Drones, Robots, and More: Will Automation Create Jobs – or Unemployment?

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On Wednesday, November 3, 2021 at 10:00am ET, Congressman Jim Himes (CT-04), the Chairman of the U.S. House Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth, held a hearing titled “Our Changing Economy: The Economic Effects of Technological Innovation, Automation and the Future of Work,” to look at the impact that technology like drones, robots, and technology advances in automation and digitization will have on the American economy and workers nationwide.  Will automation create jobs, or more unemployment and wage stagnation?

It’s not a new problem, and since Part 107 regularized the commercial use of drones, many opponents to the new advancements like drone delivery, warehousing, inspections, and more have cited job losses as a major concern.

It’s a fair point.

Will automation create new jobs, or create unemployment?

Professor Daron Acemoglu, MIT Institute Professor, points out that job losses due from automation tend to have an outsized impact on people with lower levels of education, and those already disadvantaged.  This is not, however, a new development: “Automation is not a recent phenomenon. The beginning of the British Industrial Revolution was marked by rapid advances in automation technologies in the textile industry, and automation played a major role in American industrialization during the 19th century,” he says in written testimony.

However, Acemoglu points out that some automation creates jobs – and as long as technology is focused on reducing costs and improving productivity, the whole workforce benefits.  (He contrasts this type of beneficial automation – like precision agriculture – with what he calls “so-so” automation – the hated automated customer service line, for example.)

“…not all automation technologies are created equal. Those that reduce costs and boost productivity generate a set of compensating changes, for example, expanding employment in non-automated tasks,” says Acemoglu.

Shawn G. DuBravac, PhD, of the Avrio Institute, is even more positive about the impact of automation on the workforce.  “Technological innovation both complements and displaces workers, but it creates more opportunity than it destroys,” he testifies.  DuBravac makes the point that most automation technologies are used in conjunction with workers – not instead of them.

“We know that technological innovation displaces American workers. But we also see how it complements work. Increasingly, there are few jobs not touched in some way by technology.”

“It seems every week there are reports of individuals being saved with the help of drones and, behind each one of those, a drone operator. In fact, drones are being used to complement many types of work. In just the last few weeks, drones have been used by animal control officers to count deer in Sioux Falls,  to map the composition of debris located in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch,  and to make numerous engineering inspections safer and more efficient.”

Is Limiting Automation the Answer?

Limiting the development of automation technologies like drones and robotics is certainly not the answer to concerns about shifts in employment.  Not only is it an impossibility akin to conquering the Hydra, these technologies provide significant life-saving benefits to communities that should not be checked.

And, says Brent Orell, Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, limiting the use of technology isn’t the answer to protecting workers.  “In light of an increasingly automated economy, the solution is not to attempt to constrain technological change or alter its course, but rather to build up the workforce to be capable of working with technology as well as the flexibility and adaptability required as technological change continues to run its course.”