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Robot working in server room

The ‘Robot Stole my Job’ Debate Rages on

Oct. 11, 2022
The extent to which robots and automation shift jobs remains contentious. Researchers offer a few new insights.

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Fears about working alongside robots is a perpetual concern, especially as it relates to the effects on worker displacement and productivity.

A comprehensive understanding of how it will impact the industrial equilibrium remains unclear. Some studies have concluded that the impact varies among industries, population and geographies.

Robotics adoption is concentrated in manufacturing, with automotive, electronics and plastics leading the way, so there is something to be said for the way robots affect routine manual occupations and blue-collar work. This holds especially true for machinists, assemblers, material handlers and welders.

 “Adding one more robot in a commuting zone (geographic areas used for economic analysis) reduces employment by six workers in that area,” according to one estimate reported in an MIT study, “Robots and Jobs: Evidence from US Labor Markets.”

That study noted that a more holistic understanding of the impact of emerging automation technology is needed.

In a new paper published by the American Psychological Association, researchers found that workers in the U.S. and parts of Asia feel job insecurity from robots, but the jury is still out on whether their fears are justified.

According to the study’s lead researcher, Kai Chi Yam, PhD, an associate professor of management at the National University of Singapore, “It doesn’t look like robots are taking over that many jobs yet, at least not in the United States, so a lot of these fears are rather subjective.”  

Who Moved my Cheese?

A key takeaway according to Yam’s report is that we now have evidence that increased exposure to robots leads to increased job insecurity. The authors noted that while “self-affirmed individuals do experience lower levels of job insecurity after being exposed to robots, we do not know if this reduced job insecurity would in turn lower burnout and incivility.”

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The researchers conducted experiments and analyzed data from participants in the U.S., Singapore, India and Taiwan. Their paper is the culmination of six studies—including two pilot studies, an archival study across 185 U.S. metropolitan areas, a preregistered experiment conducted in Singapore, an experience-sampling study among engineers conducted in India and an online experiment.

A few more germane takeaways:

  • Automation and incivility. Working with industrial robots was linked to greater reports of burnout and workplace incivility in an experiment with 118 engineers employed by an Indian auto manufacturing company.
  • Buffering negativity. An online experiment with 400 participants found that self-affirmation exercises, where people are encouraged to think positively about themselves and their uniquely human characteristics, may help lessen workplace robot fears. “Most people are overestimating the capabilities of robots and underestimating their own capabilities,” Yam said in a press release.
  • Pundits play a part. Some media coverage may be unnecessarily heightening fears among the general public. “Media reports on new technologies like robots and algorithms tend to be apocalyptic in nature, so people may develop an irrational fear about them,” Yam said.

Yam and his colleagues conclude that technology transforms the nature of work, but that people’s fears seem fundamentally unchanged.

“The Rise of Robots Increases Job Insecurity and Maladaptive Workplace Behaviors: Multi-Method Evidence,” was published online in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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