Robots Are Not Killing Jobs, Says a Roboticist

A Georgia Tech professor of robotics argues automation is still creating more jobs than it destroys

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

For half a century, we’ve watched as computers, sensors, and robots have eliminated jobs—sometimes entire job categories—but also been responsible for them. Sometimes both. For example, technology created 350 000 telephone operators, only to lose them. By the way, that’s roughly the same number of people employed at—take your pick—HP, Panasonic, or Samsung, plus Intel.

For decades, it’s been generally believed that the effect is net positive, that is, that technology has always created more jobs than it’s destroyed. But as worker productivity continues to rise, while the legion of the unemployed remains large as well, some experts believe we may be reaching a tipping point.

In a recent interview on this show, a distinguished engineering professor at Rice University, Moshe Vardi, said that “by 2045, machines will be able to do if not any work that humans can do, then a very significant fraction of the work that humans can do.”

Vardi called for a “vigorous conversation” about our robot-filled future. In that spirit, I’ve invited Henrik Christensen to join us today. He’s the KUKA Chair of Robotics at Georgia Tech’s College of Computing. He’s the director of the Center for Robotics and Intelligent Machines there. And he has a more sanguine view of the effects of robotics and automation. He joins us via a long-distance phone call that was dialed without operator assistance.

Henrik, welcome to the podcast.

Henrik Christensen: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.

Steven Cherry: Henrik, you believe that automation is still creating more jobs than it’s killing, and that that will continue for the foreseeable future. What makes your version of the future so rosy?

Henrik Christensen: Well, it has to do with the fact that if we sort of look back historically, then we’ve had these big changes, and I think one of the critiques we’re seeing right now is people are worried about what’s going to be the next big change.

So if we go back 100 years, we had the invention of the assembly line, which created an entirely new set of jobs for doing automotive assembly. It did imply that the blacksmith basically went out of work. The same, you know, when I entered the work market in the late ’70s, early ’80s, the secretaries that I worked with were deeply worried about “Am I going to lose my job because the typing pool is going away?” The typing pool did go away, and those jobs were displaced, but if you go and look at the statistics, we have today twice as many administrative professionals as we had in the early ’80s. They do different things now. They arrange meetings, they do travel, they do all of these other things that they didn’t do before.

So in reality, by introducing computers, we’ve created a number of new professions that have led to new jobs. And I see no reason why, going forward, we will not have new paradigm changes that will create new jobs. So I see 3-D printing, I see a number of other things that I think will create new jobs, that will put us in a better position.

Steven Cherry: You also point out that automation and information technologies are bringing back jobs that used to be offshored.

Henrik Christensen: Right. So if you look at it, we’ve recently seen Apple promising that they’re bringing back factories. Foxconn is starting a factory in Texas. Lenovo is starting a factory in North Carolina. Tesla is building, or has, a car factory in California, which is where we have the highest labor prices. Through use of automation, they have been able to bring back jobs that before were being outsourced to countries that were primarily in Asia.

Steven Cherry: Of course, those factories are not employing as many people as were employed in Asia, so the net effect worldwide is negative there, and, you know, in fact, the growth in industrial robots has been nothing short of spectacular. And we should point out that your academic chair is endowed by one of the biggest makers of them, KUKA, in Germany. Companies don’t invest in robotics that don’t pay for themselves. Don’t they mainly pay for themselves by reducing the workforce?

Henrik Christensen: So there are several things to talk about here. So one of them is that you are, of course, seeing that overall, some of the jobs are getting displaced simply because you can use machines to do it. So the example is then, there are certain things that we can’t do, where you need higher precision. You need sort of getting away from heavy lifting. These functions are getting displaced by robots.

So there we’re taking away jobs that humans shouldn’t have been doing in the first place. And the other is that whenever we bring back these jobs, even in the associated functions of the guy that’s doing the burgers, the logistics chain, all of this, is for every job we bring back, we create 1.3 other jobs in associated areas. But it’s true: There are some jobs that are going away, that are getting displaced by other things. But if you look at the net number of jobs that have been created worldwide, it’s actually going up, it’s not going down.

Steven Cherry: The jobs that automation creates can be very different from the jobs of today. Do our schools have the wherewithal for that kind of training and education?

Henrik Christensen: So that’s one of the really big challenges that we have. How do we make sure that we continue to educate people that have the right skill set for doing this. So as an example, in southern Georgia we have a Kia factory where they brought this in, and they’re doing a high degree of automation in the plate shop and in the paint shop. And then they’re doing assembly afterwards.

Their biggest challenge is to actually get access to people that can become machine operators. So they don’t have, we don’t have, that kind of skill set right now, so we need to…so what we’re seeing is a shift away from unskilled labor to skilled labor, and that poses a challenge to make sure that we actually have the people that can do this. And one of the big challenges is, how do we get students to be interested in science, technology, engineering, and math?

Steven Cherry: Another of our previous guests, Peter Cappelli at Wharton, argued that there isn’t a skills gap so much as a training gap—that companies will weirdly let a job go unfilled for a year instead of training somebody for six months, for example. If companies continue to pursue their short-term interests at the expense of the long term, isn’t it hard to be optimistic?

Henrik Christensen: I agree with that. If we just continue to think very short term, there is a challenge in terms of…so if we are only driven by short-term profit and not by a long-term vision, this could be a challenge. And at the same time, we have seen some of this over the last five years. So if you look at…we’ve seen the economy go back up, but because we’ve had the uncertainty about when are we going to get a budget, you know, what are the tax rules, and these things, jobs have been slower in picking up, simply because people have been uncertain about what is the long-term future, what are the long-term opportunities.

So certainly there is some short-term uncertainty that has not been helpful in terms of creating new jobs, but I think we’re seeing in particular the big companies are picking up, they’re really growing, so it’s very encouraging that last year we saw a growth in the robotics sector by 40 percent in the U.S.

And you also saw a significant growth in Asia, Europe was a little bit slower. There’s still a lot of uncertainty in Europe about how are the long-term economic prospects across the euro zone. So they’ve been slower in picking up simply because they’re worried. So I agree, we need to make sure the companies are thinking long term and not just short term.

Steven Cherry: You mentioned 3-D printing before, and it really does seem to have the potential to transform manufacturing. First, I guess you think it will, and second, tell us a little more about what that’s going to do for employment.

Henrik Christensen: So I think we will see 3-D printing is going to be a revolution. So today we are primarily removing a lot of materials, so several of our manufacturing processes are not very efficient. By being able to go to an agile manufacturing, where you can really do new ways of, using 3-D printing to do much more agile manufacturing, I think this is going to be a big game changer in terms of you can bring down your storage capacity, you can bring up your ability to make one-off products so that you have less storage capacity, and I think this will reduce the cost of products, which will imply that we can do a higher volume of products. And I think you will see much better use of our scarce raw material.

So something like aluminum is incredibly expensive to manufacture. If we can use this in a 3-D printing process, we can reduce the cost significantly, and the amount of waste we have of these products is also much smaller. So I think this will overall grow the ability to be able to do really cheap products. And by having cheaper products, you’re going to have higher volume. So you might see some jobs that are clearly going to go away, in terms of machining and machine tools, but then you’re going to see an entire industry that will blossom up from this that will allow us to build products that we can barely imagine today.

So I think what it’s going to do to the job sector is still an open question. There are clearly machining jobs that are going to go away, but then there are 3-D printing and 3-D manufacturing processes that are going to get created. So I would say the verdict is still open in terms of what it will do to jobs. Short term I think it will reduce some more jobs; long term I think it will be a job creator.

Steven Cherry: The U.S. has always been a home for technology and innovations—from Ford and IBM to Cisco and Google—but there’s often a backlash. And sometimes it’s a thoughtful skepticism like the Amish have; sometimes it’s not very thoughtful at all. Is there a danger of the U.S. falling behind the rest of the world if it doesn’t embrace automation?

Henrik Christensen: So I think if we don’t invest in technology, we will fall behind. We need to sort of use this to move forward. One of the things we’ve seen is that in early robotics, that technology was developed in the U.S., and then it went elsewhere. So the first industrial robots were built here by Unimate. They were put to work at GE and at General Motors. But then the industry went to Japan, and the industry went to Europe, which was a big concern. But if you look at the later robots that [have] been developed in medical, in defense, those industries have remained in the U.S.

So I think we’ve learned from our earlier lessons that when we do this, we need to secure the IP, and we need to make sure that we hold on to the core technology jobs. So we didn’t do that in the first generation. I think we’ve learned our lesson, and now we are trying to hold on to it. And that’s also what I’m seeing in terms of 3-D printing, some of the technology that’s coming out of the U.S. We are trying very vigorously to make sure that we own that technology.

Steven Cherry: People argue that maybe we should just accept a less-efficient economy if it suits our human and social needs better. I mention the Amish, and Walmart’s always another example that people give. Yes, it saves people money, but at the expense of jobs and small local businesses, and sometimes entire communities. And they would presumably say the same about automation. Give us a full-employment economy, even if it’s less profitable and efficient, even if the U.S. does fall behind.

Henrik Christensen: So I would see that as a much more valid argument in Europe than I would in the U.S. So in Europe you have very much a social economy. You’re spreading the wealth, you know. You’re not seeing truly poor people, and you’re not seeing nearly the same ratio of rich people. So you have much more social contract that spreads out the wealth.

We don’t have that same kind of contract in the U.S. We have, here it is the land of opportunity. If you come up with a good idea, you can really profit from it. You have strong drives. And we don’t have the same social security network. If you get out of a job, you might actually end up on the street with no money at all. So we have a much more polarized economy.

So I’m not seeing us in the U.S. accepting a social contract where we say everybody will sort of get the same thing, and let’s slow down. That’s not what drives the U.S. economy. It’s very much what drives some of the European economies, so I could see this happen in Europe. I have a very hard time seeing this happening in the U.S.

Steven Cherry: I’ll offer one more critique, and it’s based on something Moshe Vardi said in that earlier podcast that I mentioned. He said, well, let’s listen:

Vardi [7:57] – [8:07] /podcast/at-work/tech-careers/the-job-market-of-2045


Moshe Vardi: I look at this, and to me this whole vision of a graying society where people don’t even feel that they necessarily have to have children because they will be taken care of in old age by robots, it’s not a great prospect for humanity.

Henrik Christensen: There are already today 11 million people today in the U.S. that are in need of personal daily assistance. For a lot of these people, we do not have the resources to help them. Or in some cases we say, “The only way that we can take care of you is to put you in institutionalized care.” I would love to be able to have it so that we could have a robot that would help these people with some of their basic needs. So I’m saying I would like to have a robot that would help me get out of bed, get dressed, take a shower, and prepare me a meal. Today I have to rely on people for all of these things if I get handicapped.

And we just had a great example of a project we did with Willow Garage, where we looked at Robots for Humanity, where a guy in California was paralyzed from the neck down. He would like to have a robot that would allow himself to scratch himself. Very basic functionality—can I just have something so I don’t have to rely on another person to scratch myself? Could I just get a robot that would allow me to shave myself? So we built a robot for him that allowed him to scratch himself, shave himself, and be able to do some basic meal functions. For him this is a huge move forward, where he doesn’t have to rely on us.

And in an aging society, we can’t afford to have a significant portion of the population being in social care. They should be involved in doing economic growth. So I’m much more positive about that the technology will allow us to have an extended quality of life for a much longer period of time.

Steven Cherry: Maybe I’ll close by asking you about your own job. I wonder if 50 years from now a future podcaster will ask about the 350 000 teaching jobs lost to automation.

Henrik Christensen: Sure. So I think we’re standing in front of a revolution in teaching. We’ve already seen these massive open online courses, the MOOCs that are getting created. And again, there I think we will see a transformation in teaching jobs. So I think we will have the rock stars of teaching doing the one-way teaching, where you stand in a classroom and you do one-way communication of what’s in the textbook. I think that part of the job will largely get eliminated, and it will get transformed by spending more time one-on-one with the students, teaching them the analytical process of thinking, problem solving.

So I think we’re standing in front of a huge paradigm shift. A lot of teachers are still standing in the classroom, doing one-way communication—you go home, you solve your exercises, and you’re done. And I think that model will definitely go away. I think the job will change in terms of, we have to do it a very different way than we do it today.

Steven Cherry: Well, Henrik, if we’re ever to improve this future that we’re hurtling toward with the force of a freight train, it’ll be through what Moshe Vardi called “vigorous conversations,” so thanks for conversing vigorously with us today.

Henrik Christensen: Thank you, and have a good day.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Henrik Christensen, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Robotics and Intelligent Machines, about the effects, positive and negative, of automation on manufacturing, the job market, and society at large.

For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded Monday, 18 March 2013.
Segment producer: Barbara Finkelstein; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

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