Will robots replace people in the workplace?
In the 2012 movie Robot and Frank, set sometime in the future, a robot is purchased to provide personal care for an elderly — and mentally deteriorating — former jewel thief (Frank). When Frank learns the robot doesn’t distinguish between legal and illegal behavior, he uses it to pull off some final jewel heists. As the police close in, Frank is faced with the decision of whether to wipe out the robot’s memory so it can’t be used to trace the burglaries. This is a tough call for Frank, since the robot now gives him more attention than do his children.
I won’t reveal Frank’s decision — in case you want to watch this well-done flick — but the movie is thought-provoking on several levels: the perils of aging, the relationship of children to elderly parents needing increased care and the emergence and role of robots in our society. Although I am experiencing and have experienced the first two challenges, as an economist I will confine my comments in this column to the last issue.
Historically, humans have had a love-hate relationship with machinery and technology. We love what machines, gadgets and technical processes can do for us: making us more productive, expanding our horizons and simply taking a lot of the drudgery out of life. I vividly remember my grandmother telling me about the day she had her first washing machine and dryer installed. No longer did she have to scrub clothes by hand and hang them outside to dry on sunny days, or anywhere she could find
on cold or rainy days. Plus, she could use the time saved letting the machines do the work for other farm chores.
But machines and technology usually replace labor and, therefore, cause jobs, at least initially, to decline. Washer and dryer machines in big hotels and institutions meant less work for human washers and dryers. The introduction of the tractor and harvester on the farm dramatically increased farm output but caused the number of farm workers to plunge. These tradeoffs have led some people, usually those losing their jobs, to oppose the introduction of machines and technology. There are incidents in history where this opposition actually turned violent.
How has this tradeoff been resolved? Easy; although new machines and technology destroyed some jobs, they ultimately created others. The productivity, income and wealth created by machines and technology generated resources and spending in new endeavors, and these endeavors, in turn, created new jobs.
So as workers left the farm in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they moved to the factories that were just developing to provide the new consumer goods — like cars, telephones and appliances — that households were buying. Then, in the late 20th century computers made factories high-tech centers where one worker could do the work of 20 to 50 workers years before. But fortunately, jobs were expanding in the professions, health care, finance, personal services and the new information-technology sector to soak-up the extra labor.
This process of machines, inventions and technology destroying some jobs but creating wealth, spending and jobs in new areas has, over time, kept the job market expanding. However, will it continue? Some say no.
What has changed? Here we go back to the robot in Robot and Frank. Frank’s robot had something called artificial intelligence. This means it could use information, experience and reasoning to learn, make decisions and solve problems. Experts say if robots could actually be made with these skills, it could be a big game changer for the job market.
How so? Up to now, machines and technology, including robots, have primarily been used for routine jobs like putting fenders on a car, filling bottles or dispensing money at an ATM. Non-routine jobs, where the situation is frequently changing, and jobs requiring high-level knowledge and complex decision-making have still been the domain of humans. Interestingly, these jobs are at both the very high end and the very low end of the wage range.
If machines (robots) can be developed to adapt to differing conditions — so their responses vary with the situation — and if they can be programmed to “think” and “reason,” then they can start to do more non-routine jobs. Some economists say this is already occurring and is one reason for the slow growth in employment in the last three years.
Could this mean the ultimate end of jobs for people? Some futurists say “yes.” How then will people survive? These futurists say people will have time to pursue their own interests and hobbies, but they will have to be supported by income transfers from the owners of the labor-saving machines and technology.
Other forecasters disagree. They argue that just as with labor-substituting devices in the past, the rise of the robot will free-up businesses, investors and workers for other profitable pursuits, maybe in health care, nutrition, education, entertainment and tourism. Jobs won’t decline; they will just shift.
The ultimate question is this, Will our love-hate relationship with the machine be more “love” or more “hate” in the decades ahead? You decide.
Mike Walden is a William Neal Reynolds Professor and North Carolina Cooperative Extension economist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics of N.C. State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He teaches and writes on personal finance, economic outlook and public policy.