Are Robots About to Take Our Jobs?

Economists are warning about the coming robot job-apocalypse. But where’s the data?

Working Robot
National Journal
Catherine Hollander
See more stories about...
Catherine Hollander
March 11, 2014, 1 a.m.

Ro­bots have been eli­cit­ing some strong feel­ings lately, an irony that is surely lost on them. Eco­nom­ists warn that the amaz­ing tech­no­lo­gic­al strides made in re­cent years — everything from smart­phones, to auto­matons that can work safely on shop floors along­side hu­mans, to driver­less cars — could soon put large swaths of the work­force out of a job.

“We are at an in­flec­tion point,” MIT re­search­ers Erik Bryn­jolfs­son and An­drew McAfee as­sert in their new book, The Second Ma­chine Age. “The key build­ing blocks are already in place for di­git­al tech­no­lo­gies to be as im­port­ant and trans­form­a­tion­al to so­ci­ety and the eco­nomy as the steam en­gine,” the au­thors say.

The tech­no­lo­gic­al strides of the past few dec­ades have con­trib­uted to the na­tion’s rising in­come in­equal­ity, they ar­gue, be­cause only a small group of people tends to be­ne­fit in­come-wise from in­vent­ing the next iPhone or tax-pre­par­a­tion soft­ware. And Bryn­jolfs­son and McAfee be­lieve the biggest labor-mar­ket ef­fects have yet to be felt. A sep­ar­ate 2013 study by Ox­ford Uni­versity re­search­ers Carl Be­ne­dikt Frey and Mi­chael A. Os­borne might give a taste of what’s to come; Frey and Os­borne say that nearly half of Amer­ic­an jobs are at “high risk” of be­ing taken over by ro­bots in the next dec­ade or two. Eco­nom­ists take this idea ser­i­ously, and it has a num­ber of policy im­plic­a­tions, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to high­er edu­ca­tion.

But while this fu­tur­ist­ic scen­ario is scary or ex­cit­ing, de­pend­ing on your point of view, a num­ber of lib­er­al eco­nom­ists ar­gue that there’s just no evid­ence yet that this is the course the eco­nomy will chart. “If tech­no­logy is lead­ing us to gen­er­ate more out­put with few­er work­ers, that should show up in high­er pro­ductiv­ity, and you don’t really see that,” says Jared Bern­stein, a former eco­nom­ic ad­viser to Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden who is now a seni­or fel­low at the lib­er­al Cen­ter on Budget and Policy Pri­or­it­ies. “Isn’t that kind of in­tu­it­ive?”

“The ef­fects of new ma­chine tech­no­logy are not show­ing up in pro­ductiv­ity stat­ist­ics — at least not yet — and pro­ductiv­ity is by far the most im­port­ant driver of long-term eco­nom­ic growth,” Christine Lagarde, man­aging dir­ect­or of the In­ter­na­tion­al Mon­et­ary Fund, said last week. “We cer­tainly need to keep an eye on this.”

Pro­ductiv­ity growth and em­ploy­ment growth tracked each oth­er closely for dec­ades but began to split in 2000. Lawrence Mishel, head of the lib­er­al Eco­nom­ic Policy In­sti­tute, ar­gues that the widen­ing gap we’ve seen in re­cent years — of­ten blamed on tech­no­logy — isn’t due to their spread at all, but rather to weak growth and de­mand. Ro­bots could the­or­et­ic­ally be be­hind the weak de­mand (if people are earn­ing lower wages and be­ing oth­er­wise muscled out of the labor mar­ket, they’re less in­clined to buy things), Bern­stein says, but that’s not something eco­nom­ists can tease out of the data un­til the eco­nomy re­turns to full em­ploy­ment.

An­oth­er place you’d ex­pect to see signs of the ro­bot “job-apo­ca­lypse” is in busi­nesses’ in­vest­ment in equip­ment, says Paul Beau­dry, an eco­nom­ist at the Uni­versity of Brit­ish Columbia’s Van­couver School of Eco­nom­ics. That pace has ac­tu­ally been de­clin­ing over the past 14 years, he says.

Beau­dry doesn’t dis­miss the idea that ro­bots could cause hu­man jobs to dis­ap­pear down the line. But it would take a game-chan­ging tech­no­lo­gic­al ad­vance, such as mass-mar­keted driver­less cars. That “might be around the corner,” he adds. “We haven’t seen it yet.”

Bryn­jolfs­son and McAfee aren’t pess­im­ist­ic about the loom­ing mass dis­place­ment from their hy­po­thet­ic­al ro­bot wave. They just think poli­cy­makers need to in­ter­vene to pre­vent a skills gap from open­ing up as people get shuffled around. And poli­cy­makers are pay­ing at­ten­tion. “To bor­row a Star Trek ref­er­ence, how can we make the fu­ture look more like the har­mo­ni­ous United Fed­er­a­tion of Plan­ets and less like the soul-des­troy­ing Borg Col­lect­ive?” IMF’s Lagarde asked last week. She con­cluded that the edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem of the fu­ture needs to fo­cus on cre­at­ive jobs, caring jobs, and ones that in­volve crafts­man­ship. These are “the areas where hu­mans can out­class com­puters,” she said.

Ox­ford’s Frey and Os­borne agree. “Our find­ings thus im­ply that as tech­no­logy races ahead, low-skill work­ers will real­loc­ate to tasks that are non-sus­cept­ible to com­pu­ter­iz­a­tion — i.e., tasks re­quir­ing cre­at­ive and so­cial in­tel­li­gence. For work­ers to win the race, however, they will have to ac­quire cre­at­ive and so­cial skills,” they con­clude.

But the flip side of blam­ing the ro­bots is what Dean Baker, co­dir­ect­or of the lib­er­al Cen­ter for Eco­nom­ic and Policy Re­search, wor­ries about: that the ro­bots-will-take-our-jobs story provides a con­veni­ent ex­cuse for poli­cy­makers to avoid cast­ing the blame for widen­ing in­equal­ity on them­selves. If the people who make and own ro­bots get rich, it’s be­cause pat­ent laws al­low people to charge a lot for them, Baker says. “If that’s the basis of in­equal­ity, I don’t see that much as an ex­cuse, in the sense that that’s policy-driv­en and not ro­bot-driv­en.”

Every­one agrees the world will look dif­fer­ent as it fills up with these tech­no­lo­gic­al ad­vances. Will it be one of mass un­em­ploy­ment? Not ne­ces­sar­ily, and some eco­nom­ists are tak­ing heart from the fact that ro­bots don’t seem to be crop­ping up in the latest wor­ri­some data about the labor mar­ket. Now, will the ro­bots one day rise up and re­volt against us? That’s a dif­fer­ent ques­tion.

What We're Following See More »
LOTS OF STRINGERS
Inside the AP’s Election Operation
4 hours ago
WHY WE CARE
THE QUESTION
What’s the Average Household Income of a Trump Voter?
4 hours ago
THE ANSWER

Seventy-two thousand dollars, according to FiveThirtyEight. That's higher than the national average, as well as the average Clinton or Sanders voter, but lower than the average Kasich voter.

Source:
VERY FEW DEMS NOW REPRESENT MINING COMMUNITIES
How Coal Country Went from Blue to Red
6 hours ago
WHY WE CARE
STAFF PICKS
History Already Being Less Kind to Hastert’s Leadership
9 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

In light of his recent confessions, the speakership of Dennis Hastert is being judged far more harshly. The New York Times' Carl Hulse notes that in hindsight, Hastert now "fares poorly" on a number of fronts, from his handling of the Mark Foley page scandal to "an explosion" of earmarks to the weakening of committee chairmen. "Even his namesake Hastert rule—the informal standard that no legislation should be brought to a vote without the support of a majority of the majority — has come to be seen as a structural barrier to compromise."

Source:
‘STARTING FROM ZERO’
Trump Ill Prepared for General Election
9 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Even if "[t]he Republican presidential nomination may be in his sights ... Trump has so far ignored vital preparations needed for a quick and effective transition to the general election. The New York businessman has collected little information about tens of millions of voters he needs to turn out in the fall. He's sent few people to battleground states compared with likely Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, accumulated little if any research on her, and taken no steps to build a network capable of raising the roughly $1 billion needed to run a modern-day general election campaign."

Source:
×