We’ve speculated about the effect of increasing automation on human employment and we’ve reported other people’s speculations on the subject, too. A new white paper from the Association for Advancing Automation (A3) takes a completely different approach to the question, and concludes that robots are good for human employment.
Here’s why: upswings in orders for robots correlate with upswings in employment.
That’s right, we’re leaving aside all the questions about whether robots can replace people, whether social skills are needed for certain jobs, and whether robots are actually cheaper than human workers. Instead, the researchers just looked to see what happens when companies buy robots.
The paper, “Robots Fuel the Next Wave of U.S. Productivity and Job Growth,” used data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and industry sales figures to compare ups and downs in job growth with ups and downs in robot purchases. If buying robots meant firing human workers, you’d expect that robot purchases would be followed pretty quickly by laying off workers, and unemployment levels would rise.
In fact, robot purchases go up and unemployment goes down. Both things happen during times of prosperity. “The factors that lead companies to buy robots are the same factors that lead them to employ people,” paper author Jeff Burnstein was quoted as saying in an interview.
Correlation of course does not imply causation, but Burnstein is not suggesting that buying robots means that more human workers are needed. That’s possible; robots need human operators and people to take care of them, after all. But that can’t be proven by the data Burnstein used. What can be proven is that industrial automation doesn’t lead to unemployment among people. If it did, periods of increasing automation, as shown by more orders for robots, would be followed or accompanied by decreasing employment. That is not the case.
Burnstein says the way to make sure robots don’t lead to unemployment in the future is just to make sure there are human workers with the right skills. Increased opportunities at technical schools and community colleges are important, and increasing STEM skills among younger Americans so they’ll be able to learn the right skills for modern manufacturing is essential.