Do robots take people’s jobs?

July 18, 2011 | Source: IEEE Spectrum

Last month, President Barack Obama announced the National Robotics Initiative, a major program to develop next-generation robots for manufacturing, healthcare, and other areas. The robotics community received the new initiative with enthusiasm, but some observers expressed concern about an expansion in automation, raising a perennial question in robotics: Do robots take people’s jobs?

John Dulchinos, president and CEO of Adept Technology, the largest U.S. industrial robotics company, thinks not. He says that automation, although it might take some people’s jobs in the short term, is essential for keeping companies competitive, and thus able to expand and hire more workers.

“Robots are not the enemy,” he said. “It’s low-cost labor that’s the enemy. If you want to look at where jobs are going, it’s not robots taking people’s jobs; it’s entire companies and industries moving overseas. In a global economy where cost rules, the only way for Western countries to be able to compete effectively against low-cost labor markets is through productivity gains, and robots are one way to achieve that.

“Germany and Japan have the highest density of robots [number of industrial robots per 10,000 manufacturing workers]. And Germany has used robots to grow their manufacturing employee base, because they’ve been able to be competitive and bring manufacturing plants back to Germany. With that comes not only the manufacturing jobs but all the other indirect jobs as well.

“What’s different about now is that robotic technology has gotten to a point in the research lab where there’s the potential for a new generation of smarter, more flexible, safer robots. This new generation of machines promises to expand the applications of robotics not only in manufacturing but also in healthcare, military, and domestic applications.

“That has the potential to shake up the industry and create an inflection point where the United States can compete with Japan, Korea, Europe, and China — all of which are all spending much more money on robotics R&D than the United States — and gain a leadership position in next-generation robotics to enhance global competitiveness across a host of industries.”