Humans, robots, jobs

Yesterday’s editorial was about how the U.S. has become more competitive for manufacturing and could potentially regain its former status as a producer of goods for the world.

However, it’s an open question how many living, breathing Americans would be hired if a wave of manufacturers opened up shop in this country, given that industrial robots are replacing humans at an increasing pace on factory floors.

And not just on factory floors. A report Oxford University issued earlier this year said almost half of U.S. jobs could be automated in the next 10 to 20 years. The report mentioned some professions that surprised us, such as real estate agents and cab drivers.

So even as our nation becomes more competitive for jobs, there’s more pressure on American workers to make themselves not just indispensable but irreplaceable by machines. That’s not easy, and it promises to get much harder in the near future. Workers and their unions may eventually be forced to sidestep jobs that can easily be automated, just as the huge crews of Adirondack loggers 100 years ago gave way to today’s mechanized feller-bunchers, manned by just a few skilled operators.

Such a labor market will further increase the importance placed on a person’s education, but also on his or her skills, natural talents and personal characteristics such as reliability, honesty and accountability. To simply do a task over and over again, an employer would be inclined to turn to a robot. A robot might be able to drive cars and trucks, sell houses – maybe even write easy news articles – but can it make the intangible human connection, tailor work for a community’s particular interests, win trust and loyalty? Can it teach or write in a way that doesn’t just convey information but thrills the recipient with the joy of taking it in? There’s plenty of room for people to use their special abilities to outdo machines.

The competition is starting to heat up, however.

The International Federation of Robotics shows that in 2012, 26,269 industrial robots were sold in North America, and that figure is expected to rise to more than 31,000 by 2016. Globally, IFR expects 200,000 industrial robots to be sold in 2016, adding to a “population” of robots that exceeded 1.3 million last year.

This issue seems bound to come up before federal and state policymakers over and over in the future. They should be careful about regulating the use of technology since, in one important sense, a robot is just another tool, and machines have been putting humans out of work for a long time. But lawmakers must pay this issue close attention since it is people who elect them and since, therefore, the word most on their lips is “jobs” – for humans, not robots.

This is one reason we’re skeptical of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s massive tax break for manufacturers, which the Legislature approved this year. It eliminates corporate income tax for them and gives credits to repay 20 percent of their property taxes. Aside from our concerns about having all other New Yorkers pay these companies’ share, we think maybe these breaks should have been tied to the number of jobs created.

It’s good for our country to be a place seen as good for making things, whether by human hands or by human programming, but the future seems to hold some big changes for labor.