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Social Issues

In addition to the technology and market issues above, the workshop panel identified a number of social impacts. This list is pro- vided in appendix A. Many of the issues on the list were offered without much comment; and, as would be expected, the panel mem- bers differed in their opinions of the priority of the various issues and their importance to the Federal Government.

Combining the workshop results with other information collected and evaluated in terms of congressional interests, OTA iden- tified five sets of issues.

  • Productivity and capital formation Labor

    • Unemployment, displacement, or job


  • Positive or negative effects on the quality of working environment (such as exposure to hazards, job boredom, and employer/employee relations)

Education and training

    • Need for technological specialists

    • Need for a technologically literate work force

    • Need for retraining workers International impacts

    • Import/export of robotics technology

    • Contribution to economic competitive- ness

  • Other applications

    • Military

    • Space

    • Oceans

Each of these sets of issues is discussed briefly below.

Productivity and Capital Formation

As stated in the introduction, much of the literature on robotics contains reference to the contribution robotics can be expected to make toward improving industrial produc- tivity. Since a major national concern is the strengthening of U.S. industry, it is impor- tant to examine this question.

No answers were agreed on by the work- shop participants. However, some experts did warn about making simplistic assump- tions that exaggerate the importance of ro- botics, by itself, in improving productivity. Two reasons were offered:

  • 1.

    Robotics is only one part of a wide array of technologies available to automate manufacturing and to increase indus- trial productivity.

  • 2.

    Productivity is a subtle and complex concept with several definitions and measurements. (This is developed in

some detail in the paper by Gold; see app. B, item 3.) Furthermore, even after some specific definition is chosen, indus- trial productivity depends on many fac- tors that interact with one another. It is difficult, hence, to attribute productiv- ity improvements to any single technol- ogy.

These warnings do not suggest that ro- botics is not an important production tech- nology. Most experts seem to feel that it is. However, they stated that there are dangers inherent in taking an overly narrow defini- tion of the technology when assessing im- pacts on industrial productivity.

While most applications of robots to date have been made by large firms, the future diffusion of robotics and related technologies can also affect small businesses in several ways. For example, there are likely to be


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