The Golden Gate Bridge switches this week from toll booths to electronic tolling. The pre-payment system is supposed to make commuting faster, but it also puts human toll booth operators out of a job. With robots playing increasingly key roles in manufacturing, surgery, and everyday operations, where does that leave the flesh-and blood worker? Are there downsides to the rise of robots? Or does this reliance on technology simply make humans more efficient, creating new job opportunities?

Are Robots Taking a Toll on Jobs? 27 March,2013forum

Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and author of "Enterprise 2.0" and "Rage Against the Machine"
Martin Ford, owner of Silicon Valley software company and author of "The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future"
Catherine Mohr, director of medical research at Intuitive Surgery
Mark Micire, research scientist in the Intelligent Robots Group for both Carnegie Mellon University and the NASA Ames Research Center

  • Slappy

    There are some areas that should definitely use robots, especially the medical field, where precision is absolutely necessary.

    There are also areas in which robots should not be employed, particularly in occupations where people do just fine (of course, specific occupations are up for debate). I think it’s important that we have many people employed in a variety of occupations, including industrial. Why? Not everyone is cut out or wants a professional job. But these days it seems that the the default job, if not professional, is some degrading retail job. I think industrial jobs provide a much-needed balance to the economy. Don’t Germany and Japan do just fine with their blend of professional and industrial jobs? I could be wrong, of course.

    It bothers me still when conservatives state blindly that “Robots break down from time to time, they’ll have to hire technicians to fix them. So that’s where the loss of employment is negated.” The point of replacing workers with robots is to save money for the company, because humans are expensive! If a particular robot broke down constantly then, sure, the company may have to hire a tech to fix it. But the number of jobs that the robots displace will not equal the number of technicians hired to fix the robots.That defeats the purpose of buying the robots in the first place. If a certain model of robot broke down constantly, you can be sure that the engineer who designed it would be fired and the reputation of the robot’s manufacturer sullied.

  • Guest

    Machines have been replacing human labor for a few hundred years. What is different this time is that the tech companies have decided to outsource the job of making these robots and automatic teller machines to countries like China. More money for the shareholders and fewer jobs for Americans.

    • This is true, but the introduction of microprocessors, networking and advances sensors radically (beyond what most of us understand) skews the mix – also as was put forward in a recent 60minutes show – we (the USA) have already lost most of the mechanical jobs out there – China is actually at more of a risk as many of their new jobs that have put 100’s of millions of people off the farm an into the factory are at risk – what will they do with 300 million+ out of work non-skilled workers?

  • G_Nikus

    I am waiting for a movie where small cute computers sitting in a corner destroy humans by taking away their jobs, instead of large robots that knock down buildings.

  • David Channer

    This topic is inseparable from a discussion about ownership. I like the image of an employee-owned company that replaces its human labor with automated labor and allow their employees to derive income from capital ownership. But we all know what happened to the Joads when the combine harvester arrived. Automation will mean emancipation or irrelevance according to who owns the machines.

    • We as a society have to discuss these issues, but we can’t even pass a budget….

  • Jennifer P

    The human element could be irreplaceable in customer service roles, but
    unfortunately, it shouldn’t be when the employee is incompetent, annoyed, and
    completely unappreciative of their job. I’d rather be served by an
    unemotional robot, than a disgruntled, incompetent ingrate of an

  • I do want robots telling me about my cancer – not now as robots can’t really tell us anything, but when they can I would not have a problem with it. Over and over we see that people make different decisions based on who they are talking to and how they are feeling that day – doctors dealing with fat people have less patience and such. I understand as humans we are affected by moods, training, stress and personal issues and in some cases their effectiveness and as a person who likes the numbers and realities of things and doesn’t want things “softened” I would prefer to know the facts.

    p.s. my sister died because of botched readings by a doctor (proven in court) and we all know it happens more than we know – not always fatal of course.

  • Regarding the social implications of robots – I like the last comments about finding a way of distributing the money – as we can all see now that in our current situation if you increase productivity (profit) the money just stays at the top – perfect for trickle down proponents, but it sure leaves more and more people “out of the loop” and makes them fight for fewer and fewer positions – which means they will get paid even less underbidding each other for fewer opportunities.

  • timholton

    More and more meaningless stuff, less and less meaningful work—could there be a connection?

    Let’s be clear: Automation is driven by profit-seeking, not a desire to create more “leisure time” or improve the lives of the human race as a whole. Why do we keep listening to the hype of techno-utopians?

    Instead of cheapening our stuff by cheapening and eliminating human labor, we should be using our wealth to enhance our labor–and our compensation for our labor to a fair wage that allows us to work shorter hours, if we so desire. Instead, we have this delusional utopian agenda, born out the best intentions but shear ignorance—the ignorance of an insulated academic sub-culture with little or no appreciation for the innate rewards of manual labor given humane purpose and conditions, as well as the meaning embodied by things produced in such conditions—to destroy meaningful work.

    The answer to that is always the absurd extreme reactionary one: the alternative is no progress at all, the logic there being that civilization is the same as industrialization and capitalism, and that all other human civilizations have been stagnant, oppressive and uncreative, which is simply false. All civilizations, most of them admirable at different stages and in different respects, reach a stage of decay. We are at that stage. The path of capital-driven change without regard for its total social and environmental consequences—directly destructive of the earth as well as our very humanity expressed through our labor (a.k.a., the arts of civilization)—when we already have the technological capacity to offer everyone a rewarding life is now the path of collective suicide.

    • geraldfnord

      I realise that the distinctions have been blurred recently, but actually there have been many ‘reactionaries’ sceptical of capitalism and the ‘creative destruction’ that it brings. Back in the Nineteenth Century (C.E.), the Tories were opposed by the Liberals, which latter believed in laissez-faire capitalism as the best way of advancing the interests of the rising middle classes—neither cared much about the poor, except for a few Tories who believed in a dole as a matter of national pride and noblesse oblige—the Liberals believed that their policies would lift more boats, but basically were Social Darwinists, that is anyone who can’t cut it on their own should go to the wall (like all those infant ‘takers’!).

      • timholton

        I didn’t mean reactionary as a political label but as a description of a knee-jerk, not thoughtful, response.

  • geraldfnord

    Once upon a time, serfdom and knighthood made sense: improved ploughs, labour shortages after the Black Death, and gunpowder made them no longer so, and so became ‘wrong’. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that the steam engine marked the century in which all civilised nations rejected slavery.

    Once upon a time, leaving your home every day at the same time to go to a ‘job’ in order to stay alive (and one hopes comfortable) made sense, but….

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