Humans have a remarkable ability to make life easier through invention. Examples include toilet paper over leaves, cars over a horse and buggy, and drones over piloted planes. However, as is the case with weapons, many advances come with unforeseen and unpleasant consequences, and one such area may be the rise in robotics.
The idea of having a robot to do menial tasks sounds great on the surface -- who doesn't want his or her own personal helper? But some experts warn that those advances could cause unemployment to reach 75%. Still, other experts argue that robots will actually lead to job creation. Here's what you need to know.
Robots stole my job
In July 2011, Foxconn's (NASDAQOTH:FXCOF) founder and chairman, Terry Gou, stated that over a three-year period, the electronics manufacturing giant would increase its use of robots to boost efficiency and combat rising labor costs. While the exact details surrounding this implementation of robots vary, some reports indicate that Foxconn intends to replace 1 million of its human workers with robots over the next few years.
Additionally, in 2011, Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the Center for Digital Business at MIT's Sloan School of Management, and Andrew McAfee, a principal research scientist at the center, released a book detailing how robots will lead to job loss and an increase in unemployment. In the book, they argue that typically, technological advances lead to displaced workers but also create jobs. However, with the rise in robotics and other technology, the jobs created by advancing technology are less than the jobs being lost to that advancement.
As evidence of this trend, Brynjolfsson and McAfee point to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and its reports on U.S job growth by decade from the 1940s to 2000. "Despite economic growth," they note, "the United States lost jobs in the first decade of the 21st century, in a striking departure from the previous six decades." Instead of seeing economic prosperity lead to reduced unemployment as it did in the past, unemployment increased 1.1% because of advancing technology.
Robots saved my job
On the other hand, this past February, the International Federation of Robotics released a study conducted by Metra Martech Limited, which detailed how increasing the use of robotics will lead to more jobs.
The six countries studied -- Brazil, Japan, China, South Korea, Germany, and the USA -- showed that overall, both paid employment and the use of robotics increased in every country except for Japan. Additionally, the study found that though there was a reduction in manufacturing employment in developed countries using robots, in industrializing countries there was a significant increase in both manufacturing employment and robotic use, leading the authors of the study to conclude that robots don't necessarily lead to significant losses in employment.
In fact, the study found that where jobs are too dangerous, where labor costs are too high, and where there is a need for extreme precision, robots directly lead to job preservation and creation because they allow a company to stay in business where it otherwise wouldn't. Further, robots increase the need for support staff and operators. One example is medical-assisting robots such as those made by Hansen Medical and Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ:ISRG). Without the use of these extreme precision robots, the surgeries they assist in may not be able to be performed because of the high risk of failure, and death.
Finally, the study concluded that the increased use of robotics indirectly leads to job creation by allowing companies, and the sectors that they occupy, to expand, thus increasing the need for "downstream activity" support.
More pointedly, Aaron Edsinger CTO of Redwood Robotics, and Rodney Brooks, founder of iRobot and now Rethink Robotics, believe that robots will "reinvent and reinvigorate" the economy the same way computers did 30 years ago, and the way the tractor did to agriculture before that.
Should you worry?
The robotic impact on unemployment could go either way, but one thing is certain: Robots are becoming more capable every day, thanks to things such as Google's (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Goggles, an image recognition service for mobile devices, and Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Microsoft Kinect, which allows robots to take pictures and create 3-D scans of objects, thereby allowing the robot to grasp an object and move it to its appropriate place.
As such, this technology promises to be the wave of the future, regardless of the impact on unemployment. The good news is that by investing in companies that specialize in robotics, today, you may be able to retire thanks to stock profits, if you lose your job to a robot in the future.
Fool contributor Katie Spence has no position in any stocks mentioned. Follow her on Twitter: @TMFKSpence. The Motley Fool recommends Google and Intuitive Surgical and owns shares of Google, Intuitive Surgical, and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.