There is no doubt that robots, and automation in general, replace humans in the work-force: all productivity-enhancing tools, by definition, result in a decrease in the number of man-hours required to perform a given task.
This Robotics By Invitation contribution is part of Robohub’s Jobs Focus.
There may be some regional effects that result in an immediate increase in jobs (for example, setting up a new manufacturing plant and hiring workers to maintain the machines), but the global effect is indisputable: overall, robots replace human workers.
What is also true, however, is that robots create jobs as well. This is simply Economics 101: there is a redistribution of labor from low skilled jobs – what robots can do now, and the foreseeable future – to higher skilled jobs. An analogy from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture: “In 1790, 93% of the population of the United States was rural, most of them farmers. By 1990, only 200 years later, barely 2% of our population are farmers.” What is also true is that there are many more software engineers now than there were in 1790; or mechanics; or physiotherapists; or professional athletes; or artists.
So the debate about robots replacing human workers is, for the most part, a tired and old one; just replace the word ‘robot’ with any productivity-enhancing tool or development. And as long as the process is gradual, one can reasonably argue that society benefits as a whole.
But the question does have merit, because human workers are at an artificial disadvantage relative to their robot counterparts, and the culprit is artificially low interest rates. Large companies such as Procter and Gamble can issue 10 year corporate bonds that have astronomically low yields of 2.3%. With money so cheap, productivity tools – such as robots – that would not be economically viable under normal interest rates and yields are now a bargain. Why should a company ‘rent’ labor (a human worker) when it can ‘buy’ it (a robot)? Have we not seen this storyline before?
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[Photo credit: Petr Kratochvil.]