Robots, jobs and the human fear of change

When it comes to technology’s impact on the economy, there continues to be concern that robots and other advances will lead to unemployment. But what does history really tell us about the impact of new technologies on jobs and the economy? And more importantly, what happens to America’s ability to compete in a global economy if we reject automation and stifle technological innovation?

As a computer scientist, researcher and now CEO of a fast-growing robotics company, I’ve spent my career building technologies to improve people’s lives and help companies grow. I care deeply about how robots will impact society as automation continues to rapidly transform the economy.

That’s why I am discouraged when, rather than celebrating innovation, news articles create fear around it. Boston research firm Forrester recently predicted robots will result in a net loss of 7 percent of American jobs by 2025. What the press coverage often omits is what Forrester says will be gained from robots. Forrester analyst J.P. Gownder says, “While these technologies are both real and important, and some jobs will disappear because of them, the future of jobs overall isn’t nearly as gloomy as many prognosticators believe. In reality, automation will spur the growth of many new jobs, including some entirely new job categories.”

A lot of data supports the fact that technological advances actually create jobs — eliminating dull and low-skill occupations, while simultaneously creating entirely new categories of work. A study of census data in England and Wales since 1871 found technology created far more jobs than it destroyed during that 140-year period. “Machines will take on more repetitive and laborious tasks, but seem no closer to eliminating the need for human labor than at any time in the last 150 years,” says the report, authored by Deloitte.

Robots normally don’t replace entire “jobs” but instead take over “tasks.”

Another 2015 study from London’s Center for Economic Research shows the use of robots increases productivity and wages, while having no negative impact on overall employment. According to the study, the contribution of robots to the aggregate economy has, so far, been about the same as other important technologies in history, such as railroads and U.S. highways. In any case, robots normally don’t replace entire “jobs” but instead take over “tasks” — such as hauling goods, operating machines or providing information. When companies use robots to complete repetitive or dangerous tasks, it frees employees to do more interesting, valuable work.

But what if Forrester’s predictions are correct and robotics result in significant net job losses in the future? Is the solution to stop researching, stop innovating and stop trying to create new technologies to maintain the status quo?

In today’s competitive global economy, choosing to stem innovation would prove devastating to our country. The 2016 Bloomberg Innovation Index lists the U.S. as the 8th most innovative country in the world; in 2015 we were No. 6. Other nations, particularly South Korea in first place and Germany in second place, are forging full-force ahead to build innovation-driven economies.

To remain competitive, the U.S. needs to accelerate its use of technology to develop innovative products, not slow down. Economies grow when companies create products and services that make life better, work easier and people healthier — whether that’s air conditioning, vaccines, robots or smartphones.

Instead of jettisoning the members of society who feel left behind by technological progress, we need to include them in the jobs created by innovation.

I’m not naive enough to say automation won’t impact jobs. Historically, technology eliminates some jobs while creating others. As machines emerged en masse during the industrial revolution, laundry maids, blacksmiths and weavers were forced out of business. But many of these workers got better paying, more stable jobs in factories. The pace of change hasn’t slowed since then. Software, computers, mobile phones, robots and other technologies are constantly eliminating some jobs (video store owner, receptionist, mail room employee, typist, telephone operator, etc.) and creating others (video game programmer, 3D architectural designer, social media specialist, etc.).

I agree with President Obama that automation will positively impact the economy in the long run — even if we experience growing pains along the way. In a recent interview, Obama said, “I tend to be on the optimistic side — historically we’ve absorbed new technologies, and people find new jobs are created, they migrate, and our standards of living generally go up.”

Innovation is going to happen; we can’t and shouldn’t stop it if we want the U.S. to maintain its strong position in the global economy. It’s how we manage this transition that’s our collective challenge and opportunity. Income inequality continues to increase worldwide, with educated individuals gaining ground quickly in innovation economies, while lower-skilled workers fall behind. Instead of jettisoning the members of society who feel left behind by technological progress, we need to include them in the jobs created by innovation.

Finding ways to incorporate all members of society in technology’s rapid progress doesn’t just include education and training — though those are essential — but also requires engineers to design intuitive, easy-to-use machines. With touchscreen interfaces and simple commands, many of the emerging collaborative robots are easy to operate. In the same way cashiers have learned to use high-tech registers — basically retail computers — people can learn to operate robots in service, hospitality, retail, healthcare or other sectors. Thus, as robots take over mundane tasks, humans can rise into more fulfilling jobs as operators of these machines.

For my company, this means building our Relay delivery robot to be so helpful, reliable and easy to use that it becomes “part of the team.” As robots help companies achieve higher productivity and revenue, these companies will invest in hiring more staff.

People have an innate fear of change, especially when it comes to technology disrupting the status quo. But history has proven that by embracing innovative technology like robots, we’ll see great progress; progress that grows the economy overall, helps people find safer, more meaningful work and secures America’s position in a competitive global market.