Why Robots Aren’t Job-Robbers
Since the ’50s and the on-screen appearance of Gort, the silent robot in the film “The Day the Earth Stood Still” who vaporized soldiers with an unfeeling, menacing “glare beam,” humans have been wary of the threat of automatons, and frustrated by our inability to rein in their powers.
And while industrial robots aren’t exactly out to vaporize us, there is a pervasive undercurrent of suspicion among some humans about robots and how they, by degrees, are “taking over” – particularly in areas like the job market.
This concern is not only unfounded; the truth, is, in fact, completely the reverse. So was the consensus of a panel of experts at this year’s RoboUniverse Conference and Expo, held in April at New York City’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.
The panel, entitled, “AI, Robotics and Drones – The Real Story on the Future of Jobs,” took on the whole roster of prejudices against robots and their roles in the workplace, answering each concern with hard-to-dispute research.
The presentation by panelist Robert D. Atkinson, founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a think tank for designing innovation policies and exploring how innovation boosts growth and competitiveness, was called “Robots & Jobs – Not To Worry.”
Disputing the Doomsayers
Discussing comments published by several “doomsayers” in the 1980s (yes, that’s when The Terminator movie franchise was born), including one by Gail Garfield Schwartz to the effect that “as much as 20 percent of the workforce will be out of work in a generation,” Atkinson pointed to statistics that give the lie to this statement. He quoted data from the International Federation of Robots showing a -0.34 correlation between robot adoption and the unemployment rate. “Unless we change the narrative in the U.S.,” he warned, there will be increasing pressure on robot buyers not to buy or use robots, which will slow down their adoption” in areas where it is beneficial to use them over human labor. He displayed a photo of a bowling alley in the early part of the 20th Century, where the pins were lined up by humans. “Should we have worked to save jobs like that?” he asked the audience. “There’s a boatload of jobs that will not and cannot be automated. There are not too many robots; there are way too few. They raise productivity. It’s a fact that companies who increase automation raise wages and cut product prices; consumers then have more to spend on other things – like air travel, for instance. Then [airlines] hire more workers. As the economy becomes more productive, we spend more, and more people will be hired. When you double and triple productivity, human ‘wants’ increase,” he averred – and ‘wants’ create employment. “There’s a cottage industry of robot-haters – and none of them are economists.”
Panelist Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, presented the case study of Marlin Steel, a custom metal from manufacturer that made commodity bagel baskets and was eventually faced with increasing competition from foreign manufacturers who began flooding the market with products that cost less than it cost Marlin to acquire the metal to make the baskets. Once Marlin invested in robots to automate the process, the company increased productivity, improved production quality, and made the workplace safer for workers; more people were hired, and the company now exports baskets to China. “Whenever robot shipments rise, unemployment figures fall,” said Burnstein.
Drones as Robotics Tools
Panelist Darryl Jenkins, who spoke on behalf of AUVSI (the Association for Unmanned Vehicles and Systems International), presented an overview of the effects of the growth of unmanned aircraft systems integration in the U.S. His presentation highlighted the wide appeal of using Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) for “dangerous and difficult jobs” such as disaster response, hurricane research and search and rescue, and pointed to the future impact of autonomous deliveries operations – such as Amazon’s plan to use drones to make deliveries of under-five-pound packages. With the rise of the drone as a robotic tool, he said “logistics will be the biggest industry disrupted,” but in the aerospace segment, “drones will be the fastest-growing segment” with an enormous total economic impact.
So while our fears of a world populated with robots like the Gort may be irrational and unfounded, robots and drones for all sorts of tasks will inevitably be a part of our collective future – and, by the reckoning of these panelists, they’re less to be loathed than to be welcomed.