unctad.org | Industrial Robots and Inclusive Growth
Industrial Robots and Inclusive Growth
Book Information
UNCTAD Policy Brief No. 60

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This policy brief examines whether robots will reduce the familiar benefits of industrialization as a development strategy. It argues that robots are not yet suitable for a range of labour-intensive industries, leaving the door open for developing countries to enter industrialization processes along traditional lines. At the same time, it suggests that developing countries should embrace the digital revolution.

The digital revolution, particularly the rapid march of robot technology, is making people more anxious. This anxiety is rooted in the perceived threat of robots to upturn the world of work because they are getting exponentially smarter and more autonomous. Most of the current debate on robots focuses on developed countries, but robotization clearly also concerns developing countries. On some accounts, the risk of job displacement through robotization is particularly high in developing countries.

From a development perspective, the big question is whether robots will reduce the familiar benefits of industrialization as a development strategy. This will be the case if robot-based automation makes industrialization more difficult or causes it to yield substantially less manufacturing employment than in the past. Should such expectations turn into reality, the commitment to inclusive prosperity called for in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will be technologically subverted before it gets off the ground.

Key points

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  • Robots are not yet suitable for a range of labour-intensive industries, leaving the door open for developing countries to enter industrialization processes along traditional lines.

  • Studies indicating robots’ dramatic job displacement potential generally emphasize the technical feasibility of workplace automation. This focus makes them overestimate the potential adverse effects of robots, especially for developing countries, as it neglects to take into account that what is technically feasible is not always also economically profitable.

  • The novelty of industrial robots lies not only in their greater scope and faster speed of automation, but also in their occurrence at a time of subdued macroeconomic dynamism. This tends to hold back the investment needed for the new technology to create new sectors and absorb displaced workers, which would bring about the benefits that have characterized earlier technological breakthroughs.

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