Industrial robots and population health: A deadly mix

A new Penn study demonstrates how, over the last 40 years, high-tech factory automation has enhanced business operations at the same time it has generated widespread ‘deaths of despair’ and other health problems in communities with ousted human workers.

Ever since the 1980s, when robot technology reached levels of sophistication enabling U.S. factories to eliminate ever-larger numbers of human workers, there has been speculation about the broader potential health impact of this trend. Now, a new Penn study co-led by LDI Senior Fellow Atheendar Venkataramani, is among the first to demonstrate a causal association between the widespread robotization of industry and worker “deaths of despair.”

A robot typing on a laptop at a table.

In much the same way that studies have long analyzed how industrial robots decrease costs and boost profits for business, this emerging new field of study is analyzing the non-obvious degree to which those same changes negatively impact the health and wellbeing of the displaced humans as well as their communities.

The study, “Death by Robots? Automation and Working-Age Mortality in the United States,” found that steadily increasing factory automation from 1993 to 2007 led to “substantive increases in all-cause mortality for both men and women aged 45–54.” This included increases in drug overdose deaths, suicide, homicide, and cardiovascular mortality. The findings were published in the February 2022 edition of the journal Demography. Venkataramani of Penn, Rourke O’Brien of Yale University, and Elizabeth Bair of Penn, are co-leading the research.

Venkataramani is an LDI senior fellow, an assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy at the Perelman School of Medicine, and is the Director of the Opportunity for Health Lab. This new study follows his 2019 study of the patterns of excess deaths after the closure of automotive plants in 29 counties from 1999 to 2016. That earlier study found that the erosion of economic opportunity following those closings led to substantially higher rates of drug overdose mortalities among non-Hispanic white males 18 to 65 years of age. Findings showed these excess “deaths of despair” were a major factor in the various regions’ opioid overdose epidemic.

The new study analyzes the similar effects of eroded regional economic opportunities created as robots take over productive factories, pushing out their human workers. During the last 20 years, as many as 750,000 jobs have been eliminated by robots, according to the latest estimates.

Read more at Penn LDI.