If robots do our jobs, what will we do?

Where Is the Point at Which the Massive and Virtually Immeasurable Benefits of Technology Are Negated by Its Harmful Effects on Individuals, Economies and Societies?

By Joe Feeley

We regularly report about the way industrial robots have grown to become a frequent addition to automated and semi-automated machine operations. In February, Dan Hebert wrote about the use of machine vision in conjunction with industrial robots that raise the performance bar for many end-user manufacturers.

Late last year, we noted a report from analysts at Research and Markets that predicts a global CAGR near 7% into 2016 for industrial robots in the heavy machinery sector.

And I told you about my introduction to Rethink Robotics' Baxter, the two-arm, somewhat-human-acting robot that's aimed at doing lower-skill, repetitive factory jobs, at Automate2013.

Self-driving cars are exciting, but where will all the taxi drivers and long-haul truckers work?

I try not to get too entangled in the man vs. robot/technology/automation debate that boils over, more often now. Part of my trouble with it is when do you start the debate clock. The Cotton Gin? The first automatic dishwasher?

Where is the point at which the massive and virtually immeasurable benefits of technology are negated by its harmful effects on individuals, economies and societies?

For a long time, automation and technology were hand-in-glove in a growing, widely beneficial society. Economies grew, as did the labor force and a strong middle class. For reasons other than just the effect of automation and technology, that outlook is in serious jeopardy.

So the tipping point is when automation and technology and robots wipe out too many jobs for an economy's own good. Is that a non-recoverable tipping point?

Also read: Fundamentals of collaborative robot safety

I mention this because there's a new addition to the discussion with The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by MIT Sloan professor Erik Brynjolfsson and research scientist Andrew McAfee. "Self-driving cars are exciting, but where will all the taxi drivers and long-haul truckers work?" they ask.

The authors call themselves mindful optimists. "If we understand the problems that we're facing and the opportunities that we're facing, and take the right actions, I think we could have a really, really good outcome," Brynjolfsson said in a recent interview.

But at the same time, he recognizes it's not automatic and will depend on our choices and the policies we have in terms of education, fostering entrepreneurship and tax policy.

The authors examine two economic phenomena: "Bounty" is the idea that there is more wealth, as seen in steady, long-term GDP growth in the U.S. "Spread," they say, is the idea of the "one percent." Wealth is accruing unevenly, with the rich getting steadily—and sometimes fantastically—richer, and the poor and middle class struggling to maintain or improve their standard of living.

The book also explores Pigouvian taxes, which assign costs to negative externalities such as pollution and negative income taxes, by which individuals with little or no income receive money from the government.

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