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Now, it’s possible that some of the productivity slowdown is the result of humans shifting out of factories into service jobs (which have historically been less productive than factory jobs). But even productivity growth in manufacturing, where automation and robotics have been well-established for decades, has been especially paltry of late. “I’m sure there are factories here and there where automation is making a difference,” says Dean Baker, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “But you can’t see it in the aggregate numbers.”
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Now imagine you’re an economist back on the ground, and a panicstricken software engineer is warning that his creations are about to plow everyone straight into a world without work. Just as surely, there are a couple of statistical instruments you know to consult right away to see if this prediction checks out. If automation were, in fact, transforming the US economy, two things would be true: Aggregate productivity would be rising sharply, and jobs would be harder to come by than in the past.
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New technologies are “encroaching into human skills in a way that is completely unprecedented,” McAfee says, and many middle-class jobs are right in the bull’s-eye; even relatively high-skill work in education, medicine, and law is affected. “The middle seems to be going away,” he adds. “The top and bottom are clearly getting farther apart.” While technology might be only one factor, says McAfee, it has been an “underappreciated” one, and it is likely to become increasingly significant.
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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.”
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?”
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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.
IBM likes to call it cognitive computing. Essentially, Watson uses artificial-intelligence techniques, advanced natural-language processing and analytics, and massive amounts of data drawn from sources specific to a given application (in the case of health care, that means medical journals, textbooks, and information collected from the physicians or hospitals using the system). Thanks to these innovative techniques and huge amounts of computing power, it can quickly come up with “advice”—for example, the most recent and relevant information to guide a doctor’s diagnosis and treatment decisions.
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Alas, the future this study envisions seems to be very far off. To be sure, the fact that fears about automation have been proved false in the past doesn’t mean they will continue to be so in the future, and all of those long-foretold positive feedback loops exponential growth may abruptly kick in someday. But it isn’t easy to see how we’ll get there from here anytime soon, given how little companies are investing in new technology and how slowly the economy is growing. In that sense, the problem we’re facing isn’t that the robots are coming. It’s that they aren’t.
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In the tony northern suburbs of New York City, IBM Research is pushing super-smart computing into the realms of such professions as medicine, finance, and customer service. IBM’s efforts have resulted in Watson, a computer system best known for beating human champions on the game show Jeopardy! in 2011. That version of Watson now sits in a corner of a large data center at the research facility in Yorktown Heights, marked with a glowing plaque commemorating its glory days. Meanwhile, researchers there are already testing new generations of Watson in medicine, where the technology could help physicians diagnose diseases like cancer, evaluate patients, and prescribe treatments.
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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.
Nor does the job market show signs of an incipient robopocalypse. Unemployment is below 5 percent, and employers in many states are complaining about labor shortages, not labor surpluses. And while millions of Americans dropped out of the labor force in the wake of the Great Recession, they’re now coming back—and getting jobs. Even more strikingly, wages for ordinary workers have risen as the labor market has improved. Granted, the wage increases are meager by historical standards, but they’re rising faster than inflation and faster than productivity. That’s something that wouldn’t be happening if human workers were on the fast track to obsolescence.
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.”