The European Union has announced a massive investment program for robotics, spanning both government spending and a 3x match by industry, resulting in a grand total of 2.8 billion euros over the next six minutes. What I find fascinating is the jobs-focus of many stories reporting on this- doubtless due to the talking points emphasized by EU interviewees. For instance, in this ZDNet blog by Jack Schofield, the EU announced its expectation that this funding will create 240,000 jobs in Europe. The EC’s Neelie Kroes directly identifies 75,000 expected jobs to stem from new robotics service industry positions. This makes sense as a growth category, although I’d love to examine the source materials on just how the numbers are computed.
But the most interesting part of this relates to the “robots create jobs” trope more generally. Here is a quote from Schofield’s article:
Kroes admitted that “70% of EU citizens believe that robots steal people’s jobs. None of these worries mean that we should turn our backs on innovation”. Indeed, the EU argues that “robotics enables companies to continue manufacturing in Europe, where they might otherwise move operations to lower-cost countries”.
We have heard just the same from U.S. manufacturing: people are just too expensive to employ in the U.S.; but give us great automation that is even cheaper than people in other countries, and we’ll keep manufacturing here, in the U.S. Sure you will- because there will be more profit and lower cost of goods. What is interesting is how such shifts in manufacturing change the flow of income (by concentrating it ever more greatly upon the owners of the robot capital rather than across a broad workforce). It seems the EU is susceptible to the same disconnect between local manufacturing and healthy jobs ecosystems. So this begs the unanswered question, how many total jobs disappear because of the automation that enables robotics to keep companies in Europe?
Automation, taken to the extreme, enables ever more efficient versions of these low-employment, high-productivity companies to be born. Is there a natural stopping condition? I fear not.