Michigan's economy, battered over the past decade by hundreds of thousands of lost manufacturing jobs, could surge again in coming decades by making robots for use in everyday life, futurist George Friedman said Tuesday.
He told about 500 people at the Michigan Chamber's annual Future Forum at Kellogg Center that the state is uniquely situated to build robots that can help the disabled, tend the elderly and perform many routine tasks.
"I don't know where the U.S. would put the robotics business but here. ... It's yours to lose," said Friedman, founder of the STRATFOR private security think tank in Austin, Texas, and author of the book, "The Next 100 Years."
He noted that Michigan has the industrial know-how to build robots, as well as the ability to tap talent at its top-notch universities and to benefit from weapons systems research being done at the U.S. Army TACOM Life Cycle Management Command, headquartered in Warren.
What it doesn't have, he said, is an entrepreneurial spirit that could launch a whole new industry the way Henry Ford launched mass-produced motor vehicles early last century.
"Michigan is a place that likes big corporations," Friedman said. "Michigan's cultural challenge is to embrace small companies."
He expects it to be a tough transition, but said the elements that create the push for change are in place.
The loss of good-paying jobs in the auto industry, pharmaceuticals and other areas are forcing people who have lost jobs to start their own businesses to survive. Drug researchers now run their own startup companies in Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo, while engineers and people with experience in manufacturing are learning to start new businesses.
To Friedman, it's the same dynamic that forced Pittsburgh to reinvent itself as a research center after the steel industry collapsed and the Research Triangle in North Carolina to be created when the textile industry moved overseas. Closer to home, Ohio entrepreneurs who lost their jobs in the downsized rubber and tire industry have created new industries involving polymers.
Friedman doesn't see the move toward alternative energy being pushed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm and President Barack Obama's administration as creating the large number of jobs Michigan still needs to climb out of its economic hole. He said the Great Lakes and Michigan's other water resources could be an advantage in rebuilding the economy, but are just part of the puzzle.
He's putting his bets on robots. The country and much of the rest of the industrialized world will face a severe labor shortage by 2030, Friedman predicts. Unless it can find a way to fill some of those low-skill jobs with robots, the country's standard of living will plummet, even if it opens the spigot to more immigration.
"This isn't an option," he said of the need to create a more entrepreneurial culture that can create products to fill new demands. "This is a process that's going to take a generation, and it starts now."