To be sure, Autor says, computer technologies are changing the types of jobs available, and those changes “are not always for the good.” At least since the 1980s, he says, computers have increasingly taken over such tasks as bookkeeping, clerical work, and repetitive production jobs in manufacturing—all of which typically provided middle-class pay. At the same time, higher-paying jobs requiring creativity and problem-solving skills, often aided by computers, have proliferated. So have low-skill jobs: demand has increased for restaurant workers, janitors, home health aides, and others doing service work that is nearly impossible to automate. The result, says Autor, has been a “polarization” of the workforce and a “hollowing out” of the middle class—something that has been happening in numerous industrialized countries for the last several decades. But “that is very different from saying technology is affecting the total number of jobs,” he adds. “Jobs can change a lot without there being huge changes in employment rates.”
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Of course, if automation is happening much faster today than it did in the past, then historical statistics about simple machines like the ATM would be of limited use in predicting the future. Ray Kurzweil’s book The Singularity Is Near (which, by the way, came out 12 years ago) describes the moment when a technological society hits the “knee” of an exponential growth curve, setting off an explosion of mutually reinforcing new advances. Conventional wisdom in the tech industry says that’s where we are now—that, as futurist Peter Nowak puts it, “the pace of innovation is accelerating exponentially.” Here again, though, the economic evidence tells a different story. In fact, as a recent paper by Lawrence Mishel and Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute puts it, “automation, broadly defined, has actually been slower over the last 10 years or so.” And lately, the pace of microchip advancement has started to lag behind the schedule dictated by Moore’s law.
Despite the labor-saving potential of the robots, Mick Mountz, Kiva’s founder and CEO, says he doubts the machines have put many people out of work or will do so in the future. For one thing, he says, most of Kiva’s customers are e-commerce retailers, some of them growing so rapidly they can’t hire people fast enough. By making distribution operations cheaper and more efficient, the robotic technology has helped many of these retailers survive and even expand. Before founding Kiva, Mountz worked at Webvan, an online grocery delivery company that was one of the 1990s dot-com era’s most infamous flameouts. He likes to show the numbers demonstrating that Webvan was doomed from the start; a $100 order cost the company $120 to ship. Mountz’s point is clear: something as mundane as the cost of materials handling can consign a new business to an early death. Automation can solve that problem.
So if the data doesn’t show any evidence that robots are taking over, why are so many people even outside Silicon Valley convinced it’s happening? In the US, at least, it’s partly due to the coincidence of two widely observed trends. Between 2000 and 2009, 6 million US manufacturing jobs disappeared, and wage growth across the economy stagnated. In that same period, industrial robots were becoming more widespread, the internet seemed to be transforming everything, and AI became really useful for the first time. So it seemed logical to connect these phenomena: Robots had killed the good-paying manufacturing job, and they were coming for the rest of us next.
At least since the Industrial Revolution began in the 1700s, improvements in technology have changed the nature of work and destroyed some types of jobs in the process. In 1900, 41 percent of Americans worked in agriculture; by 2000, it was only 2 percent. Likewise, the proportion of Americans employed in manufacturing has dropped from 30 percent in the post–World War II years to around 10 percent today—partly because of increasing automation, especially during the 1980s.
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Brynjolfsson and McAfee are not Luddites. Indeed, they are sometimes accused of being too optimistic about the extent and speed of recent digital advances. Brynjolfsson says they began writing Race Against the Machine, the 2011 book in which they laid out much of their argument, because they wanted to explain the economic benefits of these new technologies (Brynjolfsson spent much of the 1990s sniffing out evidence that information technology was boosting rates of productivity). But it became clear to them that the same technologies making many jobs safer, easier, and more productive were also reducing the demand for many types of human workers.
Even our fears about automation and computerization aren’t new; they closely echo the anxieties of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Observers then too were convinced that automation would lead to permanent unemployment. The Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution—a group of scientists and thinkers concerned about the impact of what was then called cybernation—argued that “the capability of machines is rising more rapidly than the capacity of many human beings to keep pace.” Cybernation “has broken the link between jobs and income, exiling from the economy an ever-widening pool of men and women,” wrote W. H. Ferry, of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, in 1965. Change “cybernation” to “automation” or “AI,” and all that could have been written today.
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A less dramatic change, but one with a potentially far larger impact on employment, is taking place in clerical work and professional services. Technologies like the Web, artificial intelligence, big data, and improved analytics—all made possible by the ever increasing availability of cheap computing power and storage capacity—are automating many routine tasks. Countless traditional white-collar jobs, such as many in the post office and in customer service, have disappeared. W. Brian Arthur, a visiting researcher at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center’s intelligence systems lab and a former economics professor at Stanford University, calls it the “autonomous economy.” It’s far more subtle than the idea of robots and automation doing human jobs, he says: it involves “digital processes talking to other digital processes and creating new processes,” enabling us to do many things with fewer people and making yet other human jobs obsolete.
Given his calm and reasoned academic demeanor, it is easy to miss just how provocative Erik Brynjolfsson’s contention really is. Brynjolfsson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and his collaborator and coauthor Andrew McAfee have been arguing for the last year and a half that impressive advances in computer technology—from improved industrial robotics to automated translation services—are largely behind the sluggish employment growth of the last 10 to 15 years. Even more ominous for workers, the MIT academics foresee dismal prospects for many types of jobs as these powerful new technologies are increasingly adopted not only in manufacturing, clerical, and retail work but in professions such as law, financial services, education, and medicine.
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If automation were truly remaking the job market, you’d also expect to see a lot of what economists call job churn as people move from company to company and industry to industry after their jobs have been destroyed. But we’re seeing the opposite of that. According to a recent paper by Robert Atkinson and John Wu of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, “Levels of occupational churn in the United States are now at historic lows.” The amount of churn since 2000—an era that saw the mainstreaming of the internet and the advent of AI—has been just 38 percent of the level of churn between 1950 and 2000. And this squares with the statistics on median US job tenure, which has lengthened, not shortened, since 2000. In other words, rather than a period of enormous disruption, this has been one of surprising stability for much of the American workforce. Median job tenure today is actually similar to what it was in the 1950s—the era we think of as the pinnacle of job stability.
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Despite the system’s remarkable ability to make sense of all that data, it’s still early days for Dr. Watson. While it has rudimentary abilities to “learn” from specific patterns and evaluate different possibilities, it is far from having the type of judgment and intuition a physician often needs. But IBM has also announced it will begin selling Watson’s services to customer-support call centers, which rarely require human judgment that’s quite so sophisticated. IBM says companies will rent an updated version of Watson for use as a “customer service agent” that responds to questions from consumers; it has already signed on several banks. Automation is nothing new in call centers, of course, but Watson’s improved capacity for natural-language processing and its ability to tap into a large amount of data suggest that this system could speak plainly with callers, offering them specific advice on even technical and complex questions. It’s easy to see it replacing many human holdouts in its new field.
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The peculiar thing about this historical moment is that we’re afraid of two contradictory futures at once. On the one hand, we’re told that robots are coming for our jobs and that their superior productivity will transform industry after industry. If that happens, economic growth will soar and society as a whole will be vastly richer than it is today. But at the same time, we’re told that we’re in an era of secular stagnation, stuck with an economy that’s doomed to slow growth and stagnant wages. In this world, we need to worry about how we’re going to support an aging population and pay for rising health costs, because we’re not going to be much richer in the future than we are today. Both of these futures are possible. But they can’t both come true. Fretting about both the rise of the robots and about secular stagnation doesn’t make any sense. Yet that’s precisely what many intelligent people are doing.
But are these new technologies really responsible for a decade of lackluster job growth? Many labor economists say the data are, at best, far from conclusive. Several other plausible explanations, including events related to global trade and the financial crises of the early and late 2000s, could account for the relative slowness of job creation since the turn of the century. “No one really knows,” says Richard Freeman, a labor economist at Harvard University. That’s because it’s very difficult to “extricate” the effects of technology from other macroeconomic effects, he says. But he’s skeptical that technology would change a wide range of business sectors fast enough to explain recent job numbers.