Lawmakers Grapple, Again, With a Coming 'Robot Revolution'

A U.S. Joint Economic Committee hearing—not unlike one that occurred in 1955—discussed the impacts of robots on U.S. workforces.


The same day the BBC reported that Apple manufacturing partner Foxconn had replaced 60,000 factory workers with a "robot workforce," U.S. Joint Economic Committee Chairman Dan Coats, R-Ind., hosted a hearing titled, "The Transformative Impact of Robots and Automation."

The present "robot revolution" is contributing to "pressures arising within our changing labor force," Coats said during his opening remarks. As businesses rely more on automated labor, he added, "robots are expected to hasten this trend, as they fill in for humans in both blue- and white-collar jobs."

Indeed, there are now few jobs that a robot can't perform or complement. Fleets of self-driving cars will reportedly someday reduce the number of driving-related deaths, as well as traffic jams and pollution.

While some restaurants have replaced order-takers with tablets, the San Francisco restaurant Eatsa, founded by a software entrepreneur, pushed that concept, replacing every traditionally human-facing aspect of the fast-food restaurant experience so that it's possible to order, pay for and pick up food without ever interacting with a person.

And surgeons at the Children's National Health System in Washington, D.C., have developed a robot surgeon, called the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR), that can perform delicate procedures—stitching soft tissue with a needle and thread—more precisely and reliably than expert human surgeons.

At the hearing, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said an old pattern may be repeating itself.

"I think it's possible for what we think of as high-skilled jobs today to become tomorrow's low-skilled jobs," said Lee, "in much the same way that [many of] the high-skilled welders of yesterday … have now been replaced at least on assembly lines for automobiles and many other manufactured products. Many of them are now without jobs."

Adam Keiper, a fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center, testified that, indeed, government has grappled with such issues for some time.

"In fact, in October 1955, a subcommittee of this very committee held a hearing on automation and technological change," Keiper wrote. Many of the worries, hopes and solutions suggested in the present day "would sound familiar" to those at the 1955 hearing.

That said, he offered two examples of how the present situation is different.

"First, the kinds of 'thinking' that our machines are capable of doing is changing, so that it is becoming possible to hand off to our machines ever more of our cognitive work," he wrote.

And second, "We are also instantiating intelligence in new ways, creating new kinds of machines that can navigate and move about in and manipulate the physical world."

Andrew McAfee, an author and scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, offered four points in his testimony: The American workforce is undergoing important changes; technological progress is behind those changes; technological progress is accelerating, which has consequences on workforces; and policy responses to such changes "do exist and should be put in place."

"[The] most frustrating part of the current economic policy environment is that we're not getting right the 'Economics 101 playbook'—the set of things that virtually all decent economists, conservative and liberal, agree on," McAfee testified, detailing the five main elements in the so-called playbook: education, infrastructure, entrepreneurship, immigration and original research.

"We live in interesting times," McAfee testified. "I believe that modern digital technologies are poised to reshape our economy as profoundly as the combination of electricity and the internal combustion engine did a century ago. These new tools will greatly increase the productivity and abundance of our economy, and the overall prosperity of our people. It is up to us to shape how these benefits are shared."

He closed his marks with the final line of The Second Machine Age, a book he co-authored: "Technology is not destiny; we shape our destiny."

Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., in a statement on the hearing, concluded, "While the witnesses were mostly optimistic about the effects that automation and robots have, and will have, on the workplace, there were concerns about how best to prepare for this new environment."