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Study Shows Automation Accelerates in Older Demographic


Robots turn out taking over jobs fastest around the world in places where their human counterparts are ageing the most rapidly. This is the conclusion of a new study by MIT researchers that shows robots are more widely adopted where populations become notably older, filling the gaps in an ageing industrial workforce. The research also showed age alone accounted for 35% of the variation between countries in their adoption of robots, with those having older workers far more likely to adopt the machines.

Demographic change is one of the most important factors leading to the adoption of robotics and other automation technologies. We provide a lot of evidence to bolster the case that this is a causal relationship, and it is driven by precisely the industries that are most affected by ageing and have opportunities for automating work.

– Daron Acemoglu, an MIT economist

The current study is the latest in a series of papers the researchers have published about automation, robots, and the workforce. They have previously quantified job displacement in the U.S. due to robots, looked at the firm-level effects of robot use, and identified the late 1980s as a key moment when automation started replacing more jobs than it was creating.

This study involves multiple layers of demographic, technological, and industry-level data, largely from the early 1990s through the mid-2010s. First, the researchers found a strong relationship between an ageing workforce — defined by the ratio of workers 56 and older to those ages 21 to 55 — and robot deployment in 60 countries. Ageing alone accounted for not only 35% of the variation in robot use among countries, but also 20% of the variation in imports of robots, the researchers found.

The findings suggest that quite a bit of investment in robotics is not driven by the fact that this is the next amazing frontier, but because some countries have shortages of labour, especially middle-aged labour that would be necessary for blue-collar work. Digging into a wide variety of industry-level data across 129 countries, the researchers concluded that what holds for robots also applies to other, nonrobotic types of automation.

Overall, the same global trend also applied within the U.S.: Older workforce populations saw greater adoption of robots after 1990. Specifically, the study found that a 10-percentage-point increase in local population ageing led to a 6.45-percentage-point increase in presence of robot “integrators” in the area — firms specialising in installing and maintaining industrial robots.

U.S. researchers have been developing robots to help humans in various fields, including creating modern robotic white cane for the visually impaired community. As reported by OpenGov Asia, equipped with a colour 3D camera, an inertial measurement sensor, and its own onboard computer, a newly improved robotic cane could offer blind and visually impaired users a new way to navigate indoors.

When paired with a building’s architectural drawing, the device can accurately guide a user to the desired location with sensory and auditory cues, while simultaneously helping the user avoid obstacles like boxes, furniture, and overhangs. The development of the device was co-funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Eye Institute (NEI) and the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB).

There are still a few things to be worked out before the system will be market-ready—it is still too heavy for regular use, for example, and the team is looking for a way to slim down the device. Nevertheless, with the ability to easily switch between its automated mode and a simpler, non-robotic “white cane mode,” This device could provide a key independence tool for the blind and visually impaired, without losing the characteristics of the white cane that have stood the test of time.

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