The debate over how robots could affect employment has been going on for more than a century. Those who rage against the machine say robots will steal our jobs, make us their slaves, and then kill us. Others believe robots are the key to ultimate freedom from work that humans find dull or dangerous.

During the RoboUniverse conference earlier this week, robotics companies strutted their computer-brained friends around the Javits Center. Some robots could climb stairs, others could pick up and place objects, while others could drive you around the sidewalk without your exerting any effort. The majority of executives at the conference explained how robots are here to rescue us from manual labor and will help to make our companies leaner, more profitable, more consistent, and more competitive.

But will the robot revolution turn out to benefit humanity or the robot companies? Or will we all lose and the robots conquer?

Robots enhance human work.

Universal Robots, a Danish company founded in 2005, makes single-arm collaborative robots that are used to do repetitive tasks in the automotive and manufacturing space for such companies as BMW. UR has sold about 8,000 robots around the world.

The robots, lightweight and mobile, are used for a variety of jobs, including CNC machining, injection molding, and assembly-line tasks such as packaging eggs and sealing car doors. But the applications are endless: One robot assists a neurosurgeon during surgery, another UR bot films football matches in Europe, and another makes custom flip-flops.

"Our robots do the dirty, dull, and dangerous tasks people don't want to do," Scott Mabie, UR general manager, says.

Employees require minimal training to learn how to teach a robot a certain task and put it to work, he says. The ease of adoption is important as employees--to avoid losing their jobs--essentially have to learn how to operate the robot. In free-drive mode, an operator manually moves the arm through a task and the movements are recorded and programmed into the software. 

When asked if UR bots steal jobs from humans, Mabie doesn't hesitate: "No," he says. "What they do is allow employees to enhance positions they are in."

When Scott Fetzer Electrical Group, a Nashville-based appliance-motor manufacturer owned by Berkshire Hathaway, bought its first fleet of robots from UR, the employees were worried about their jobs. But Rob Goldiez, general manager of Scott Fetzer, said the company saw a 20 percent increase in productivity after the robots were deployed, which has helped Fetzer put more people to work.

"We're bringing back business we used to send to China," Goldiez says in a company video about the robots. 

Remove the rose-tinted glasses. 

But this is all a very rosy picture of the imminent robot-filled future. During the Industrial Revolution, there was a point when people did lose their jobs en masse to machines. Workers had to adapt to a new world, which they did--but it took time. That's where we appear to be headed.

Many researchers say automation will replace humans at a faster clip than humans will be able to create and train for new jobs. A bleak future isn't just an attention-grabbing headline; it's a potential reality. According to an Oxford University study from 2013, about 47 percent of total U.S. employment is at risk of being replaced by computers.  Machine deep learning and mobile robotics of tasks could take over the work of everyone from secretaries and truck drivers to construction workers and doctors.

Some economists blame computer-controlled equipment for the world's high unemployment rates. Nineteenth-century British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted widespread chronic "technological unemployment" due to the advances of technology. Keynes's essay from 1930 has an eerie relevance to today:  

We are suffering, not from the rheumatics of old age, but from the growing-pains of over-rapid changes, from the painfulness of readjustment between one economic period and another. The increase of technical efficiency has been taking place faster than we can deal with the problem of labour absorption.

Others say laborers are not the only ones susceptible to automation. Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in behavioral economics and wroteThinking Fast and Slow, believes robots will be not be pigeonholed in manual-labor jobs but will actually replace CEOs.

This month, Kahneman spoke at Wharton's People Analytics Conference in Philadelphia about how algorithms spliced with artificial intelligence and business judgment could replace CEOs. "There is little or no evidence of cases in which expert judgment does better than intelligently constructed formulas," Kahneman said.

Robots don't kill employees--companies do.

But will robots actually replace us all? Have our computers replaced us? 

Society is quick to demonize technology, but Melonee Wise, the CEO and founder of Fetch Robotics, which makes autonomous robots that help warehouse and fulfillment center employees pick and carry products, says technology is not the enemy.

"Your computer doesn't unemploy you, your robot doesn't unemploy you. The companies that have those technologies make the social policies and set those social policies that change the work force," Wise says. "We should not continue to be afraid of technology, because it's really how we use and deploy that technology, and whether we use it for good or evil is a social aspect of things. It's not the technology itself; a robot is not inherently evil, a computer is not inherently evil. It's how we use them."

Wise says when a company incorporates robots into the work force, it's to make a factory or warehouse or person more productive, not reduce head count. Robots take the hard things out of hard jobs and actually create more jobs, not fewer, she says.

"For every robot we put in the world, you have to have someone maintaining it or servicing it or taking care of it," Wise says. "It's not that all of these jobs won't go away; they might. It's going to happen. But for every robot we put in the world, there will be new jobs. There will be new things that people have to do, and it's whether these employees are trained appropriately to do these new jobs."

That may be the biggest fear--do we have the infrastructure as a country to help factory workers or people with limited education receive training for these new high-technology jobs? Throughout history, from the Industrial Revolution to automobiles to computers and now with robots, humanity has always had to adapt to new technologies. We're coming close to the time when the old way of doing things comes to an end and the new way rushes toward us.

"What do we do when people are displaced from their current jobs?" Wise asks. "It's a question of how do we effectively train people for job displacement."

Robots will certainly take some jobs, but it's up to us and our policies to make sure people are educated, trained, and ready for the new jobs being created. 

Published on: Apr 15, 2016