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Robots and jobs, a nuanced issue

Judging by some of the headlines around the world it would be easy to conclude that robots are the source of our employment problems. The reality is far more nuanced.

Lately, the backlash against robots for replacing humans in some jobs has been on the rise. Largely driven by popular media, the general conclusion seems to be that the reason we are experiencing a jobless recovery from the economic downturn is that companies are choosing to increase production with automation rather than hire new workers (or re-hire, as the case may be). While in a basic sense robots are replacing humans in many dull, dirty, dangerous and delicate jobs, simply taking that statement and equating it to “robots are stealing jobs” does not reflect the complexity of the issue.

A new report by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) highlights the fact that during the last decade, growth in robot installations around the world has increased dramatically, yet, in general, unemployment has dropped or remained steady even among the countries with the most robots installed per capita. If the issue were black and white we would expect to see a very strong correlation between increased unemployment and increased robot usage. While it is sometimes difficult to attribute causation to correlation, these statistics indicate there are other factors to consider.

Yes, it’s convenient and easy to blame robots and the robotics industry because traditional manufacturing jobs are disappearing. However, this is not a symptom of a broken economy, it is a sign of a changing world. While thoroughly industrialized countries like the U.S. and Japan have a large amount of robots, even rapidly industrializing countries like Brazil and China are adopting robots in great numbers. This isn’t solely because operating a robot is less expensive than employing a human—especially when that’s not actually true in the lower cost countries. Issues like quality, throughput, waste and taking humans out of harm’s way increasingly play a role even in less developed countries. As with most things, we are dealing with a much more complicated analysis than simply blaming robots for unemployment.

A nuanced issue

If you are still not convinced, I don’t blame you for being suspicious of an organization that represents the robotics industry. It’s good to be skeptical, especially in this day and age where opinions and facts are continually confused, but consider these three points:

  1. Designing, building, marketing, selling, installing, operating and maintaining robots creates an entirely new ecosystem of jobs that didn’t exist before robots. The jobs this “robot ecosystem” creates are typically high paying, rewarding and come with good levels of benefits.
  2. The jobs robots replace are ones that can be low paying, monotonous, require incredible precision and/or are dangerous. In the past, some of these types of jobs certainly helped create a strong middle class and were considered excellent “blue collar” employment, but today these are not the jobs most parents typically hope their children aspire to.
  3. Robots allow companies to remain cost competitive even while maintaining production in a high cost country as opposed to moving operations to a low cost country. This preserves jobs in the high cost countries that would otherwise be entirely shifted to the low cost countries. This concept, known as reshoring in the industry, helps to balance out employment around the world.

The IFR report touches on some of these topics and highlights the fact that from 2000-2008 the robotics industry created 8-10 million new jobs, either directly or indirectly. That’s more than 1 million jobs globally per year. Although the economic recovery has stalled job growth on all fronts, the prediction is that between now and 2020 another 4 million jobs will be created in the “robot ecosystem.”

So while it’s true that the old manufacturing jobs are disappearing, it’s also true that the required manufacturing job skills of the future will be more high tech and demand an understanding of automation. In the US, even though there are more jobs available every day, employers are having a hard time finding qualified candidates. In the high tech world (including that of robots), this is often due to the fact that the needed set of job skills is hard to find. Instead of fighting about the fact that some of the worst jobs on the planet are going extinct, let’s celebrate a future with better jobs. There are many robot-related training facilities around the world—ABB Robotics runs several—and when helping our children pick what to study in school, and even what type of school to go to, let’s let them know what the jobs of the future will be so they can make wise decisions.

The fact of the matter is robots are here to stay. If somebody told you to trade in your car and go back to running a horse and cart, you’d likely laugh at them. If somebody told you that the army should switch from tanks, stealth aircraft, and machine guns back to steel armor, swords and bows, they wouldn’t be taken seriously. Technological advancements tend to be permanent and happen for a reason. Robots are beneficial for many different reasons that make them indispensable and there is no going back.

Let’s stop treating robots like a problem, and start embracing them for what they are. Only then can we start making decisions that will usher in an economy that is healthy and trains people properly for the skills of tomorrow.

I can’t imagine a future with fewer robots, can you?

7 Comments

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  • Patrick Naumann

    Great blog post with good insight into the topic!

  • MalcolmShearmur

    The Financial Times' Alphaville blog also reports on the IFR report and includes some interesting graphs that appear to show a correlation between the rising use of robots and a decline in unemployment: http://ftalphaville.ft.com/2013/04/10/1456222/robots-china-and-demographics/

  • Pangolin

    That's a lot of words for "I've got mine; bugger off." Robots absolutely eliminate jobs; that's why companies use them. "Celebrating the future of better jobs" does absolutely nothing for the people who can't access the training needed for those jobs. I guess we'll have to settle for taxing the crap out of people wealthy enough to afford robots.

    • http://twitter.com/EcoChambers Nick Chambers

      Hi Pangolin. I understand your emotions and frustrations. However, I think as Per Vegard says in the article, it's probably best to focus on ways for the economy to work for everybody given the reality of the future rather than dwell on how we think it's currently broken. We should encourage industry and government to find effective ways for individuals to get the needed training for the new jobs. I also think it's worth mentioning that nobody is purposely trying to take jobs away, just that technological advancement is inevitable and forces big changes in society. It's happened in the past and continues to happen and we've survived during the period of transition in the past and will continue to survive during this transition. It just will take some adjustment in the way we think about employment and training.

      • ChrisF

        I'm not sure how much training and education can help us, in the long term. Fast forward 10 years when software begins to match the capabilites of an average human.... who will want to hire a human worker when a machine can do an comparably good job, for free ? You might argue that 10 years is too optimistic, but the time is fast approaching when humans will simply not be able to compete.

  • http://www.facebook.com/olda.kucza Olda Kucza

    More robots for less Chinese jobs!

  • Acácio Pires

    The problem of unemployment is an economic problem and is caused by the capitalist relationships of production not by the robots. The developmente of the tecnology are uncompatible with the capitalism. More autonomous robots for all and not for the 1%, and we can all leave like sokratis and plato. .

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