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16 . Exploratory Workshop on the Social Impacts of Robotics

with. Workers may be able to make use of more complex skills and perform a greater variety of tasks. For instance, they may be able to follow the assembly of a product from beginning to end and assume greater individ- ual responsibility for the quality of the result.

The human working environment can also be improved by segregating processes that create hazardous working conditions (such as heat or exposure to chemicals) from the section of the factory occupied by humans, and staffing them with robots. Furthermore, equipping a worker with a robot helper for strenuous activities not only eases job stress, but opens up employment opportuni- ties to those who have physical handicaps or other limitations.

which industry uses the technology. Many labor experts are concerned that some uses of robots will produce effects on the working environment that will not be so salutary. For example, some argue that one long-term ef- fect of robotics may be to “deskill” labor, re- quiring less ability on the part of humans as they are incorporated into a mechanized environment.

Some labor experts and others have also expressed concern that automation provides increased opportunities for employer surveil- lance of employees. Some unions also fear that automation could be used by employers to “downgrade” jobs that require working with automated systems, or that robots might be targeted to replace unionized jobs first.

Whether these benefits are realized de- pends, in part, on the particular ways in

Education and Training

A number of education and training issues are raised by robotics. Some of them will be addressed in the current OTA assessment of the impact of information technology on edu- cation, in the context of vocational education and industrial training.

According to the workshop participants, there is a shortage of trained technical ex- perts in the field of robotics. If there is to be any significant expansion in the pace of automation including robotics, many more computer scientists, engineers, software pro- gramers, and technicians will be needed in the next decade.

A shortage already exists in many fields of engineering and science. It seems to be par- ticularly critical in areas of computer soft- ware design and programing, according to findings of the recently released National In- formation System study by OTA (9). Hence, the issue is not peculiarly unique to robotics technology, at least in the case of very highly skilled jobs.

At the same time, the use of robots has already created some new technical jobs. A few programs have been started at the com- munity college level to train workers in robot installation, programing, and maintenance.

Some participants and observers sug- gested that there was a need for a more tech- nologically literate work force, one that has a basic understanding of technology and mathematics. In their view, improved tech- nological literacy would provide the follow- ing benefits:

  • 1.

    To the extent that workers would be ex- pected to instruct, oversee the operation of, or repair robot units, they would need some basic understanding of com- puters and systems, both mechanical and electrical.

  • 2.

    A technologically literate work force would be less likely to resist the intro- duction of robots and other automation technology.

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