Why Robotic Workers Mean Way More than Loss of Jobs

May 2, 2016
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Robots will replace workers, affect global economies, and change the very nature of work and how people link their identities to what they do for a living.

Those were among the insights shared during a discussion titled “Will a Robot Take Your Job?” at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., recently at which experts addressed the effects of robotic workers on employment, the definition of “meaningful” work, the elimination of “dirty” or dangerous jobs, and the impact on the global economy.

“Robotics is going to be the creator of a new revolution in terms of our economy and the way we actually think, work and act,” Randy Bateman, principal and CEO of Balcones Investment Research in Longwood, Fla., said during the discussion.

That prospective change has placed many on edge. Some experts predict that billions of jobs will disappear once robots come to work within the next 15 years, leaving mostly low-skilled employees without jobs.

‘Judge the Future by the Past’

However dire the predictions, “a smart economist looks back on history. We can judge the future by the past,” said Bateman, who is an economist. We should look at the future of robotics and its impact on the workplace from that perspective, he said.

While “there are some uncertainties to consider,” Adam Keiper, a fellow and an editor at The New Atlantis, a quarterly science and technology journal, told attendees “there’s a period of adjustment. People can educate themselves … about jobs” and find new ones in different industries. Keiper added that the disruption will be less than what we imagine. “I think we will be surprisingly resilient to the effects of automation.”

Bateman said that predictions about what would happen to the nature of work were also dire during the Agricultural Revolution of the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution during the 19th century and the Information/Computer Revolution of the 21st Century.  

“Each of those generated huge economic boons,” Bateman pointed out. “They have all three generated major positives for mankind. Is there any reason to think robotics will be different?”

Robots will initially assist rather than displace human workers, Bateman predicted.

“However, there will be a great economic upheaval and a realignment of employment and tax policies,” Bateman said. After all, he pointed out, robots won’t pay taxes. Governments will have to find new ways of generating revenue as a result. “On the flip side, dangerous, dirty and demeaning jobs will be eliminated” as robots perform those tasks.

“Intrinsic growth is really what we’re looking at and that is a function of labor growth and productivity,” Bateman added. “Now we’re looking at a whole different paradigm, when we look at a change over from human labor to mechanical labor.”

Bateman said the “Robotic Revolution” will impact employment in three ways:

  • Dangerous occupations will be performed by robots—so no more human soldiers, police officers, firefighters, loggers, fisherman or electrical repair people.
  • Dirty jobs performed by mechanics, agricultural workers, roofers and painters will be eliminated, too.
  • Positions that may be considered demeaning, such as those involved in waste disposal or in slaughter houses, will be eliminated as well, Bateman said.

He added that those three areas will experience the most significant and quickest impact on employment.

The Robotic Revolution Has Arrived

Bateman said there will be benefits, as well as negative consequences, of the Robotic Revolution. This revolution’s tipping point began in 2014 when “we started to see a real change in perception. Amazon started to talk about delivering goods and services using drones, we saw drones used in warfare, we saw the advent of self-driving cars.” Some organizations are already using robot advisors, like IBM’s Watson.

The initial benefits will be far-reaching and will include:

  • Highway deaths will be reduced dramatically, “to the point of elimination” Bateman said, as driverless cars take the roads.
  • Health care advances will occur as robots are used to provide medical care and produce and manufacture drugs.
  • Agricultural industries will benefit from robots. For example, Bateman said, one study reveals that robot-run farms will harvest 30,000 heads of lettuce a day.
  • Profit margins will expand as warehouse robots boost productivity by 800 percent.
  • Increased production capabilities will lower prices for goods and services.
  • Insurance and tort reductions will occur as robots make fewer errors.
  • There will be more time for leisure, recreation and entertainment.

Possible negative consequences will include:

  • Labor unions will collapse with minimum wage and gender equality issues.
  • Without humans contributing to fund it, Social Security and Medicare will collapse. This will be one consequence of unemployment due to robotic use.
  • Tax policy changes will occur.

“We will have to find new ways of generating revenue for our government to compensate for the shift to a robotic workforce,” Bateman added.

Greatest Challenges

Bateman said an equilibrium point will need to be established where “the consumption of robots and the products they produce are consistent with the reduction in consumer buying power due to unemployment.”

What’s more, advances will be so rapid that employment shifts will not be “quick enough to avoid [the] social conflicts,” that may occur because people will be displaced from their jobs because of robot workers, Bateman said.

Government decisions on tax policies, unemployment aid and artificial intelligence will need to be developed such that “droids become autonomous or in a position to be unleashed upon the populous or a segment of the citizenry.”

But these changes are not insurmountable, the panelists said.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of using robotic workers will come from deciding what to do with all of our free time, added Keiper.

“Where does human meaning come from if we don’t work?” he asked.

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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