Human beings have long worried about new machinery, computers, and robots displacing human workers and causing economic hardship, with recent one recent poll finding that 76% of Americans believe that inequality between the rich and the poor would increase if robots and computers perform most of the jobs currently being done by humans. The skyrocketing unemployment figures related to the current coronavirus pandemic aren’t doing much these days to reassure people about their long-term employment future, either. But the risks being highlighted by Covid-19 should actually lead us to appreciate the great potential automated workplace technology has for making our lives better, safer, and healthier.
In today’s New York Times, Michael Corkery and David Gelles report on trends in automation that will end up shielding human workers from jobs and job tasks that could increase their health risks. AMP Robotics, for example, is producing trash-sorting robots that can separate recyclable material like used food containers, freeing up human workers for duties that are less likely to carry a risk of infection. Many other industries are moving ahead with automated machines and software that will reduce safety risks from work that has to be done high above the ground, in tightly enclosed spaces, or surrounded by unsafe air.
Replacing one or more workers with a new automated system also doesn’t mean that those workers are going to remain (or even become) unemployed. There’s a constant churn of jobs in a large economy, and a large company that saves money on labor costs in one area may well re-deploy employees to other tasks. Any job is really a bundle of job duties, and some of those duties are more valuable, and more amenable to automation, than others. Robot tech is overwhelmingly taking over the duties that are the most repetitive, dangerous, and dirty, leaving him workers with job options that are more creative, safe, and clean.
Former NPR Planet Money host Adam Davidson writes in his recent book The Passion Economy about automation of something that we usually don’t think of as a robot-ready task—being a good manager. He studied how the salad chain Sweetgreen trained and recruited their workforce, and found out that they were using a sophisticated software program to help nudge and guide their store managers. By dispensing encouragement and extending training and advancement opportunities more strategically, the company is able to keep their frontline employees happier, better identify prospects for advancement, and make each location more profitable. Their software didn’t replace managers, but it provided a valuable tool for leveraging their existing abilities, like giving a warehouse worker a pneumatic lifting suit.
Positive stories about win-win results from the march of automation are everywhere in our economy, but they don’t get publicized and repeated often enough. The workers who are told they should be the most worried about their jobs being stolen by robots are, in fact, the ones who will likely benefit the most from future jobs that will be safer and more pleasant. We just need our political leaders not to stop this progress with bad policies.