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  • Exploratory

Workshop on the Social Impacts of Robotics

many new business opportunities for small firms to develop and produce software and specialized types of equipment. Secondly, it can be argued that robotics and flexible automation may in some cases lower the minimum scale for efficient production, and therefore that new manufacturing opportu- nities could be created for small businesses. Third, the adoption of robotics and related technologies by large firms may foreclose some manufacturing opportunities for small firms that cannot afford to invest in new equipment. This situation frequently arises when major equipment technologies change.

Capital formation is another issue that was raised in the workshop and is discussed in the appended Lustgarten paper. The im- portant questions seemed to be whether there would be adequate capital for three purposes:

  • 1.

    To fund the modernization of industrial plants for the use of automation technol- ogy. The financial need would be par- ticularly great if it were necessary to rebuild entire plants in order to make the most effective use of robotics.

  • 2.

    To fund the construction and expansion of plants to produce robots in quantities

necessary to have a significant economic impact. 3. To fund entrepreneurs who wish to de- velop new types of robots for new ap- plications. The importance of the avail- ability of this type of capital depends on how important it is that the technology be pushed forward rapidly.

No one in the workshop expressed the view that lack of capital is an important impedi- ment to the growth of the robotics industry or to the expansion of the use of robots in manufacturing. However, some panelists ob- served that a tax policy that encourages such investment would be an important stimulus.

There was some disagreement about the availability of private capital to fund R&D. Robot manufacturers maintained that they were investing large amounts of money in R&D. Other experts suggested that these expenditures were principally aimed at short-term product development and adapt- ing existing products to specific tasks. There was a difference of opinion about the defini- tion of R&D and concerning the amount of emphasis that needs to be placed on long- term research v. short-term product devel- opment.


Unemployment is an issue that is con- stantly raised in discussions about the social impact of robots, but that seems in this con- text not to be well understood as yet or even to have been widely studied by labor econo- mists in the United States (8). The discus- sion at the workshop reflected a wide variety of opinion about the effects on jobs, dif- ferences that seemed to be confounded by a number of conceptual problems.

  • The effects of new technology on the relative proportion of machinery to workers (the capital-labor ratio) in a given industry.

  • The extent of change in prices and pro- duction volumes for U.S. firms once the new technology is in use.

  • The supply of qualified workers with specific job skills in a given industry.

Productivity improvements resulting from the use of robotics and related technologies can affect labor in a number of ways. These effects depend on factors such as the follow- ing:

fall because of productivity improvements, which, by definition, enable fewer workers to produce a given volume of product. U.S. em- ployment in a given industry may remain constant or rise, however, if productivity im-

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