Is the age of the robot upon us? Robots may be hurting job growth, say experts

January 14, 2013

Is the age of the robot upon us? Robots may be hurting job growth, say experts

Welcome to the rise of robots and the decline of jobs.

“60 Minutes” reporter Steve Kroft tried to answer an important question on Sunday: Are robots taking jobs from humans?

MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee told Kroft that robots may be hurting job growth.

“Our economy is bigger than it was before the start of the Great Recession,” said McAfee. “Corporate profits are back. Business investment in hardware and software is back higher than it’s ever been. What’s not back is the jobs.”

Brynjolfsson believes that robotic technology and increased automation are responsible for the jobless recovery.

“There are lots of examples of routine, middle-skilled jobs that involve relatively structured tasks and those are the jobs that are being eliminated the fastest,” said Brynjolfsson. “Those kinds of jobs are easier for our friends in the artificial intelligence community to design robots to handle them. They could be software robots, they could be physical robots.”

Marina Gorbis, head of Californian thinktank The Institute for the Future, would likely agree with Brynjolfsson and McAfee.

In an interview with the Guardian in 2010, Gorbis said that the 2010s will be defined by advancements in robotic technology. She posited that robots will increasingly eclipse human in everything from war fighting to cooking and health care.

While the unemployed may be discouraged by Gorbis’ vision of the present, the head of The Institute for the Future thought that humans will adapt by learning news skills.

“We are in transition,” said Gorbis. “It is similar to when we mechanized agriculture. After that we went through a period of high unemployment as people transitioned to new kinds of jobs. People learned to do other things.”

Despite the increasing pace of automation, Gorbis was not convinced that the future was arriving any faster.

“I’m not sure that it is,” she said. “We know more, we have access to more information but if you lived during the period of electrification or the building of railroads, I’m sure you really felt the pace of change too. It’s all relative.”

In April 2012, The Economist wrote about robots and humans working together to manufacture things in new ways. The Economist discussed the idea of “lights-out manufacturing” or manufacturing in which the lights can be turned off and robots left to build things on their own. Although the article acknowledged that lights-out manufacturing is a greater possibility today than it was 30 years ago, it also pointed out that lights-out manufacturing will still required people with technical skills. Robots, the article noted, need servicing and programming.

Is the age of the robot upon us? Are robots hurting job growth? Will humans learn to adapt by finding news jobs to do? Sound off in the comments section.


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