In a recent interview with Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” Henrik Christensen, director of the Robotics & Intelligent Machines Center (RIM) at Georgia Tech, dispels many of the myths surrounding the threat of automation to the American workforce.
According to Christensen, machines are displacing some jobs that may be difficult for humans to perform alone because they require heavy lifting, high precision, or highly repetitive tasks, such as assembly in factories. Jobs in other industries that require minimal skills are also being replaced by automation. However, Christensen says, “the net number of jobs that have been created worldwide is actually going up; it’s not going down.”
In the last year, the U.S. saw a growth in the robotics sector by 40 percent. As automation continues to evolve, manufacturing costs and waste will be significantly reduced, resulting in the ability to increase production volume and quality. Christensen says, “Although some lower-skilled jobs will go away, an entire industry will blossom allowing the U.S. to build products that we can barely imagine today.”
Other important sectors, especially the healthcare and service industries, are projected to rise, requiring innovative products and needs that can be met with robotics technology.
Christensen believes that educating and training workers is key to ensuring minimal displacement of jobs in all sectors but getting students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math is one of the big challenges. “What we’re seeing,” he says, “is a shift away from unskilled labor to skilled labor, and that poses a challenge to make sure that we actually have the people that can do this.”
In the next 30-40 years machines will be able to perform many job functions that humans can do, but rather than eliminating the human job force, they will make the workplace safer and more efficient while creating entirely new professions that will lead to new jobs.