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Robots: Will They Hire or Fire Us?

Computers are coming for our jobs, or at least nearly half of them, according to a paper from Oxford University. On the other hand, research conducted by Metra Martech on behalf of the International Federation of Robotics indicates that despite increasing use of robotics, paid employment has risen across five of six countries studied, with any job losses in manufacturing more than offset by new jobs in distribution and services as well as new manufacturing applications.

Carl Benedikt Frey of the Oxford Martin School Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology and Michael A. Osborne of the Department of Engineering Science wrote the Oxford paper titled “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?” They analyzed occupations listed in the U.S. Department of Labor’s O*NET database with respect to machine learning and mobile robotics.

They cite three types of jobs that would resist computerization. First are those requiring perception and manipulation skills. For example, telemarketers require no perception and manipulation skills, and such jobs are susceptible to computerization. In contrast, a surgeon requires a high degree of perception and manipulation, and the surgeon’s function is not susceptible to computerization.

Second are jobs requiring creative intelligence. The authors cite as examples a court clerk, who requires no creativity, and the fashion designer, who does; the latter’s job is not susceptible to computerization while the former’s is.

Third are jobs requiring social intelligence. The authors note as examples a dishwasher, who requires little social intelligence, and a public relations practitioner, who requires a great deal.

After analyzing 702 jobs in light of these three factors, the authors conclude, “According to our estimate, 47% of total U.S. employment is in the high risk category, meaning that associated occupations are potentially automatable over some unspecified number of years, perhaps a decade or two.”

In contrast, the Metra Martech report says 8 to 10 million jobs were created as a result of robotics through 2008, and another 500,000 to 700,000 jobs were created through 2011. Metra Martech estimates that an additional 900,000 to 1.5 million will be created by the end of 2016, with an additional 1.2 million created through 2020.

Whereas the Oxford paper cites factors that resist automation, Metra Martech outlines three driving forces for robotics: a product cannot be made to satisfactory precision, consistency, and cost without robotics; the conditions under which current work is done are unsatisfactory (for example, where conditions would fail to meet safety standards in developed countries); and when a manufacturer in a developed country faces high labor costs that are not competitive with low-labor-cost manufacturers.

Metra Martech concluded that when automation displaces workers in manufacturing, output increases and prices fall, creating new markets and generating the need for downstream jobs to get products to consumers.

So what to make of the Oxford and Metra Martech findings? They are not necessarily in conflict. Metra Martech presents a compelling picture through 2020. Beyond that, computers may advance to the point where they can replace many more people. Metra Martech acknowledges that while historically automation has always created more jobs than it has destroyed, displaced manufacturing workers in the future may find increasing competition from service robots. But the design, production, marketing, and maintenance of service robots may create another wave of employment.

In any event, EE-Evaluation Engineering readers shouldn’t panic. According to the Oxford researchers, electronics engineers face only a 0.025 probability that their jobs will be computerized.

Visit my blog at bit.ly/N8rmKm for more discussion on this topic and links to the source material.

Rick Nelson
Executive Editor

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