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Will robots replace workers or create new jobs?

Automation and robotics are playing an ever-increasing role in the workplace, particularly in manufacturing.

According to the Robotics Industry Association, in the United States, capital investment in robots increased by 13.1% from 2015 to 2016, to $1.81 billion. Many of those investments have been made in Michigan factories.

“The biggest user is the automotive industry,” said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, an industry trade group. “G.M., Ford, Chrysler, are all investing heavily in robotics. So likely that makes [southeast] Michigan one of the leading places to find robotics.”

So what does this mean for Michigan’s manufacturing workforce? Could the auto-industry jobs that are so crucial to the state’s economy soon go the way of the blacksmith?

For Burnstein, the answer is a firm “no.” In fact, he argues that investment in robots can lead to greater employment by making manufacturing firms more competitive.

“We took a 20 year look at this, from 1996 to 2015, and the results were counterintuitive,” he said. “In every period where robot sales were rising, unemployment was falling. And in every period where robot sales were falling, unemployment was rising. Now why is that? We believe it’s because the real threat to jobs is the inability to compete.”

On the other hand, numerous academic studies have concluded that automation presents a real threat to employment.

A 2016 study found that 9% of jobs could be replaced by automation – they are “automatable,” in academic parlance. A 2013 study by researchers at the University of Oxfordfound that nearly half of all U.S. jobs are “at risk.”

Burnstein takes issue with reports like these. In particular, he thinks they fail to account for the capacity of new technologies like robots to create new types of work.

“Twenty years ago would you have known that there would be a job called social media director or search engine optimization specialist?” Burnstein mused. “No, of course not. But they exist today, and there are a lot of people doing them. We think the same thing is going to happen in robotics and automation.”

Listen to our full interview with Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, above.

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