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Progress watch 2012: Smart phones, jobs returning to America, and war crimes trials

The often-slow arc of good news may not make headlines. But 2012 brought its quiet share: from extreme poverty dropping by half since 1990 to a robot with the bulky profile of an NFL player that may have a role in bringing jobs back to the US.

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Election season debates overshadowed some exciting news about the economy, which may get a transforming boost from a new kind of robot: Baxter, the (comparatively) affordable factory robot from Rodney Brooks, the man who brought the world the Roomba vacuum cleaner. Tucker calls Baxter "the most unique factory robot that's ever been made" because of its dexterity. "It's about the size of an NFL linebacker, and it's got two arms [that] can pick up a whole bunch of types of objects and do a wide variety of very simple tasks," Tucker says.

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"That doesn't sound ... as earthshaking as it is," he concedes. But it might be a major game changer. Most factory robots can perform a few specific tasks, and they can't easily be programmed to do something else. That's why they're seen on assembly lines for cars and appliances but not on those for toys or personal electronics, Tucker says. Baxter can handle the little items that need an update every season. And that might bring some of the manufacturing that's migrated to China back to the US.

Then again, some of that labor is already returning: This year, "reshoring" entered the lexicon as a way of talking about manufacturing jobs returning to the US, usually from China. There isn't tracking of official numbers for this, but the Reshoring Initiative estimates that 12 percent of the manufacturing jobs the economy has seen return since 2010 were from abroad.

Observers caution that the reshoring trend may be a fad; more time is needed to know for sure. That brings us back to the slow pace of progress. However maddening it may be, it is also undeniable: Things are getting better.

"We're winning more than we're losing," says Jerome Glenn, director of the Millennium Project, a global futures research center and think tank. The project releases an annual "State of the Future" index, and this year's says that "the world is getting richer, healthier, better educated, more peaceful, and better connected, [and] people are living longer."

Mr. Glenn cautions that things aren't all rosy, and thumbing through any newspaper would suggest there are still plenty of world problems to make progress on. He compares it to making ice: Cooling water isn't too difficult, but turning it into ice requires serious energy. "We're at that point of going from water into ice in a sense of difficulty" of shared global challenges. It's time, he says, "to roll up our sleeves."

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