Rise of the robots

March 31, 2016 - 07:00pm

One constant fear in regard to automation is that it will make human workers obsolete. 

Citing a 2013 University of Oxford study, University of Cincinnati Assistant Professor of Economics Michael Jones wrote that almost half of those employed in the U.S. are at risk of being replaced by automation over the next 10 to 20 years, with transportation, logistics and administration as the most vulnerable occupations.

Not surprisingly, the manufacturing industry, with its reliance on automation, is also part of the conversation. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects from 21.9 to 27.7 percent declines in occupations such as patternmakers, pourers, casters, moldmakers, and machine tool setters, operators and tenders. 

Because of rapid technological advancements, equipment depreciates at a faster rate, meaning equipment owners must spend more to repair or replace technology.

“As a result,” Jones wrote in his article—“Yes, the robots will steal our jobs. And that’s fine,” which was posted online by The Washington Post—labor’s declining “share of output is directly correlated to the increasing share of output spent on technology. Since 1970, the share of our nation’s output spent on technology replacement has increased from just under 13 percent to more than 15 percent.”

Jones (no relation to the author of this news item) acknowledged that machines are indeed replacing humans at a faster rate than many thought possible. But focusing on that statistic ignores that machines also can be complementary.

“Watson is a case in point,” Jones wrote, referring to IBM’s supercomputer that defeated two former “Jeopardy” superstars at their own game in 2011. “A year after Watson’s ‘Jeopardy’ victory, IBM formed a partnership with the Cleveland Clinic to assist physicians and improve the speed and accuracy of medical diagnosis and treatments. Watson augments the skills of physicians, creating more demand for doctors with access to the supercomputer.”

While it is true that the percentage of unemployed men ages 25 to 54 has more than tripled since 1967, Jones stated the reasons have little to do with technology. According to a 2014 poll of Americans without jobs, taken by The New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation, 44 percent of men surveyed said there were jobs in their area that they weren’t willing to take. In addition, 60 percent stated that they were “not at all willing” to move to another state to work.

“These findings suggest that although the United States boasts the most job openings since the government began tracking them nationwide, many of those without work don’t want to apply for one reason or another,” Jones wrote.

Another factor to consider is the skills gap, something the manufacturing industry is actively working to overcome through education, training and certification programs. Automation eliminates the need for some roles, but it creates other opportunities. 

Rather than “wringing our hands and blaming technology,” wrote Jones, a better course of action would be to retrain those who lose their jobs to robots, allowing them to enhance their skills and bring more value to a company. 


Associate Editor

Evan Jones Thorne, who served as associate editor of Cutting Tool Engineering magazine through February 2017, holds a bachelor’s degree in English and communications from Northern Illinois University. Evan joined Cutting Tool Engineering in October 2013.


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