Do robots hurt manufacturing jobs? As with almost everything, it depends on who you ask and how you word the question. Since technology is continuing to develop – there are now robots that can learn new skills by watching videos on YouTube – understanding their impact on human society is becoming more and more critical.
Yes, Robots Hurt Manufacturing Jobs
Until now, robot workers have been able to perform limited functions that they're programmed for, but that's changing. A robot developed at the University of Maryland learns by watching YouTube videos. It's able to learn new fine motor skills, like cracking an egg, and turn that into a repeatable process. Another robot, created in Finland, was built with a neural network that let it improve its welding skills on its own.
Once robots are able to learn and effectively reproduce procedures without being programmed, they'll be able to move to new areas within the factory more easily. Not only will this hurt assembly-line workers, it will hurt the workers who've moved into robotics programming jobs.
No, Robots Don't Hurt Manufacturing Jobs
Although there's no doubt that robots can replace manufacturing – Foxconn last year announced plans to replace iPhone assembly workers with robots – the overall statistics on the impact don't actually support fears of a robot takeover.
The loss of jobs in manufacturing in the United States is correlated with increased use of robotics, but there were many other economic changes that contributed to job loss at the same time, including globalization and offshoring of jobs. A recent study showed that Germany uses more robots than the U.S., but lost a smaller percentage of its manufacturing jobs. Other countries that use fewer robots than the U.S., such as the United Kingdom and Australia, experienced larger drops in manufacturing employment.
Meeting the Challenge of Robots
The same study found that the biggest impact of robots on workers was for low-skilled workers. Improved vocational training may help workers remain employed. Still, as robots become smarter and more flexible, finding the balance between automation and employment will remain a challenge.