You Decide: Will robots replace people in work?
In the 2012 movie Robot and Frank, set sometime in the future, a robot
is purchased to provide personal care for an elderly -- and mentally
deteriorating -- former jewel thief (Frank). When Frank learns the
robot doesn’t distinguish between legal and illegal behavior, he uses
it to pull off some final jewel heists. As the police close in, Frank
is faced with the decision of whether to wipe out the robot’s memory
so it can’t be used to trace the burglaries. This is a tough call for
Frank, since the robot now gives him more attention than do his
I won’t reveal Frank’s decision -- in case you want to watch this
well-done flick -- but the movie is thought-provoking on several
levels: the perils of aging, the relationship of children to elderly
parents needing increased care and the emergence and role of robots in
our society. Although I am experiencing and have experienced the first
two challenges, as an economist I will confine my comments in this
column to the last issue.
Historically, humans have had a love-hate relationship with machinery
and technology. We love what machines, gadgets and technical processes
can do for us: making us more productive, expanding our horizons and
simply taking a lot of the drudgery out of life. I vividly remember my
grandmother telling me about the day she had her first washing machine
and dryer installed. No longer did she have to scrub clothes by hand
and hang them outside to dry on sunny days, or anywhere she could find
on cold or rainy days. Plus, she could use the time saved letting the
machines do the work for other farm chores.
But machines and technology usually replace labor and, therefore,
cause jobs, at least initially, to decline. Washer and dryer machines
in big hotels and institutions meant less work for human washers and
dryers. The introduction of the tractor and harvester on the farm
dramatically increased farm output but caused the number of farm
workers to plunge. These tradeoffs have led some people, usually those
losing their jobs, to oppose the introduction of machines and
technology. There are incidents in history where this opposition
actually turned violent.
How has this tradeoff been resolved? Easy; although new machines and
technology destroyed some jobs, they ultimately created others. The
productivity, income and wealth created by machines and technology
generated resources and spending in new endeavors, and these
endeavors, in turn, created new jobs.
So as workers left the farm in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they
moved to the factories that were just developing to provide the new
consumer goods -- like cars, telephones and appliances -- that
households were buying. Then, in the late 20th century computers made
factories high-tech centers where one worker could do the work of 20
to 50 workers years before. But fortunately, jobs were expanding in
the professions, health care, finance, personal services and the new
information-technology sector to soak-up the extra labor.
This process of machines, inventions and technology destroying some
jobs but creating wealth, spending and jobs in new areas has, over
time, kept the job market expanding. However, will it continue? Some
What has changed? Here we go back to the robot in Robot and Frank.
Frank’s robot had something called artificial intelligence. This means
it could use information, experience and reasoning to learn, make
decisions and solve problems. Experts say if robots could actually be
made with these skills, it could be a big game changer for the job
How so? Up to now, machines and technology, including robots, have
primarily been used for routine jobs like putting fenders on a car,
filling bottles or dispensing money at an ATM. Non-routine jobs, where
the situation is frequently changing, and jobs requiring high-level
knowledge and complex decision-making have still been the domain of
humans. Interestingly, these jobs are at both the very high end and
the very low end of the wage range.
If machines (robots) can be developed to adapt to differing conditions
-- so their responses vary with the situation -- and if they can be
programmed to “think” and “reason,” then they can start to do more
non-routine jobs. Some economists say this is already occurring and is
one reason for the slow growth in employment in the last three years.
Could this mean the ultimate end of jobs for people? Some futurists
say “yes.” How then will people survive? These futurists say people
will have time to pursue their own interests and hobbies, but they
will have to be supported by income transfers from the owners of the
labor-saving machines and technology.
Other forecasters disagree. They argue that just as with
labor-substituting devices in the past, the rise of the robot will
free-up businesses, investors and workers for other profitable
pursuits, maybe in health care, nutrition, education, entertainment
and tourism. Jobs won’t decline; they will just shift.
The ultimate question is this, Will our love-hate relationship with
the machine be more “love” or more “hate” in the decades ahead? You
Dr. Mike Walden is a William Neal Reynolds Professor and North
Carolina Cooperative Extension economist in the Department of
Agricultural and Resource Economics of N.C. State University’s College
of Agriculture and Life Sciences.