Friction between machines and humans has existed since the beginning of the automated industry and machine-assisted work. It’s a trend that fuels the imaginations of pop culture and political debates alike as people voice worries about the roles increasingly sophisticated robots and technology are taking in society and workplaces.
But is this concern warranted? According to APARC’s Yong Suk Lee, the deputy director of the Korea Program and the SK Center Fellow at FSI, and Karen Eggleston, the deputy director of APARC and the director of the Asia Health Policy Program, perhaps not. A recent article published by the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI) highlights Lee and Eggleston’s ongoing research into innovative uses of technology across industries, particularly in healthcare. Their findings indicate that the adoption of robotics ultimately does more to augment and adjust, rather than outrightly replace, the role of human labor in the workplace.
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Lee studies the impacts of AI and robotics across multiple industries, including manufacturing, retail banking, and nursing homes. A trend he sees across most sectors following the adoption of robotics or AI is a positive increase in productivity. This has impacts for both the short-term and long-term relationships between humans and their robot coworkers, or “co-bots.” While it is true that the introduction of automation and robots initially replaces a significant number of workers in sectors such as manufacturing, over time, that impact reverses and there are job gains in many cases.
“The impact of robots often evolves over time from replacing human workers to augmenting them,” Lee explains, “and productivity gains [can] create opportunities for existing and new occupations.” This happens in a variety of ways. In some cases, the use of robotics and automation in one area frees up time, labor, and resources to employ more people in other, higher-skilled areas. In another situation, increases in productivity brought on by automation allow for greater company growth than would not have been possible otherwise. This, in turn, spurs the need to expand the workforce.
Alternatively, supplementing the labor of a small workforce with robotics and AI can also spread limited resources much farther. Lee and Eggleston’s studies of the impacts of robots on nursing home care in Japan repeatedly show that the use of robots positively increases the quality of service that oftentimes-understaffed care facilities can provide to the elderly and infirm. This can range from monitoring the physical condition of patients and reliably delivering medications to providing mental and emotional support to elderly residents through the use of robotic humanoid companions. Such innovative use of tech fills critical gaps that a human-only workforce would struggle to meet in a staffing shortage like Japan faces.
Looking to the future, Lee shares this perspective: “When the automobile was invented, we suddenly had a new demand for drivers. Now we’ll have to see if [automation] creates demand for other new occupations.” It’s an area of innovation and research he, Dr. Eggleston, and other Stanford researchers will be closely watching with their human eyes in the years to come.