Sometimes big changes happen imperceptibly, away from the headlines. They happen drop by drop until the proverbial one that makes the bucket overflow. That’s what happening with robots. They’re gaining ground as the society and the labor force in particular are having a hard time keeping up. We basically like robots, sometimes think they’re cute and make us think of Data on Star Trek or R2D2 on Star Wars. For decades robots have done a number of tasks in many kinds of factories, generally having a positive effect. Robots can now vacuum, assist in surgery and will soon drive cars. In Japan there’s a robot to paint the designs on nails with a precision difficult for humans to match. Several economists including Lawrence Summers, former Treasury Secretary, however, are not sure that in the future technology will create as many jobs as it will destroy. Airplane pilots, for example, are now an endangered species since flying an airplane, already largely automated, could soon totally be so. Truck drivers are also at risk, given that the same technology that can have driverless cars, can also have driverless trucks. What all this means is that nothing short of the nature of work will have to change as a result. That includes the number and the kind of jobs that will then be available. Many will require more skills, but overall it looks there will be less of them. Some predict it will be a world with more wealth and less need to work. That may be good news for those with money but what about the many others? Already we see many jobs disappearing and changes in the job market we have not yet understood.
The implications robots and technology will have on the society and the labor force in the not distant future is not an issue on the agenda of many. In fact listening to several members of congress it seems they haven’t any notion this is occurring, even though it is a dangerous trend that requires awareness, thought, research, policies, preparation and of course wisdom to keep it from becoming a big problem. As with most issues there isn’t agreement as to how serious a problem this could be. Regardless, It ought to be of concern to all of us. Not only could it affect how we may advise children and grandchildren, it may perhaps also guide us to influence and prod decision makers to address it intelligently.