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OM in the News: Robots Won’t Kill the Workforce

December 7, 2016
A robot collects dishes to be cleaned at Chilli Padi Nonya Cafe in Singapore

A robot collects dishes to be cleaned at Chilli Padi Nonya Cafe in Singapore

The U.N. forecasts that the global population will rise from 7.3 billion to nearly 10 billion by 2050. This has inspired a chorus of neo-Luddites, who fear that the “rise of the robots” is rapidly making human workers obsolete, a threat all the more alarming if the human population is exploding. But the Washington Post (Dec. 2, 2016) writes: “Before long we’re more likely to treasure robots than to revile them.”

In the U.S., productivity growth has fallen by almost half from its postwar average–and we face an aging population. Something will have to fill the void left by, say, retiring farmers; it is likely to be farmbots. And it may not be long before economists are worrying about a global shortage of robots.

Consider the turning point that China hit last year. For the first time since the 1950s, its working-age population growth was negative. As a result, China’s labor force is expected to lose 1 million workers each year for the foreseeable future, and it is also aging rapidly. Will robots pose a threat to jobs in China? “ In China, the robots are going to come just in time,” says Nobel economist Daniel Kahneman. No wonder Beijing now offers heavy subsidies to companies involved in industrial automation.

If automation was displacing human workers as fast as implied in recent books like Martin Ford’s “The Rise of the Robots,” then we should be seeing a negative impact on jobs already. We’re not. The job picture has been particularly strong in Germany, Japan and S. Korea — the industrial countries that employ the most robots. The nations with the highest density of industrial robots include S. Korea, with 531 per 10,000 employees, Japan with 305 and Germany with 301. The U.S. ranks 8th with 176. China is well behind with only 49, but it has the world’s fastest-growing robot population.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. What is the impact of robots on the return of manufacturing jobs to the U.S?
  2. How is artificial intelligence playing a role on jobs, according to the article?
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