Are robots hurting job growth?

Technological advances, especially robotics, are revolutionizing the workplace, but not necessarily creating jobs

The following script is from "March of the Machines" which aired on Jan. 13, 2013. Steve Kroft is the correspondent. Harry Radliffe and Maria Gavrilovic, producers.

One of the hallmarks of the 21st century is that we are all having more and more interactions with machines and fewer with human beings. If you've lost your white collar job to downsizing, or to a worker in India or China you're most likely a victim of what economists have called technological unemployment. There is a lot of it going around with more to come.

At the vanguard of this new wave of automation is the field of robotics. Everyone has a different idea of what a robot is and what they look like but the broad universal definition is a machine that can perform the job of a human. They can be mobile or stationary, hardware or software, and they are marching out of the realm of science fiction and into the mainstream.

The age of robots has been anticipated since the beginning of the last century. Fritz Lang fantasized about it in his 1927 film "Metropolis." In the 1940s and 50s, robots were often portrayed as household help.

And by the time "Star Wars" trilogy arrived, robots with their computerized brains and nerve systems had been fully integrated into our imagination. Now they're finally here, but instead of serving us, we found that they are competing for our jobs. And according to MIT professors, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, one of the reasons for the jobless recovery.

Andrew McAfee: Our economy is bigger than it was before the start of the Great Recession. Corporate profits are back. Business investment in hardware and software is back higher than it's ever been. What's not back is the jobs.

Steve Kroft: And you think technology and increased automation is a factor in that?

Erik Brynjolfsson: Absolutely.

The percentage of Americans with jobs is at a 20-year low. Just a few years ago if you traveled by air you would have interacted with a human ticket agent. Today, those jobs are being replaced by robotic kiosks. Bank tellers have given way to ATMs, sales clerks are surrendering to e-commerce and switchboard operators and secretaries to voice recognition technology.

Erik Brynjolfsson: There are lots of examples of routine, middle-skilled jobs that involve relatively structured tasks and those are the jobs that are being eliminated the fastest. Those kinds of jobs are easier for our friends in the artificial intelligence community to design robots to handle them. They could be software robots, they could be physical robots.

Steve Kroft: What is there out there that people would be surprised to learn about? In the robotics area, let's say.

Andrew McAfee: There are heavily automated warehouses where there are either very few or no people around. That absolutely took me by surprise.

It's on display at this huge distribution center in Devens, Mass., where roughly 100 employees work alongside 69 robots that do all the heavy lifting and navigate a warehouse maze the size of two football fields -- moving 10,000 pieces of merchandise a day from storage shelf to shipping point faster and more efficiently than human workers ever could.

Bruce Welty: We think its part of the new American economy.

Bruce Welty is CEO of Quiet Logistics, which fills orders and ships merchandise for retailers in the apparel industry. This entire operation was designed around the small orange robots made by a company outside Boston called Kiva. And can now be found in warehouses all over the country.

Steve Kroft: Now this is the order that she is filling, right, on this screen.

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