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
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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.

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