This past year has brought about so many changes in the world of robotics. From the almost-human-looking manufacturing robot to the mobile presence device for telecommuters, it seems that the workplace is moving into the world of high tech. From a technological standpoint, these innovations are incredible, that excitement is tempered by a fear that this new type of automation might end up taking the jobs and increasing unemployment. It's a fear that's shared by many and it made me wonder if we really should be afraid of automation.
The idea of a machine being able to do the work of several people is nothing new. At the dawn of the industrial revolution, the majority of our country worked on their family farms. Machines were invented that made tasks like plowing and harvesting crops easier. These innovations allowed a single farmer to grow crops on more land and diminished the need for a large number of farmhands. Did this cause mass unemployment?
Not really. You see, as industry grew, new jobs were created and the workforce moved from the family farm and into factories. Instead of working in the fields, these people worked to help build farm equipment, cars and other items. As more and more people began to use machines to make their daily lives easier, engineers and repair people were needed to create better products and keep the machines working. Although no one could have imagined having a job as an aircraft mechanic in 1910, it's not a far fetched career goal these days.
While it's true that automation does take away jobs, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. For a farm hand, a job in a factory was probably a better job that offered a higher salary and a better standard of living. See, as things change and menial tasks get replaced by machines, new and better jobs are created. Although this shift may not happen overnight, it does happen.
It's interesting to look at how automation has impacted the workforce in Japan. Since it's the country that has made the biggest strides in automation, and has the highest rates of robotic adaptation, it can serve as a sort of example for what could happen here. At a company that manufactures and uses robotics, the employees were open and receptive to automating many of the repetitive tasks on the work floor. Its important to note that because Japan offers “lifetime employment” for all workers, they didn't view the robots as a threat to their jobs and as such, they were able to work with the robots more effectively. In the process, they learned valuable skills that opened them to new jobs once their jobs were taken over by robotics.
It's not just manufacturing that is seeing the increased use of automation and not all automation replaces human workers. In the growing world of nanotechnology, robots are able to do jobs that are simply impossible for a human to do. So, instead of destroying jobs, these innovations actually create huge numbers of new jobs and help provide products that fuel entirely new industries.
The biggest problem with automation is that in order to do it effectively, companies have to be willing to invest a large amount of money up front. This sort of investment includes purchasing the machinery, finding a supply of raw material, and hiring people to repair and maintain the equipment. This sort of investment isn't cheap and it's one that many American companies seem reluctant to make.
In the coming years, I can imagine that companies like Amazon will invest in robotic warehouse workers, transportation companies will use self-driving vehicles to transport goods and even work in retail stores. Although they will replace many human employees, new jobs will be created to fill the gap.
As far as automation goes, I just don't see how the increased use of robots will cause mass unemployment. In fact, I'm excited to see what new and interesting careers will arise as technology continues to make high tech solutions accessible to everyone.
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