The alarmist headlines are difficult to ignore. Industrial robots, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, and drones will soon replace all kinds of human workers from welders and writers to truck and taxi drivers. The headlines draw a lot of clicks, but the data to back up the notion that we should fear being replaced by robots are a mixed bag.
The sales statistics on industrial robots are pretty clear. Between 2009, when robot sales bottomed out due to the Great Recession, and 2014, global sales of industrial robots ballooned more than 280% from 60,000 shipments to nearly 230,000. But how does such an explosion in robot sales really affect manufacturing jobs?
In an interview at the 2016 World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, MIT economist Erik Brynjolfsson said that robots have indeed cost some folks their jobs but are also creating new career opportunities. However, Brynjolfsson added the net effect of robots on the workforce is hard to quantify:
“The thing that’s different is whether or not the new job creation is keeping in balance with the old job creation, and there’s no economic law that says that’s automatically going to happen.”
Economist and robotics blogger Colin Lewis has another view. On his Robotenomics blog, Lewis claims that since 2008, 62 of the world’s largest manufacturing companies that heavily use robotics have created more than 1.25 million new jobs. He cites a 2014 PwC survey of US manufacturers that revealed 35% felt that over the next three to five years robotics’ biggest effect would be the creation of engineering and robot operating systems job opportunities, while 28% felt the strongest impact would be the replacement of workers. Not a huge difference, but job opportunity narrowly edged out worker obsolescence.
An October 2015 white paper by the Association for Advancing Automation (A3) also argues that automation increases employment. A3 studied US Bureau of Labor Statistics data during nonrecessionary periods spanning 1996 through 2014 and found that robot shipments and general employment both increased. The A3 study concluded that factory automation helps keep jobs in the US that might have otherwise been offshored by increasing productivity and product quality and making US companies more cost-competitive. Adding robots just frees workers up to do more rewarding, often less dangerous tasks.
But a survey released in March by the Pew Research Center suggests Americans are worried about robots taking jobs — sort of. The Pew study paints a curious picture of the average American’s attitude about how robots and computers will affect the workplace 50 years from now. The general consensus is: Robots will replace most workers, but won’t take my job. More than two-thirds of US respondents felt that in 50 years robots and computers will do much of the work currently done by human beings. On the other hand, 80% of those surveyed felt their own jobs will likely still exist five decades from now.
The US government is less optimistic about your job. In February the White House released a Council of Economic Advisers report that included a forecast that people earning less than $20 an hour stand an 83% chance of eventually losing their job to a robot. For workers earning $40 per hour, the odds drop to a 30% probability of robot-related job loss.
What if the Council of Economic Advisers is right? What will people do all day if workers lose their jobs to robots on a mass scale, and how will they get money? One emerging notion is that of universal basic income (UBI). The idea is for governments to pay people a given amount regardless of income with no limits on how the money is spent.
Not surprisingly, the concept of UBI has sparked spirited debate. Adherents say it will provide people with the opportunity to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors or vocations that offer more personal fulfillment or greater benefit to society. Detractors say UBI would create a dystopia of sloth and herald a nosedive in innovation and progress. The effect technology might have on future employment has prompted some governments to experiment with UBI, including Finland, Canada’s Ontario, and Switzerland.
Perhaps ironically, in the US, UBI is getting the most traction at the nexus where much of the robot employment threat originated — Silicon Valley.
James Bryant is an industry editor for Dun & Bradstreet. Based in Austin, Texas, he writes about issues affecting the global manufacturing sector. He’s been the company’s specialist on the auto industry for 15 years.