Will Asimo, Baxter, and Watson—and their robotic counterparts—take over the world’s workforce? How many jobs will be replaced, and is this be the beginning of the end for the labor market?
Questions such as these, and the debate about technology replacing humans is an old one. In fact, it dates all the way back to 1589 when Queen Elizabeth I refused to give a patent to the inventor of a knitting machine because she didn’t want to put hand knitters out of work.
According to the United Nations’ labor agency, there were over 200 million unemployed people worldwide in 2013; the International Labor Organization says that number will increase by another four million in 2014.
Is technology and the Asimos and Baxters of the world to blame for these numbers? Some say that manufacturing jobs moving overseas is a primary cause for unemployment in the United States, while others blame software and the rise of the Internet for automating jobs in retail and other service industries.
And the role of robots? According to the International Federation of Robotics, there were approximately 1.5 million industrial robots in operation at the end of 2012. They have certainly replaced jobs, especially on manufacturing floors and in particular, in the automotive industry, where robots can reduce a workforce by as much as 75 percent.
Some, like the author of this article on Wired.com, feel that robots are indeed taking over, with a prediction that before the end of this century, 70 percent of today’s occupations will be replaced by automation.
However, there’s building research that suggests that robots are responsible for new job creation.
In fact, a recent RobotEnomics article by Colin Lewis, a behavioral economist and data scientist, states that jobs are created in companies that implement robots. His research of 76 companies where factory or warehouse robots are used, indicated an increase in employees by nearly 300,000 in the last three years.
The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) supports this, estimating that robotics directly created four to six million jobs through 2011—or eight to 10 million, including indirect jobs. The IFR projects that 1.9 to 3.5 million jobs will be created by 2021, attributing the use of robots in new product development, current industry expansion, and downstream job development for the increases. Earlier research by the IFR determined a job-creation ratio of 3.6 jobs for every robot deployed and that with more robots, fewer jobs are lost.
And there is real live evidence that supports these numbers as well.
Amazon.com, after acquiring Kiva Systems for $775 million, has added nearly 90,000 jobs in the last three years. Tesla Motors, a manufacturer of electric cars, has a highly sophisticated robot manufacturing site, and the company recently added over 6,000 jobs.
Industrial robot manufacturers are reporting an 18-25 percent growth in orders and revenues year over year. And the Global Industrial Robotics Market Forecast & Opportunities, 2018 report from TechSci Research, calls robotics the next big disruptive technology, with industrial robotics revenues expected to cross $37 million by 2018.
Call it what you may—the next big disruptive technology, a technology revolution, or the fastest growing industry in the world—robotics are here to stay, and while some jobs may be lost, in thier place will be new jobs requiring a different set of skills.