As more companies use robots, many worry about the effect of automation on workers. The good news is that robots bring many benefits to both companies and workers. In fact, encouraging robot innovation and adoption supports the U.S. workforce and economy in four ways.
First, robots boost productivity, which is something that is desperately needed given low productivity growth rates and the increasing ratio of retirees to workers. Companies can use robots to automate certain tasks and accomplish more in the same amount of time than they would with manual labor. By increasing their productivity, companies can either cut their costs, which can result in lower prices for those who buy their products, or sell more, which can result in workers moving to different tasks. For example, in early 2022, Electrolux, a Swedish home appliance manufacturer, opened a factory in Anderson, South Carolina, to build refrigerators and stand-alone freezers. Facility managers deployed robots to handle a variety of tasks, such as transporting assembled refrigerators, and trained 1,300 employees to manage the new manufacturing process. By using robots to complete manual tasks, Electrolux workers did not need to carry the heavy machines themselves and could transition to less physically straining work.
Second, encouraging robot innovation and adoption will make domestic manufacturing more competitive. Many U.S. companies have moved some operations to lower-wage countries to reduce labor costs. However, advances in robots, particularly in the manufacturing industry, enable higher levels of productivity at lower costs and allow U.S. companies to reshore their operations. Bringing manufacturing back to the United States will strengthen U.S. supply chains and reduce dependence on foreign countries.
Third, organizations can use robots to automate unwanted jobs or tasks that are too dirty, dull, or dangerous for human workers. In one example, in late April, New York City’s fire department used a robotic dog and drones to search a parking garage that had collapsed in Manhattan. By deploying the robots, the fire department could search for victims and examine the building’s structural components without placing first responders at risk. In another example, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology deployed two robots, named Mario and Luigi, into sewer systems in Boston and Cambridge to collect wastewater samples that can be used to identify public health issues. By using robots to collect samples, the team did not need to ask a human worker to perform the unsanitary task.
Finally, robot adoption will lead to the creation of more high-paying jobs in the robotics industry and new types of jobs in industries that adopt robots. Robotics companies will need to hire more workers to design, manufacture, and maintain robots—along with staff to support that work—if robot adoption grows. Other industries will create new types of jobs as they adopt robots. For example, surgeons at the Vall d’Hebron University Hospital in Spain recently completed the world’s first fully robotic lung transplant with a robotic arm. Robotic surgeries require an assortment of human jobs, including hospital technicians to maintain the arm, medical school professors to teach students how to operate the arm, and insurance agents to assess medical malpractice claims from the surgeries.
Policymakers should actively support robot innovation and adoption to ensure that companies and workers can take advantage of the benefits of automation.