Your New Robot Colleague Will Make You Richer, More Productive

Robots are coming and it may not be a bad thing for most workers.

A new study of 17 countries published this week found the introduction of robots to the workplace increased economic growth by 0.37 percentage points and labor productivity by a similar margin.

What’s more, “no significant effect” on aggregate hours worked was detected and the greater efficiency boosted average wages, according to Georg Graetz of Uppsala University in Sweden and Guy Michaels of the London School of Economics.

“There is a positive effect” on productivity from robots, Graetz said in a telephone interview. “That raises profits and we suspect workers share in those profits to some extent.”

Not all are blessed. While overall employment didn’t suffer from the use of robots, the economists found they can crowd out hiring of low-skilled and some middle-skilled workers.

That’s in keeping with other studies. Oxford University economists Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne last month repeated their finding that 47 percent of the U.S. workforce is at a high risk from automation.

Still, the introduction of robots doesn’t appear to polarize the labor market by punishing the least educated more than the middle-skilled, Graetz and Michaels found.

Rise of the Machines

The pickup in productivity as a result of robots is roughly in line with that of steam technology in the U.K. during the late 19th century although that was sustained for four times longer, said Graetz and Michaels.

The use of robots in the 17 countries studied increased 150 percent from 1993 to 2007 as they were utilized in areas such as car assembly lines and agricultural harvesting, they said. They were particularly prevalent in Germany, Denmark and Italy as well as in transport, chemicals and metals industries.

There is room for robots to rise further. Their price halved in six industrial nations from 1990 to 2005, according to the paper, which was released this week by the London-based Centre for Economic Policy Research. As of 2007, industrial robots accounted for only about 2.25 percent of capital stock.

“The likely contribution of robots on future growth is substantial,” said Graetz and Michaels.

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