Robotics and Automation: Should We Be Sacrificing Jobs for Greater Productivity?

According to a recent Brookings Institution report, artificial intelligence will severely disrupt up to 25% of U.S. jobs. The exact timeline is difficult to predict. Changes may happen within a few years or a few decades, although most businesses are eager to employ cost-cutting technology. (AP News, 2019)

So, are we doomed to a world of soaring unemployment? The future probably isn’t that bleak. Robots can take over some jobs but not others and automation has benefits as well as drawbacks.   

Pros of Automation

  • Automated systems usually work faster and more efficiently than humans. This results in increased productivity, better use of resources and lower costs.
  • Robots typically perform tasks with less variability than humans. By increasing consistency, businesses can better control and improve product quality.
  • Automation can make workers’ lives easier by taking over boring and repetitive duties.
  • Some jobs routinely put employees at risk. The use of robotics and automation can make workplaces safer and prevent the unnecessary loss of human life.

Cons of Automation

  • When workers lose their jobs to machines, they and their families undergo considerable stress. They may need to collect unemployment, go back to school or relocate. All of these scenarios negatively impact both individuals and society.   
  • Designing, creating and installing an automated system can cost millions of dollars. This high capital investment, as well as ongoing maintenance costs, makes it difficult for some companies to implement automation in the short term.
  • Sometimes computers malfunction and even the best robotic systems are not yet as flexible and versatile as human beings.

Do We Have to Choose Between Robots and Jobs?

Automation WILL replace some jobs. Positions at greatest risk include truck and professional drivers (autonomous vehicles), retail workers (online shopping and cashier-less stores), restaurant workers (self-service kiosks, robot-assisted kitchens), hotel employees (computerized hotel concierges) and clerical and administrative positions (algorithms and software programs).

However, the news isn’t all bad. Automation also creates jobs to make up for those that disappear. Mike Branch, the lead mechatronics instructor at Lone Star College, encourages people to look at robotics differently, “Automation does not do away with jobs. Automation simply makes the job easier. We still need people to be able to troubleshoot and repair…” (Houston Chronicle, 2017)

Unfortunately, changes are happening quicker than our economy and educational system can cope. As of early 2019, the U.S. had 7 million job openings and 6 million people looking for work, but most American workers lack the technical knowledge (software development, machine learning, and robotics engineering) to fill those jobs. Smart corporations recognize they need to play a more active role in closing the skills gap, and they are teaming up with community colleges and universities so their workforces will be ready for tomorrow’s jobs. (Houston Chronicle, 2019)

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