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Oct 27, 2023

More than a century ago, a Czech playwright coined the term "robot" in a fictional story about artificial human beings. In the past few decades, advances in information technology, particularly in the field of artificial intelligence, have made robots an everyday reality. Robots can be found performing jobs in many different types of work-places. Today`s robots include not only physical robots, such as Boston Dynamic`s dog-like Spot, an agile mobile robot that can be used for a variety of purposes, but also software robots, sometimes referred to as robotic process automation (RPA) or just software "bots." Software bots can emulate human actions in interacting with digital systems, such as identifying and extracting data and under-standing what is on a screen, but do so faster and in a more consistent manner than a person might. 

While many businesses champion the use of robots and other forms of automation as engines of higher productivity, operational efficiency, improved profit margins, safer workplaces, and job creation, others are concerned that these technologies are stealing jobs away from the people who most need them. This controversy is not new: tension around the use of automation has been a recurring theme since the first Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has ushered in a new host of variables, accelerating the progress of automation as well as potentially deepening its impact. 

Industrial robots are primarily used in manufacturing and for logistics, such as in warehouses. Many are fully autonomous and able to complete their tasks without any human intervention. A cobot (short for "collaborative robot") works collaboratively alongside humans. Worldwide, the use of industrial robots in factories has nearly doubled over the past five years, according to the International Federation of Robotics. Sales in the past two years have particularly boomed, in part due to businesses attempting to adjust to changes wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, such as changes in buying habits. For example, Texas grocery chain H-E-B has installed several auto-mated microfulfillment systems from robotics company AutoStore to support its curbside pickup and delivery services. Giant stacks of cubes about 6 inches apart are packed with bins filled with products. It would not be possible for humans to reach the bins. Instead, a robot travels across the top of the cube, digging out bins and delivering them to stations where workers assemble the orders. Currently, AutoStore has installed similar systems at more than 750 sites across 40 countries. 

Robots are also being called upon to help with labor shortages that have followed in the wake of the pandemic. Kenco, a third-party logistics provider, is deploying self-driving robots and testing autonomous tractors that can tow pallets as well as remotely operated warehouse forklifts that can be operated from anywhere in the world. Software bots are being employed to handle customer service call center re-quests, office tasks such as processing payroll data and expense reports, and even complex tasks such as reviewing legal documents. Applied Materials, which supplies equipment, services, and software to the semiconductor industry, is attempting to stretch strained resources by using more than 250 bots to automate financial accounting and other workplace processes. According to research firm International Data Corp, up to 40 percent of companies worldwide have increased their use of software bots and other forms of automation in response to the pandemic.

Research is mixed on whether robots and other forms of automation result in the permanent re-placement of workers. Some have found that robots and other forms of automation are reducing the demand for workers, weighing down wages, and pushing workers into low-paying parts of the economy. For instance, one study by economists Daron Acemoglu of MIT and Pascual Restrepo of Boston University found that for every robot per thou-sand workers, up to six workers lost their jobs and wages fell as much as 0.75 percent. Acemoglu and Restrepo found little employment increase in other occupations to offset job losses in manufacturing. Acemoglu and Restrepo noted that a specific local economy, such as Detroit, could be especially hard-hit, although nationally the effects of robots are smaller because jobs were created in other places. The new jobs created by technology are not necessarily in the places losing jobs, such as the Rust Belt. Those forced out of a job by robots generally do not have the skills or mobility to assume the new jobs created by automation. They are forced to compete with other workers for whatever jobs are left, which increases labor supply and depresses wages. 

However, another study by Dixon, Hong, and Wu that examined data from Canadian businesses over a five-year period found that investments in robotics resulted in an increase in total firm employment, in part because enhanced productivity led to increased demand for the firm`s products, requiring more employees. The research also found that those investments were primarily motivated by a desire to improve product and service quality rather than to reduce labor costs. 

A 2021 report by McKinsey Global Institute on the post-Covid-19 labor force predicted that more than 45 million US workers could be displaced by automation by 2030, but it is important to note that this number is not the same as actual jobs lost. The report further notes that it expects that 90 percent of those workers would transition to jobs within the same occupational category. Likewise, the World Economic Forum predicted that while technology may eliminate 85 million jobs by 2025, it would at the same time create 97 million new ones, a net addition of 12 million.

Although the research may appear contradictory, what is mostly undisputed is that robots and other forms of automation are likely to displace workers in certain types of jobs in certain industries in the short term. In addition, the effects of automation are not equally distributed and may contribute to eco-nomic inequality. Researchers from the Brookings Institution found that advances in automation will disproportionately affect Black and Latinx workers, who are overrepresented on a percentage basis in the job occupations that have the highest risk of being automated in the next two decades: those that are characterized as "middle-skilled," which often require specialization in routine tasks. In contrast, high-skill jobs that involve nonroutine cognitive tasks and low-paying service-sector jobs in hotels, restaurants, and nursing homes are much less likely to be automated. Much of this service work is difficult to automate, and employers have less incentive to replace low-wage workers with machines. 

How can you "future-proof" your career to deal with the potential impact of automation? Experts in the field offer some guidance. The World Economic Foundation reports that the top skills employers will be seeking include critical thinking and problem solving. A senior economist, recommends that workers build skills that are complementary to technology and sharpen up soft skills that are hard for machines to replace. senior fellow and policy director, suggests that workers should seek work that has a creative, face-to-face, human element and notes that personalized work, team-work, and creative work will last. a global transformation leader, believes that there will always be demand for work requiring judgment, creativity, and empathy-in short, the things that make people human.


Based on your knowledge of another emerging technology, answer the following questions:

1. What were some of the changes that are brought up by the disruptive technology? How significant are they?

2. What people, organization, and technology factors that should be considered?

3. What are some of the ethical issues that may arise?

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