It’s human nature for people to over-react to reports on trends, particularly in a divided time in America when everyone is looking for political or at least polemic fodder in every new study that comes out about how quickly life is changing.
Count reactions to the “robot revolution” among these extreme responses. Every week or so, it seems, an estimable think tank comes forth with a new prognostication about how the rise of robotics, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and other technological disruptions in manufacturing are going to ravage the global work force and unleash millions of new panhandlers just as the world also is confronting other major challenges such as climate change.
But a closer look at such bombshells could be calming, especially when they’re matched against other data about manufacturing that remind us just how widespread this pillar of the global economy remains, how many people factories employ, and how companies that own and run those factories aren’t simply looking for how fast they can displace people but, rather, at what equation involving both man and machine will help them grow fastest and remain profitable.
Consider one of the most recent prognostications about the toll that robots will take on manufacturing jobs: About 20 million factory positions could be displaced by industrial robots by 2030, according to Oxford Economics.
What’s more, the Oxford, England-based forecasting outfit warns that “this great displacement will not be evenly distributed around the world or within countries,” disproportionately affecting lower-income regions at a time of “worldwide concern about growing levels of economic inequality and political polarization.” Oxford even brings this aspect of the hand-wringing down to micro-regions such as “the high desert of Eastern Oregon in the U.S.” which the outfit said has a “strong manufacturing heritage.”
But before the cassandras celebrate, also note what else Oxford Economics says: This 20 million jobs is expected to amount to only 8.5 percent of the global manufacturing workforce in a decade’s time. And moreover, Oxford warns, “fears about permanent global job destruction generated by robots appear somewhat exaggerated.” The ongoing wave of robotization, Oxford said, “tends to boost productivity and economic growth, generating new employment opportunities at a rate comparable to the pace of job destruction.”
Thus, the research organization calculated, “a 1 percent increase in the stock of robots per worker in the manufacturing sector lead to [a] 0.1 percent boost to output pwer worker across the wider workforce.”
At the same time, a new assessment by Brookings Institution also puts a more optimistic gloss on the ongoing “job destruction” by waves of unfeeling robots and their overlords. Its recommendations for “improving the manufacturing environment” globally include “unlock[ing] 21st Century tools such as big data, automation, and artificial intelligence. These forms of technology have the capacity to revolutionize manufacturing from the initial design of goods to the successful delivery of products.”
And as companies succeed in deploying robots and these other tools, they’re likely to employ more humans, not fewer. That’s because of their growth, for one thing. And also, the vast expendability of current factory jobs doesn’t mean their occupants are expendable: Millions of them no doubt will make successful transitions to new jobs with vibrant employers, especially as technologically savvy millennials and GenZ-ers prove much more capable of keeping pace with accelerating technological change in manufacturing, just as younger individuals also have proven adept at mastering personal technology.