Capitol Report

March 29, 2017, 1:58 p.m. EDT

Every industrial robot takes up to 6 jobs, study finds

Robots taking jobs of manual workers

By Steve Goldstein, MarketWatch

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Robotic arms assemble and weld the body shell of a car on the production line at Nissan's Sunderland plant.

Industrial robots could take over 6 million jobs in a decade, new research finds.

Economists Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Pascual Restrepo of Boston University say that at the high end of projected industrial robot takeup, there would be a 0.94 to 1.76 percentage point decline in the employment-to-population ratio by 2025. Though the authors didn’t quantify the jobs at risk, the Census Bureau projects the 2025 population to be 347.3 million people, meaning between 3.3 million and 6.1 million jobs could be lost.

Even a more conservative projection of robot usage would imply a 0.54 to 1 percentage point decline in the employment-to-population ratio, or between 1.9 million and 3.5 million jobs lost.

Also read: Mnuchin: It may take a century for artificial intelligence to take U.S. jobs

The authors studied the impact of rising industrial robot usage between 1990 and 2007. They found that each new robot per thousand workers reduced the employment-to-population ratio by about 0.18 to 0.34 percentage points, and wages fell between 0.25% to 0.5%.

Another way to say that: between 3 and 5.6 workers lost their jobs for each robot added to the national economy.

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Osaka University and NTT Laboratories recently created the first "discussion dialogue" androids - the only robots that have humanlike independent cognitive abilities, as opposed to scripted speech.

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Industrial robots are fully autonomous machines, which do not need a human operator and can be programmed to perform several manual tasks such as welding and painting. (Coffee machines, cranes and elevators are not industrial robots because they have a unique purpose, can’t be reprogrammed and/or require a human operator.)

The employment impact, the authors find, is most pronounced in routine manual, blue collar, assembly and related occupations, and for workers with less than a college education. At the same time, the authors don’t find any positive and offsetting employment gains in any occupation or education group, a finding they call a surprise.

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The authors also found that while the robot impact on men and women was similar, the impact on male employment was more negative.

Another notable finding is that the impact from robots is distinct and weakly correlated to other factors such as Mexican and Chinese imports, offshoring and other computer technology.

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