There was a "remarkable increase" in the number of industrial robots around the world in 2013, according to a report from the International Federation of Robotics — news that will likely make labour advocates nervous.
Companies around the world once again installed a record number of robots last year, increasing the total supply by some 179,000 robots, or 12 per cent, the IFR reports.
The preliminary report didn’t break out the numbers for Canada, but noted that sales in the Americas jumped 8 per cent last year.
The automotive industry led the way. Between 2010 and 2013, the global supply of auto-plant robots nearly doubled, to around 70,000 from just more than 35,000, according to the IFR’s statistics.
The total population of industrial robots is now around 1.5 million, though an exact number is hard to pin down because it’s unclear how many older robots are still in service.
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The rise of robotics is causing many observers to worry about the impact on jobs. Automation can help explain why Canada’s manufacturing output recovered from the last recession two years ago, but did so with 200,000 fewer jobs.
A recent report from Oxford University estimated that 47 per cent of jobs could be replaced through “computerization” over the next 20 years. The report looked at more than 700 job titles.
For now, manufacturing jobs are under the greatest threat from robots, but that could change.
Robots are being designed to be caregivers and companions. A line of humanoid robots called “Pepper,” with the ability to detect human emotions, recently went on sale in Japan.
Military forces around the world are making plans for robot soldiers, and the U.S. military is handing out money for research on how to make a morally-guided soldier robot.
Some economists argue robots are increasing inequality. When a company replaces a worker with a robot, that worker’s salary is pocketed by the company and ends up in the hands of shareholders, through dividends. That means more money for owners of capital (the wealthy) and less for those reliant on paycheques (everyone else), the theory goes.
But the IFR itself argues robotics are a driver of employment.
“One million industrial robots currently in operation have been directly responsible for the creation of close to three million jobs,” the IFR said in 2011, citing a study released at the time. The organization doesn’t estimate how many jobs were made redundant by those robots.
There are, indeed, places where the robot revolution is creating substantial numbers of jobs — those places that make them. On that score, Japan comes out on top; according to the IFR, more than half of the robots manufactured in 2013 were made there.