The Robotic Revolution Is Here: Should We Worry?

June 27, 2013

Often society’s greatest opportunities are accompanied by its most monumental challenges. The age of robotics is a quintessential example. As robotic technologies advance, many tasks traditionally handled by human beings will be “roboti-sourced,” a transformational phenomenon promising lower costs; better quality; improved industrial health and safety; and new efficiencies in manufacturing, services, and agriculture. This golden opportunity, however, comes with a future-defining challenge—assuring that the job loss likely in the sectors where robotics will hold sway is offset by job increases in other areas of the economy. In short, we must prepare for a future where sharp productivity increases are accompanied by stagnant or declining employment.  

One might ask how this dynamic is fundamentally different than the concerns raised from the infancy of the industrial revolution? It’s not! What’s drastically different is the speed and magnitude of change.  In the digital revolution, computerized capabilities will be able to perform a much wider spectrum of activity. Robotic technology will not only be able to perform mechanical tasks, such as replacing human bone and muscle, but the use of software will imbue robots with judgment, agility, and the ability to think—supplanting demand for human brainpower as well.

Economists, politicians, social scientists and the whole of society must start to think about the implications. Ensuring that the exciting possibilities are seized will require empowering our human capital to harness change.  This demands greatly increasing our young people’s technical proficiency and ability to find work in a new world where a greater number of tasks will be handled by highly capable robots.  Nearly four in 10 of our young people drop out of high school. Among African American and Hispanic students, who will soon make up 40% of the workforce, the figure is closer to 50%.

We better get started.