Robot experts say “robot revolution” won’t threaten human jobs

Will we become homeless if robots start taking our jobs? That was the concern Akash Pondicherry, a seventh-grade student at the Kenwood Academy High School, had at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs forum Monday.

“We are going through a technological revolution that is naturally creating jobs,” responded Henrik Christensen, a robot expert at the discussion. He said the ongoing “robot revolution” won’t threaten human jobs, and the challenge is to educate people to adopt the technology.

Christensen is the chair of robotics of German manufacturer KUKA and a professor of computing at Georgia Institute of Technology. While jobs such as heavy lifting tasks will be replaced, Christensen said he is optimistic about the revolution because new job categories such as robot programmers will be created.

Robot Revolution Exhibit @ the Museum of Science and Industry Chicago
Robot Revolution Exhibit @ the Museum of Science and Industry Chicago [J.B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago]
“Using robotic technologies, we can start to bring jobs back that have gone abroad,” said Christensen. “We have seen Lenovo, Apple, all those companies starting to use robotic technologies to bring jobs back that were gone to South East Asia.”

According to Christensen, automobile production lines such as the BMW X series that used to outsource are bringing their manufacturing jobs back to the United States because the cost of manufacturing has been reduced.

A study by the Boston Consulting Group on advanced manufacturing technologies showed that by 2025 the total cost of manufacturing labor is projected to fall between 18 and 33 percent in countries which already deploy industrial robots, including South Korea, China, the U.S. and Germany.

Christensen also said jobs such as hairdressers that provide more of a social experience rather than a functional experience will unlikely be replaced, but said what we’ll lose is the freedom of choosing between social and asocial jobs.

“Creativity, complexity, reasoning, we are far away with the robots; that’s why we need people,” said Christensen.

Deloitte consultancy firm recently released a report which seemed to agree with Christensen. Researchers, using census data for England and Wales from 1871 to 2011, found technology advancements had actually improved the job market, reduced the number of dull and dangerous jobs, and boosted those in the caring, creative, technology and business services sectors.

“The problem is we shifting the jobs from being much less unskilled labor to be much more skilled labor, the big challenge is how do we make sure all kids get educations,” said Christensen. “We cannot offer to build robots that can only be operated by people with college degrees.”

According to Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, the next decade will likely see about 3.5 million new manufacturing jobs. But because people don’t have the necessary skills and training, 2 million will go unfilled.

Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute Data

“Education is a big concern, especially with education is getting more expensive,” said Jonathan Macha, director of public programs at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Macha said he is from Detroit and “[he] saw a lot of those assembly lines did affect the jobs, so [he] felt the speaker is being a little more optimistic than [he] am.”

“I do think the change can be very scary and it can be very worrisome. The way around that is short of educating people, and things like this help a lot,” said Anna Brill, an employee of the Museum of Science and Industry, and one of the three robot specialists that controlled the Robotic Mini at the forum.

Robot Revolution Exhibit @ the Museum of Science and Industry Chicago
Robot Revolution Exhibit @ the Museum of Science and Industry Chicago [J.B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago]