teleporting’ manual tasks, it will ‘teleport’ brainwork. Indeed, different teleconferencing technologies already do that, yet telepresence intends to create the ultimate experience, making it feel like the person on the screen is actually in the room. As Mr. Baldwin puts it, ‘telerobotics will globalize competition for many types of manual work, while telepresence will globalize many types of “white collar” or professional brainwork’.

Remote-controlled robots and life-like experiences of telecommunication? Sounds like science fiction? … or rather like a possible future scenario of globalization?

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