• A robot with a tablet stands at a reception desk

    Photo: Fitore F/Unsplash

A recent Statistics Canada report on how robotics and artificial intelligence have shaped Canada’s workforce since 1996 found that firms with robots tend to employ more human employees than those without. 

Statistics Canada’s analysis — using data spanning from 1996 to 2017 — found a 15 per cent increase in the number of employees typical in the company’s industry. 

“[So] it doesn’t mean necessarily that you’re literally employing more people. You’re just employing more people than you otherwise would have,” says Jay Dixon, economist at Statistics Canada and author of the report.

Among the other findings of the report were that companies with robots employ fewer managers, and that the employment increases were concentrated among high- and low-skilled workers. The presence of robots was more likely to decrease employment for middle-skilled workers. 

Robots include industrial robots such as robotic arms, which are “[like] AI with opposable thumbs,” service robots — such as autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles — and on a much smaller scale, AI sex robots, says Dixon.

The manufacturing and auto industries had the highest concentration of growth in robotics investment. The health care sector was the largest single service sector with investment in robotics.

Some possible explanations for the increase are that companies with robots tend to be involved in international trade and have a need for more employees, and that having robots might give them access to markets they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. 

“They’re expanding their workforce in order to serve these new markets,” Dixon says.

In other cases, it may just be that companies with robots lose fewer employees, allowing them to stay ahead of any decline in their industry. 

Although automation and robotics do make some human jobs obsolete, they also create new ones, he says. “[Robots] displace workers from certain jobs, but in the past, they've always created different or new tasks,” he says. 

Despite the apparently positive effects on low- and high-skilled employees, a company having robots is more likely to decrease employment for middle-skilled workers. 

“Those are skills that society and the individuals have spent resources acquiring, and the robots will pose a challenge, I think, to those workers,” Dixon says. 

Along with an increase in human employees was a decrease in the number of managers. Dixon said this could possibly be due to the data robots collect as they operate, making less monitoring required. 

“You can just do data analytics. You need far fewer people to actually oversee the production process.”

Dixon says that this doesn’t mean the future of robotics’ place in the workforce has been decided. 

“Just because it worked that way in the past doesn't mean it necessarily has to work that way in the future,” he says. “I don't have a crystal ball.”