Is automation contributing to our continuing slow jobs’ recovery, as its use increases in so many industries (manufacturing, retail, clerical, financial services, medicine)? Seems the answer is yes and no, and still in transition, just as the use of robots is in transition. Some robots replace our skills, some robots become our tools.
An excellent long article in the MIT Technology Review, explores theses issues, which I highly recommend.
“Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time, we have a falling median income and we have fewer jobs. People are falling behind because technology is advancing so fast and our skills and organizations aren’t keeping up.” [Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, co-author of Race Against the Machine (2011)].
“A warehouse equipped with Kiva robots can handle up to four times as many orders as a similar unautomated warehouse, where workers might spend as much as 70 percent of their time walking about to retrieve goods.”
“Despite the labor-saving potential of the robots, Mick Mountz, Kiva’s founder and CEO, says he doubts the machines have put many people out of work or will do so in the future.”
“By making distribution operations cheaper and more efficient, the robotic technology has helped many of these retailers [e-commerce retailers, the majority of Kiva's customers] survive and even expand.”
“One of the friendlier, more flexible robots meant to work with humans is Rethink’s Baxter. The creation of Rodney Brooks, the company’s founder, Baxter needs minimal training to perform simple tasks like picking up objects and moving them to a box. It’s meant for use in relatively small manufacturing facilities where conventional industrial robots would cost too much and pose too much danger to workers. The idea, says Brooks, is to have the robots take care of dull, repetitive jobs that no one wants to do.”
“Asked about the claim that such advanced industrial robots could eliminate jobs, Brooks answers simply that he doesn’t see it that way. Robots, he says, can be to factory workers as electric drills are to construction workers: “It makes them more productive and efficient, but it doesn’t take jobs.”
Again, we are watching the slow unfolding of technology that disrupts our earlier assumptions about our work. New, necessary skills will need to be adopted by workers. As Alvin Toffler once wrote, “The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who does not know how to learn.”