Robots will free humans to pursue higher-skilled work

Robots are going to replace the most menial jobs first. It’s going to be hard—but it will benefit everyone in the long run

Honda Asimo robot waving to photographers

Honda’s Asimo robot being displayed to the media in 2003. (Spencer Platt/Getty)

My wife and I just got back from a vacation in the Western U.S., where one of the highlights was a few days in Yellowstone National Park. Amid all the nature and wildlife viewing, we also did quite a bit of driving – and sitting around in our car.

Some of the roads in Yellowstone are currently under repair, which means delays for anyone travelling through the park. As boring as the 20- or 30-minute waits were for us, we couldn’t help but wonder how utterly monotonous it must have been for some of the workers involved.

To visitors, the most front-facing of these workers are the men and women who stand at either end of the road holding signs instructing cars to either stop or go. Every so often, they get a message over their radios to flip the signs. That’s the extent of their work.

We had a hard time imagining a more unfulfilling job—especially since it’s a task that could easily be done by a machine of some sort. A sign-flipping robot or even a jerry-rigged traffic signal could save at least a few individuals from mind-numbing drudgery.

This is why, when I see or hear stories about how robots are taking human jobs my reaction isn’t automatically dismay, but rather hope. No one really wants to stand around all day holding a sign, so getting a machine to do it – requiring the human to do something more productive – should be a goal.

Eliminating the dull jobs, plus the dirty and dangerous ones, has in fact been the point behind the entire history of technology. Yet as we head further into the robot age, there’s still much angst about it.

Media stories about how robots are taking jobs are plentiful, but little actual research has been done to measure how much it’s happening or what the real effects are. Fortunately, researchers are starting to counter some of the angst with actual facts.

A new study by researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden and the London School of Economics finds the effects of roboticization in fact countervail much of the negative media sentiment.

“We find that industrial robots increase labour productivity, total factor productivity, and wages,” write lead researchers Georg Graetz, an assistant professor in the department of economics at Uppsala, and Guy Michaels, an associate professor in the department of economics at LSE.

They also found that a consistent picture emerged “in which robots appear to raise productivity, without causing total [work] hours to decline.”

The duo looked at the impact of industrial robots across 14 industries in 17 developed countries between 1993 and 2007. Among their findings is that robots contributed 0.37 percentage points annual to gross domestic product growth, or one tenth of total GDP expansion in the time period. Robot also added 0.36 per cent in productivity growth, or about one sixth of the total.

“This makes robots’ contribution to the aggregate economy roughly on par with previous important technologies, such as the railroads in the nineteenth century and the U.S. highways in the 20th century,” they write. “The effects are also fairly comparable to the recent contributions of information and communication technologies.”

If there’s bad news to be found, it’s confirmation that robots indeed look to be eliminating some lower-skilled work. On the plus side, however, those losses aren’t being reaped by higher-ups.

“Robots appear to reduce the hours and the wage bill shares of low-skilled workers, and to a lesser extent also of middle skilled workers. They have no significant effect on the employment of high-skilled workers,” Graetz and Michaels write. “This pattern differs from the effect that recent work has found for ICT, which seems to benefit high-skilled workers at the expense of middle-skilled workers.”

Reading into that, the solution seems clear: humans need to push toward higher-skilled jobs. It’s a seemingly tall order – but it’s really not different from any previous point in history.

Forbes writer and author John Tamny rightly argues that many labour market observers are reading the situation backwards. Improving society isn’t necessarily about creating jobs, but rather creating better jobs.

“If growth and prosperity were about job formation the solution would be simple: abolish tractors, cars, ATMs, light bulbs and the internet,” he writes. “If so, everyone would be working, but life would be marked by unrelenting drudgery.”

Going backwards isn’t an option, which means—like it or not—we’re going to have to deal with robots pushing us higher. Holding signs for hours on end, as a result, won’t be an option for much longer—and that’s a good thing.

I’ll be discussing the future of work and how robots will play into it as a guest (unpaid) on General Electric Canada’s Twitter page on Tuesday afternoon. Tune in between 2 pm and 3 pm Eastern or follow #FOWchat and throw in a question. I’ll do my best to respond.