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The real impact of robotics and automation advancements

Technology and automation is transforming the world today and how it affects tomorrow is something even the Senate is interested in.

By Dave Perkon, technical editor

Dear Senate, don't mess with my automation.

Senator Dan Coats (R-Ind.) chaired a Joint Economic Committee hearing on May 25, titled, “The Transformative Impact of Robots and Automation.” The hearing touched on the impact of robots and automation on jobs and the economy. Of course, any time a Senate committee starts quoting, "One study found that nearly half of American jobs are at risk of being automated over the next couple of decades," I take an interest.

Several experts testified with some interesting thoughts, and I have many of my own.

Also read: Is machine learning smart enough to help industry?

Coats opened the hearing with several questions related to automation's rapid advance that, if properly answered, can set a great course for education and manufacturing. “Automation’s rapid progress has also raised challenges with certain government policies," said Coats. "Is our social safety net prepared for a 21st century labor market? Do some government policies make human workers prohibitively expensive for employers? How can we foster an environment where innovators thrive and grow? How will current workers adapt? And is our education system preparing our youngest citizens for the future economy?”

It's best to not do the work that a computer, robot or automation can do.

Those are great questions, and the testimony that followed was, as well. However, I think it all boils down to the fact that, if you are a skilled worker or an innovative manufacturer, you'll be fine. It seems like you should go to work for an innovative company, even as an unskilled worker. That innovative company will train you as it's to their advantage to develop personnel from within. The good ones have to, as they need skilled workers. If they don't train you, go work someplace that will.

High-tech employment

It's best to not do the work that a computer, robot or automation can do. If you do, it's time to upgrade your skills. Dr. Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, testified and pointed out that technological progress has allowed more physical and knowledge work to be automated.

"High-wage jobs, like corporate executive or computer programmer, are still being created, as are low-wage ones like restaurant busboy and home health aide," said McAfee. "However, mid-wage, mid-skill jobs are not being created at the same rate as in the past. Many of these jobs involve routine work, both physical and cognitive; the archetypal routine physical job was on a factory assembly line, while a typical routine knowledge work job was as a payroll clerk working at that same factory. Jobs like these are becoming increasingly rare within the American workforce."

McAfee sees technological progress accelerating rapidly, and his playbook is music to my ears. "My playbook for the near future has five main elements, and to remember them I sing to myself the old nursery rhyme about Old McDonald’s farm," he said. "The origin of the song’s E-I-E-I-O refrain is unclear, but for me it stands for education, infrastructure, entrepreneurship, immigration and original research." All of his points touch on innovation, growth and skills.

Adam Keiper, fellow at Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of the New Atlantis, Washington, D.C., also testified at the hearing. He has three futurist scenarios for what the next several decades hold for robotics, automation and artificial intelligence. "Automation and artificial intelligence will continue to advance, but at a pace sufficiently slow that society and the economy can gradually absorb the changes, so that people can take advantage of the new possibilities without suffering the most disruptive effects," Keiper said about the first scenario.

In a second scenario, Keiper suggests that automation, robotics and artificial intelligence will advance rapidly and jobs will disappear at a pace that will make it difficult for both the high-skilled and low-skilled workforce to adapt without difficulty.

His third scenario is that it all will create something new.

By “new,” I think he means something like the guaranteed basic income plan voters in Switzerland just rejected. While about $2,500/month would be enough to cover basic needs, it would throw innovation and education out the door. I'm sure many would like that monthly money, but it kind of guarantees a future with full-time unemployment. I prefer Keiper's ideas where workers simply adapt to the new economy. They should engage in "lifelong learning" and "upskilling" whenever possible.

The same is true for automation. You cannot manufacture without automation and innovation—certainly not productively, efficiently or cost effectively in the desirable industry sectors. Unskilled work will still be available, as a clean factory and manual assembly is essential to the safety and success of a factory. However, the unskilled should be trained to become the skilled, and the focus should be on promoting the skilled side and advancing automation, or technology will leave you behind.

In this increasingly high-tech world, I think a Senate promoting manufacturing and innovation; creating more technical, skilled jobs; and advancing engineering, math and science is a simple plan to make the United States a leader in automation. We're not No. 1, but we can be. Let’s go and do it. It will keep us machine builders in a prime position to stay in touch with technology and its employment advantages.

Want more? Check out our State of Technology report: PLCs & PACs


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