We <3 Robots?

The debate on robots and society has predominantly focused on their presumed talent to destroy rather than create value. Here’s two articles to balance the debate, two positive views on robots entering the workforce.

1. Amazon and its hybrid work-force
Let’s look at how the world’s largest online retailer is using robots in its fulfillment centers. By doing so Amazon has been able to drive down shipping costs and pass those savings on to customers. Cheaper shipping made more people use Amazon, and the company hired more workers to meet this increased demand. Tasks involving fine motor skills, judgment or unpredictability are handled by people. They stock warehouse shelves with items that come off delivery trucks.

In 2016 the company grew its robot workforce by 50 percent, from 30,000 to 45,000. Far from laying off 15,000 people, though, Amazon increased human employment by around 50 percent in the same period of time. Even better, the company’s Q4 2016 earnings report included the announcement that it plans to create more than 100,000 new full-time, full-benefit jobs in the US over the next 18 months.

2. America is the land of opportunity; everybody can become a taxpayer!
In a recent interview Bill Gates proposed that robots should be taxed. He anticipates that robots will replace large numbers of workers over the next 20 years. By taxing the robots, he argued, we would slow down the pace of automation and the funds raised could be used to retrain and financially support displaced workers, who could then move into new jobs in health care, education, or other areas where human labor is needed.

While Gates is right that robots—not just traditional industrial robots, but all sorts of artificial intelligence applications—are indeed likely to automate a lot of work over the next 20 years, Forbes argues that computer automation is actually increasing employment in most industries, so taxing robots would just slow job growth and limit economic opportunity for millions.

Yes, we need funds to retrain workers and support them in making these job transitions, but taxing robots will just slow job creation. So far, automation is creating more jobs than it is destroying.

Category: work

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