Anecdotal evidence that digital technologies threaten jobs is, of course, everywhere. Robots and advanced automation have been common in many types of manufacturing for decades. In the United States and China, the world’s manufacturing powerhouses, fewer people work in manufacturing today than in 1997, thanks at least in part to automation. Modern automotive plants, many of which were transformed by industrial robotics in the 1980s, routinely use machines that autonomously weld and paint body parts—tasks that were once handled by humans. Most recently, industrial robots like Rethink Robotics’ Baxter (see “The Blue-Collar Robot,” May/June 2013), more flexible and far cheaper than their predecessors, have been introduced to perform simple jobs for small manufacturers in a variety of sectors. The website of a Silicon Valley startup called Industrial Perception features a video of the robot it has designed for use in warehouses picking up and throwing boxes like a bored elephant. And such sensations as Google’s driverless car suggest what automation might be able to accomplish someday soon.
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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.”
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.
David Autor, an economist at MIT who has extensively studied the connections between jobs and technology, also doubts that technology could account for such an abrupt change in total employment. “There was a great sag in employment beginning in 2000. Something did change,” he says. “But no one knows the cause.” Moreover, he doubts that productivity has, in fact, risen robustly in the United States in the past decade (economists can disagree about that statistic because there are different ways of measuring and weighing economic inputs and outputs). If he’s right, it raises the possibility that poor job growth could be simply a result of a sluggish economy. The sudden slowdown in job creation “is a big puzzle,” he says, “but there’s not a lot of evidence it’s linked to computers.”
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Humanoid robots, to be more precise, which SoftBank describes as “kindly, endearing, and surprising.” Each Pepper is equipped with three multidirectional wheels, an anticollision system, multiple sensors, a pair of arms, and a chest-mounted tablet that allows customers to enter information. Pepper can “express his own emotions” and use a 3-D camera and two HD cameras “to identify movements and recognize the emotions on the faces of his interlocutors.”
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Granted, there are much scarier forecasts out there, like that University of Oxford study. But on closer examination, those predictions tend to assume that if a job can be automated, it will be fully automated soon—which overestimates both the pace and the completeness of how automation actually gets adopted in the wild. History suggests that the process is much more uneven than that. The ATM, for example, is a textbook example of a machine that was designed to replace human labor. First introduced around 1970, ATMs hit widespread adoption in the late 1990s. Today, there are more than 400,000 ATMs in the US. But, as economist James Bessen has shown, the number of bank tellers actually rose between 2000 and 2010. That’s because even though the average number of tellers per branch fell, ATMs made it cheaper to open branches, so banks opened more of them. True, the Department of Labor does now predict that the number of tellers will decline by 8 percent over the next decade. But that’s 8 percent—not 50 percent. And it’s 45 years after the robot that was supposed to replace them made its debut. (Taking a wider view, Bessen found that of the 271 occupations listed on the 1950 census only one—elevator operator—had been rendered obsolete by automation by 2010.)
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Not everyone agrees with Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s conclusions—particularly the contention that the impact of recent technological change could be different from anything seen before. But it’s hard to ignore their warning that technology is widening the income gap between the tech-savvy and everyone else. And even if the economy is only going through a transition similar to those it’s endured before, it is an extremely painful one for many workers, and that will have to be addressed somehow. Harvard’s Katz has shown that the United States prospered in the early 1900s in part because secondary education became accessible to many people at a time when employment in agriculture was drying up. The result, at least through the 1980s, was an increase in educated workers who found jobs in the industrial sectors, boosting incomes and reducing inequality. Katz’s lesson: painful long-term consequences for the labor force do not follow inevitably from technological changes.
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This anxiety about automation is understandable in light of the hair-raising progress that tech companies have made lately in robotics and artificial intelligence, which is now capable of, among other things, defeating Go masters, outbluffing champs in Texas Hold’em, and safely driving a car. And the notion that we’re on the verge of a radical leap forward in the scale and scope of automation certainly jibes with the pervasive feeling in Silicon Valley that we’re living in a time of unprecedented, accelerating innovation. Some tech leaders, including Y Combinator’s Sam Altman and Tesla’s Elon Musk, are so sure this jobless future is imminent—and, perhaps, so wary of torches and pitchforks—that they’re busy contemplating how to build a social safety net for a world with less work. Hence the sudden enthusiasm in Silicon Valley for a so-called universal basic income, a stipend that would be paid automatically to every citizen, so that people can have something to live on after their jobs are gone.
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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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Still, Katz doesn’t dismiss the notion that there is something different about today’s digital technologies—something that could affect an even broader range of work. The question, he says, is whether economic history will serve as a useful guide. Will the job disruptions caused by technology be temporary as the workforce adapts, or will we see a science-fiction scenario in which automated processes and robots with superhuman skills take over a broad swath of human tasks? Though Katz expects the historical pattern to hold, it is “genuinely a question,” he says. “If technology disrupts enough, who knows what will happen?”
For that reason, Leonard says, it is easier to see how robots could work with humans than on their own in many applications. “People and robots working together can happen much more quickly than robots simply replacing humans,” he says. “That’s not going to happen in my lifetime at a massive scale. The semiautonomous taxi will still have a driver.”
None of this is to say that automation and AI aren’t having an important impact on the economy. But that impact is far more nuanced and limited than the doomsday forecasts suggest. A rigorous study of the impact of robots in manufacturing, agriculture, and utilities across 17 countries, for instance, found that robots did reduce the hours of lower-skilled workers—but they didn’t decrease the total hours worked by humans, and they actually boosted wages. In other words, automation may affect the kind of work humans do, but at the moment, it’s hard to see that it’s leading to a world without work. McAfee, in fact, says of his earlier public statements, “If I had to do it over again, I would put more emphasis on the way technology leads to structural changes in the economy, and less on jobs, jobs, jobs. The central phenomenon is not net job loss. It’s the shift in the kinds of jobs that are available.”
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The contention that automation and digital technologies are partly responsible for today’s lack of jobs has obviously touched a raw nerve for many worried about their own employment. But this is only one consequence of what Brynjolfsson and McAfee see as a broader trend. The rapid acceleration of technological progress, they say, has greatly widened the gap between economic winners and losers—the income inequalities that many economists have worried about for decades. Digital technologies tend to favor “superstars,” they point out. For example, someone who creates a computer program to automate tax preparation might earn millions or billions of dollars while eliminating the need for countless accountants.
The machines created at Kiva and Rethink have been cleverly designed and built to work with people, taking over the tasks that the humans often don’t want to do or aren’t especially good at. They are specifically designed to enhance these workers’ productivity. And it’s hard to see how even these increasingly sophisticated robots will replace humans in most manufacturing and industrial jobs anytime soon. But clerical and some professional jobs could be more vulnerable. That’s because the marriage of artificial intelligence and big data is beginning to give machines a more humanlike ability to reason and to solve many new types of problems.