Robots may be the answer to worker shortages
Robots have been around for decades. For most of their history, they were perceived as awkward mechanical devices used in factory assembly lines to perform repetitive tasks. However, progress in developing cameras, chips, wireless communications and artificial intelligence have made robots more mobile, cooperative, autonomous and smarter. They now move goods in warehouses, perform surgeries, vacuum floors and deliver products. In the coming years, it is expected that robots will be widely used in supermarkets, hospitals, nursing homes and much more.
As robots take on more varied roles, workers worry about being replaced.
An economist at Oxford University published a paper in 2013 that was interpreted by some as meaning that 47% of American jobs were at risk of being automated, according to The Economist. Three years ago, just before we were hit by the COVID pandemic, media reports stoked worries that robots will replace a considerable percentage of workers and result in high unemployment.
I remember a discussion over lunch with one of my colleagues who was in panic that her job would be automated and her kids would be unemployed. I explained to her that I can’t see how a robot can take over her job as a lobbyist.
Also, I explained to her that wide use of robots and artificial intelligence will free workers who are stuck doing mundane and risky jobs, create better jobs and increase productivity, but this will not happen overnight.
More recently, I have come to two conclusions. The first is that progress and innovation have accelerated in the last two centuries because humanity freed a bigger portion of the labor force that was used in farms and other dull jobs by increasing automation. These freed workers were redirected to studying in schools and working in research centers and factories where they innovated and produced new products. In turn, these products freed more people to create new products that make our lives more productive and enjoyable.
Secondly, worker productivity is more important than the number of hours workers put in each week. Employees, in collaboration with robots and AI, can increase their productivity so they can do their jobs in less time. This will result in an increase in profitability and income which means more investment and new jobs. Also, as we increase efficiency, profitability and income, our society will have the option of reducing weekly work hours.
Despite past gloomy predictions, almost all sectors of the economy are facing severe labor shortages that are slowing the economy and creating inflationary pressures. This labor shortage will become even more acute in the future as the birth rate drops and the population ages. Collaborative workers wishing to express their creativity will be liberated as robots’ capabilities grow and they perform more of the jobs now considered a dead end.
George A. Elmaraghy of Columbus is a member of the International Joint Commission Water Quality Board.