Opinion

The Complicated Relationship Between Robots And Workers

By Robert Seamans

This and other recent papers highlight that the relationship between robots and jobs is nuanced, at least in manufacturing settings in advanced economies.

By Robert Seamans

Last week I attended the American Economic Association’s (AEA) annual conference in San Diego. The AEA event is the largest annual conference for economists, in which cutting edge research is presented and where Nobel laureates are congratulated for their achievements. I was the discussant for two papers on the use of robots in firms, and these papers highlight that the relationship between robots and workers is complicated.

A paper by Acemoglu, Lelarge and Restrepo studied the effects of robots on employment in French manufacturing firms. The authors found that firms that adopt robots experience an increase in employment. This finding is notable for a couple reasons. First, it runs counter to the popular narrative that “robots are coming for your job.” Second, the positive relationship between robot adoption and jobs at the firm level has been documented by researchers in other countries including Canada, Denmark and Spain. In other words, the positive relationship between robot adoption and jobs at the firm level appears to be quite robust, at least in advanced economies.

Yet the authors also find that manufacturing firms are likely to experience decreases in employment when their competitors adopt robots. Moreover, they find that, in aggregate, the negative effects on employment dominate the positive effects at the firm level: even as some manufacturing firms are growing and adding jobs (the firms adopting robots), even more manufacturing firms are shrinking and losing jobs. This same result has also been found using data from Spain, but I’d argue that more work is needed to assess its robustness.

Read full Forbes article.

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Robert Seamans is an Associate Professor of Management and Organizations.