Will technological advances help businesses and workers?

Executive Summary

Fueled by advances in computer and sensor technology, robots are growing in sophistication and versatility to become an important—and controversial—sector of the world economy. Once largely limited to manufacturing plants, robots now are found in households, offices and hospitals, and on farms and highways. Some believe robots are a job creator, a boon to corporate productivity and profits, and a way to “reshore” American manufacturing that had migrated to countries where labor was cheaper. Others fear that the growing use of robots will wipe out millions of lower-skilled jobs, threatening the economic security of the working poor, fostering social inequality and leading to economic stagnation. Today's managers need to understand how humans and machines can best work together; government and industry must decide how best to manage robots' design, manufacture and use.

Resources

Bibliography

Books

Brynjolfsson, Erik, and Andrew McAfee, “Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution Is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy,” Digital Frontier Press, 2011. Two members of MIT's Center for Digital Business say the pace of technological development endangers jobs, and call for “restructuring” educational and economic institutions to better prepare the workforce.

Lin, Patrick, Keith Abney and George A. Bekey, eds., “Robot Ethics: The Ethical and Social Implications of Robotics,” The MIT Press, 2011. Essays collected by California Polytechnic State University philosophers and scientists explore ethical, social and policy questions surrounding roboticization, including whether robots merit legal rights or moral consideration.

Nocks, Lisa, “The Robot: The Life Story of a Technology,” Greenwood Press, 2007. A historian of science and technology at the New Jersey Institute of Technology traces the history of robotics, from ancient automation to robots in popular culture, but focuses on industrial robots and developments in artificial intelligence.

Articles

Condon, Bernard, and Paul Wiseman, Associated Press three-part series: “Recession, tech kill middle-class jobs,” Jan. 23, 2013, http://tinyurl.com/bhbo6eo; with Jonathan Fahey, “Practically human: Can smart machines do your job?” Jan. 24, 2013, http://tinyurl.com/bhnq4vr; “Will smart machines create a world without work?” Jan. 25, 2013, http://tinyurl.com/brvp8f6. Journalists examine technology's role in the loss of middle-class jobs.

Lewis, Colin, “The economic impact of the robotic revolution,” RoboHub, Feb. 19, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/m9jgjhx. A behavioral economist blogs about how robotics benefits jobs and the economy.

Reports and Studies

“World Robotics 2014 Industrial Robots,” (Executive Summary), International Federation of Robotics, Sept. 30, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/o7tbbog. A robotics industry international trade organization reports on sales and use of robots in 2013 and trends for the future.

Christensen, Henrik, et al., “Roadmap for U.S. Robotics: From Internet to Robotics, 2013 Edition,” Robotics Virtual Organization, 2013. A panel of scientists, engineers and business executives describes scenarios in which robotics technology can be applied in manufacturing, health care and other fields to enhance the American economy.

Evans, Dave, “The Internet of Things: How the Next Evolution of the Internet Is Changing Everything,” Cisco, April 2011, http://tinyurl.com/88uhsx3. The then-chief technologist for Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group discusses the impact of the connection of 50 billion devices to the Internet by 2020.

Frey, Carl Benedikt, and Michael A. Osborne, “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?” Oxford Martin School, 2013, http://tinyurl.com/oj67kae. Two researchers from the University of Oxford review jobs data and conclude that advances in robot technology and computerization leave 47 percent of American jobs, among them office and administrative support workers as well as factory labor, vulnerable to being taken over by automation.

Manyika, James, et al., “Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy,” McKinsey Global Institute, May 2013, http://tinyurl.com/nmbecug. A report by the business and economics research arm of a management consulting firm analyzes how advanced robotics, the “Internet of Things” and other emerging technologies could have “massive, economically disruptive impact between now and 2025.”

Mishel, Lawrence, Heidi Shierholz and John Schmitt, “Don't Blame the Robots: Assessing the Job Polarization Explanation of Growing Wage Inequality,” Economic Policy Institute, Nov. 19, 2013, http://tinyurl.com/kyuahmw. Economists from a liberal think tank conclude that economic policy more than technology is responsible for growing economic inequality.

Sachs, Jeffrey, and Laurence Kotlikoff, “Smart Machines and Long-Term Misery,” National Bureau of Economic Research, December 2012, http://tinyurl.com/kupvad5. Two economists write that the increasing ability of machines to replace unskilled labor will drive those wages down, while pay for the skilled workers who design and operate the machines will continue to rise; the authors recommend tax policies to improve economic equilibrium.

The Next Step

Jobs

Chang, Andrea, “Amazon robots speed customer orders but may lead to fewer workers,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 2, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/no9jufe. Amazon executives say their company's use of more than 15,000 robots in warehouses has created jobs, not eliminated them, because of company growth.

Hemmadi, Murad, “Clearpath Robotics is changing the world with its life-saving robots,” Canadian Business, Nov. 21, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/oal5ucx. Canadian company manufactures robots that replace humans in harmful or dangerous jobs, such as taking measurements in mines and sweeping for landmines.

Kaufman, Alexander, “Fast-Food Workers Could Face Robot ‘Armageddon,’” The Huffington Post, Aug. 12, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/nm8dck4. Experts say a robot made by a San Francisco company that can perform every duty of a fast-food worker is a sign of the inevitable roboticization of fast-food restaurant jobs.

Manufacturing

Knight, Meribah, “At Ford's South Side plant, the rise of the machines,” Crain's Chicago Business, Nov. 12, 2013, http://tinyurl.com/q7g9zdd. Ford Motor has installed more than 500 robots in its Chicago manufacturing plant, which has about 4,200 human workers, and plans to replicate the plant's worker-to-robot ratio at its other American factories.

Luk, Lorraine, “Foxconn Plans to Make Its Own Industrial Robots,” The Wall Street Journal, July 11, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/pkey3gn. Chinese manufacturer Foxconn, maker of the Apple iPhone, is designing its own industrial robots capable of performing difficult tasks to overcome a shortage of cheap, skilled labor.

Young, Angelo, “Nike Unloads Contract Factory Workers, Showing How Automation Is Costing Jobs Of Vulnerable Emerging Market Laborers,” International Business Times, May 20, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/qcwovs9. Apparel manufacturers such as Nike are replacing hundreds of thousands of workers with industrial robots to increase productivity and cut labor costs.

Profitability

Bjerga, Alan, “Record Profits No Job Creator on Farms as Owners Automate,” Bloomberg, Jan. 30, 2013, http://tinyurl.com/b9rxfzr. Automation of America's farms has made the farming sector highly profitable, although labor analysts predict nearly 100,000 agricultural jobs will be lost through 2020.

Inagaki, Kana, “Japan aims to turn robotics into profit,” Financial Times, Oct. 8, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/pzqwdnt. Japanese leaders plan to implement policies to make the country's robotics industry more profitable, such as subsidizing installations at companies' facilities and lowering liability costs for robot manufacturers.

Ngui, Yantoultra, “Malaysia's automation incentives draw mixed feelings from manufacturers,” Reuters, Oct. 17, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/pmma2d8. The Malaysian government is offering tax incentives to manufacturers that automate their factories to help boost profits in the face of rising minimum wages and operating costs for Malaysian businesses.

Research

Borchers, Callum, “Robot may help fight malaria,” The Boston Globe, May 8, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/ky76exz. A Maryland-based biotechnology firm and Harvard University's Biorobotics Laboratory have collaborated for two years to create a robot precise enough to produce a reliable malaria vaccine.

Hodson, Hal, “Baxter the robot brings his gentle touch to novel jobs,” New Scientist, July 23, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/ozotz5g. Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York and the University of Colorado are exploring new applications for the factory robot Baxter, made by Rethink Robotics, in medicine, space farming and mobility assistance for the disabled.

Howe, Robert, Aaron Dollar and Mark Claffee, “Inexpensive, Durable Plastic Hands Let Robots Get a Grip,” IEEE Spectrum, Nov. 21, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/q9zc94o. Yale and Harvard engineering professors have been working for nearly a decade to create a robotic hand prototype that possesses the dexterity of human hands.

Organizations

Brookings Institution Center for Technology Innovation
1775 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20036
202-797-6000
www.brookings.edu/about/centers/techinnovation
Think tank that explores issues affecting public debate and policymaking in robotics and other areas of technology.

Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 32 Vassar St., Cambridge MA 02139
617-253-5851
www.csail.mit.edu
Research and training institution.

Congressional Robotics Caucus Advisory Committee
c/o Erica Wissolik, IEEE-USA, 2001 L St., N.W., Suite 700, Washington, DC 20036
202-530-8347
www.roboticscaucus.org/
Provides information on research and developments in robotics and related technologies to members of Congress.

International Federation of Robotics
Lyoner St. 18, 60528 Frankfurt am Main, Germany
+49 69-6603-1502
www.ifr.org/association/
Worldwide trade association for the robotics industry that collects statistics and market data; sponsors annual International Symposium on Robotics.

National Robotics Initiative
National Science Foundation, 4201 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22230
703-292-5111
www.nsf.gov
Federal interagency group that coordinates U.S. government support of robotics research in areas of national interest.

The Reshoring Initiative
21110 Buffalo Run, Kildeer, IL 60047
847-726-2975
www.reshorenow.org
An industry coalition that supports the return of manufacturing jobs to the United States.

Robotic Industries Association
900 Victors Way, Suite 140, Ann Arbor, MI, 48108
734-994-6088
www.robotics.org
Trade association for North American robot manufacturers and users, and companies that support the industry.

The Robotics Institute
Carnegie Mellon University, 5000 Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15213-3890
412-268-3818
www.ri.cmu.edu
Robotics research and teaching institution.

DOI: 10.1177/2374556815571549