Will Robot Day replace Labor Day?


“A new wave of robots, far more adept than those now commonly used by automakers and other heavy manufacturers, are replacing workers around the world…”

We can’t glibly dismiss this statement in a recent New York Times article as science fiction, or bury our heads in the sand and pretend that these robots won’t come to our town. Increasingly, robots have begun to perform tasks that we have always assumed humans must perform. One scientist: ‘We’re on the cusp of completely changing manufacturing and distribution. I think it’s not as singular an event, but it will ultimately have as big an impact as the Internet.”

If we have concerns about the future quality of life in our communities, and specifically about poverty and its consequences, should we fear the robots?

Poverty lies at the root of many of the challenges we face in our communities across the nation; it also results in many of the problems that we end up trying to alleviate through our health care, human service, and education systems, or in some cases, that we must deal with through our corrections system. For some people, poverty derives from their individual behavior, attitudes, or circumstances: lack of literacy; a poor work ethic; a too-early pregnancy; etc. However, for others, poverty stems from social or structural causes: racism as a barrier to success or lack of economic activity in a community, for example.

Will robots change the structure of work in a way that pushes more people below the poverty line, or at least closer to it?

So far, evidence suggests that robots’ “encroachment into human skills” has both positive and negative effects. Some types of jobs do increase. In certain cases, the productivity of robots requires that companies find more workers, to oversee the increased workflow and to accomplish the increased amount of work necessary to support the increased productivity. However, the need for workers with certain skills has plummeted in some industries.

The net result in the long term – more jobs or fewer – remains to be seen.

The robots will certainly take over a lot of labor territory. They cost less, run more efficiently, and have higher productivity than humans for an increasing number of tasks. Market forces will push them into the factories of the future. Robot manufacturers can demonstrate convincing cost-benefit analyses. Union opposition might moderate, but cannot mitigate, the extent to which jobs for human beings will decrease.

All of us who want to promote prosperity, reduce social and economic disparities, and improve the quality of life for everyone in our communities need to consider this latest wave of automation as we develop strategies for economic development. We need to convert this potential threat to a potential tool – with innovative thinking to create industries which both use modern means of automation and create more jobs for human beings.

I hope you enjoy your Labor Day weekend, but I also hope that you reflect seriously on the future that we want to create for our workforce.