But something else happened in the global economy right around 2000 as well: China entered the World Trade Organization and massively ramped up production. And it was this, not automation, that really devastated American manufacturing. A recent paper by the economists Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo—titled, fittingly, “Robots and Jobs”—got a lot of attention for its claim that industrial automation has been responsible for the loss of up to 670,000 jobs since 1990. But just in the period between 1999 and 2011, trade with China was responsible for the loss of 2.4 million jobs: almost four times as many. “If you want to know what happened to manufacturing after 2000, the answer is very clearly not automation, it’s China,” Dean Baker says. “We’ve been running massive trade deficits, driven mainly by manufacturing, and we’ve seen a precipitous plunge in the number of manufacturing jobs. To say those two things aren’t correlated is nuts.” (In other words, Donald Trump isn’t entirely wrong about what’s happened to American factory jobs.)
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.
Meanwhile, Kiva itself is hiring. Orange balloons—the same color as the robots—hover over multiple cubicles in its sprawling office, signaling that the occupants arrived within the last month. Most of these new employees are software engineers: while the robots are the company’s poster boys, its lesser-known innovations lie in the complex algorithms that guide the robots’ movements and determine where in the warehouse products are stored. These algorithms help make the system adaptable. It can learn, for example, that a certain product is seldom ordered, so it should be stored in a remote area.
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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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.
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.
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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Techniques using vast amounts of computational power have gone a long way toward helping robots understand their surroundings, but John Leonard, a professor of engineering at MIT and a member of its Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), says many familiar difficulties remain. “Part of me sees accelerating progress; the other part of me sees the same old problems,” he says. “I see how hard it is to do anything with robots. The big challenge is uncertainty.” In other words, people are still far better at dealing with changes in their environment and reacting to unexpected events.
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Corporate America, for its part, certainly doesn’t seem to believe in the jobless future. If the rewards of automation were as immense as predicted, companies would be pouring money into new technology. But they’re not. Investments in software and IT grew more slowly over the past decade than the previous one. And capital investment, according to Mishel and Bivens, has grown more slowly since 2002 than in any other postwar period. That’s exactly the opposite of what you’d expect in a rapidly automating world. As for gadgets like Pepper, total spending on all robotics in the US was just $11.3 billion last year. That’s about a sixth of what Americans spend every year on their pets.
However, Indeed reports that interest in blockchain-related roles has endured, with the search term garnering 47 searches per million at the time of the report – only slightly lower than during its February high.
McAfee points to both retail and transportation as areas where automation is likely to have a major impact. Yet even in those industries, the job-loss numbers are less scary than many headlines suggest. Goldman Sachs just released a report predicting that autonomous cars could ultimately eat away 300,000 driving jobs a year. But that won’t happen, the firm argues, for another 25 years, which is more than enough time for the economy to adapt. A recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, meanwhile, predicts that 9 percent of jobs across 21 different countries are under serious threat from automation. That’s a significant number, but not an apocalyptic one.
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One of the friendlier, more flexible robots meant to work with humans is Rethink’s Baxter. The creation of Rodney Brooks, the company’s founder, Baxter needs minimal training to perform simple tasks like picking up objects and moving them to a box. It’s meant for use in relatively small manufacturing facilities where conventional industrial robots would cost too much and pose too much danger to workers. The idea, says Brooks, is to have the robots take care of dull, repetitive jobs that no one wants to do.
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Noma Bar (Illustration); Data from Bureau of Labor Statistics (Productivity, Output, GDP Per Capita); International Federation of Robotics; CIA World Factbook (GDP by Sector); Bureau of Labor Statistics (Job Growth, Manufacturing Employment); D. Autor and D. Dorn, U.S. Census, American Community Survey, and Department of Labor (Change in Employment and Wages by Skill, Routine Jobs); Bureau of Labor Statistics (Productivity, Output, GDP Per Capita); International Federation of Robotics; CIA World Factbook (GDP by Sector)
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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.”
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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.
Nevertheless, automation will indeed destroy many current jobs in the coming decades. As McAfee says, “When it comes to things like AI, machine learning, and self-driving cars and trucks, it’s still early. Their real impact won’t be felt for years yet.” What’s not obvious, though, is whether the impact of these innovations on the job market will be much bigger than the massive impact of technological improvements in the past. The outsourcing of work to machines is not, after all, new—it’s the dominant motif of the past 200 years of economic history, from the cotton gin to the washing machine to the car. Over and over again, as vast numbers of jobs have been destroyed, others have been created. And over and over, we’ve been terrible at envisioning what kinds of new jobs people would end up doing.
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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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