Making Peace with the Invaders ; Automation Advocates Say Employment Rises When Robots Move In

By Markoff, John | International Herald Tribune, January 25, 2013 | Go to article overview

Making Peace with the Invaders ; Automation Advocates Say Employment Rises When Robots Move In


Markoff, John, International Herald Tribune


Robot makers are working to counter what they say is an alarmist premise -- that automation will steal jobs -- and arguing that more robots equals more jobs and better social services for humans.

The robot equipment industry has one word for the alarmist articles and television news programs that predict a robot is about to steal your job: Fiddlesticks!

Well, that wasn't actually the word used this week at the Automate 2013 trade show held here through Thursday, but the sentiment was the same. During a presentation Monday, Henrik I. Christensen, the KUKA chairman of robotics at the Georgia Institute of Technology's college of computing, sharply criticized a recent "60 Minutes" news report on automation that had been based on the work of the economists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson.

The two economists in 2011 published "Race Against the Machine," a book that renewed the debate about the relationship between the pace of automation and job growth. They argue that the pace of automation is accelerating and that robotics is pushing into new areas of the work force, like white-collar jobs, that were previously believed to be beyond the scope of computers.

During his talk, Mr. Christensen said the evidence indicated that the opposite was true: While automation may transform the work force and eliminate certain jobs, it also creates new kinds of jobs that are generally better paying and that require higher-skilled workers.

"We see today that the U.S. is still the biggest manufacturing country in terms of dollar value," Mr. Christensen told the audience. "It's also important to remember that manufacturing produces more jobs in associated areas than anything else."

An official of the International Federation of Robotics acknowledged that the automation debate had sprung back to life in the United States, but he said the United States was alone in its anxiety over robots and automation.

"This is not happening in either Europe or Japan," said Andreas Bauer, chairman of the federation's industrial robot suppliers group and an executive at KUKA Robotics, a German robot maker.

To buttress its claim that automation is not a job killer but instead a way for the United States to compete against increasingly advanced foreign competitors, the industry group reported Tuesday on findings that it said it would publish in February. The federation said the industry would directly and indirectly create from 1.9 million to 3.5 million jobs globally by 2020.

The federation held a news media event at which two chief executives of small American manufacturers described how they had been able to both increase employment and compete against foreign companies by relying heavily on automation and robots.

"Automation has allowed us to compete on a global basis. It has absolutely created jobs in southwest Michigan," said Matt Tyler, chief executive of Vickers Engineering, an auto parts supplier. "Had it not been for automation, we would not have beat our Japanese competitor; we would not have beat our Chinese competitor; we would not have beat our Mexican competitor. …

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