Technology advances have long had a history of controversy. Going all the way back to the invention of the steam engine, technology innovation has changed the way we live, the way we work, and what skills are sought after in labor markets. Innovation has dramatically improved our standard of living, but fear of change and the possible impact on the labor market naturally creates resistance amongst workers and economists.
One example of a technology transformation we are experiencing first hand is the robotics revolution. The revolution started in the early 1960s when the first Unimate robots were installed to help General Motors ramp up its production volume. Today, all automakers rely heavily on robotics and automation to increase volume, improve quality, and reduce costs.
From a philosophical or social perspective, one of the concerns of technology innovation is the displacement of jobs. Where will people work, if their jobs are now done by machines? Timothy Aeppel, an Editor with The Wall Street Journal, recently wrote an article on this topic where he interviewed economist Erik Brynjolfsson in the WSJ article, “What Clever Robots Mean for Jobs.”
Historically, academia has postulated that increasing levels of automation have in fact generated more jobs. From steam engines to robotic welders and ATMs, technology has long displaced humans — but has always created new, often higher-skill jobs in its wake. The challenge, however, is that while the transition is in process, it is often difficult to see or understand the “big picture.” And, the new jobs created in the wake of a technology advance are often held by different people with a different skillset than those who were displaced.
Mr. Brynjolfsson thinks something has changed, and that this general premise may now be at a tipping point such that the growth of new jobs may not occur. He explains that “It’s gotten easier to substitute machines for many kinds of labor. We should be able to have a lot more wealth with less labor. But, it could happen that there are people who want to work but can’t.” Mr. Brynjolfsson is focused on some of the limited advances now being accomplished with increasingly sophisticated robots.
Here is a video showing what Amazon is doing to help automate and improve efficiency in their warehouses, with a sophisticated team of 3,000 Kiva robots:
According to the WSJ article, Gartner Inc., the technology research firm, has predicted a third of all jobs will be lost to automation within a decade. And within two decades, economists at Oxford University forecast nearly half of the current jobs will be performed with machine technology.
MIT economist David Autor’s recently completed research suggests automation is increasingly commandeering middle-class work, such as performed by clerks or bookkeepers, while creating jobs at either the high- or low-end of the market. He suggests that this is a reason why the labor market has polarized and wages have stagnated over the past 15 years. “The concern among economists shouldn’t be machines soon replacing humans. The real problem I see with automation is that it’s contributed to growing inequality.”
Regardless of how “good” or “bad” our future of robotics and automation might be – in our lives and on the shop floor – one thing appears certain. The appetite for robot purchases appears to be strong. According to the International Federation of Robots, as quoted in the WSJ article referenced above, future industrial robot installations world-wide could be nearly 300,000 by the end of the decade – a figure nearly double what is currently active. See the chart at right.
This anticipated growth is fueling (or is a consequence of) the anticipated growth of the Internet of Things, Industrial Internet of Things, Industrie 4.0, Smart Factory, or whatever other term you call it. Will this digital manufacturing transformation impact our lives, our career paths and what jobs are needed in the future? Absolutely! Will there be a net increase or decrease? Who knows?
If history is any predictor of our future, I suspect that in the end our lives will be enriched in some ways, and in other ways, we’ll miss the “good old days.” One thing is likely for certain: We’ll all have good stories to tell our grandchildren, which might start with “Do you remember when you used to drive your own car?”
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