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.
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“We were lucky and steadily rising productivity raised all boats for much of the 20th century,” he says. “Many people, especially economists, jumped to the conclusion that was just the way the world worked. I used to say that if we took care of productivity, everything else would take care of itself; it was the single most important economic statistic. But that’s no longer true.” He adds, “It’s one of the dirty secrets of economics: technology progress does grow the economy and create wealth, but there is no economic law that says everyone will benefit.” In other words, in the race against the machine, some are likely to win while many others lose.
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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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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.)
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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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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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.
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.
It is this onslaught of digital processes, says Arthur, that primarily explains how productivity has grown without a significant increase in human labor. And, he says, “digital versions of human intelligence” are increasingly replacing even those jobs once thought to require people. “It will change every profession in ways we have barely seen yet,” he warns.
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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.
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It’s a startling assertion because it threatens the faith that many economists place in technological progress. Brynjolfsson and McAfee still believe that technology boosts productivity and makes societies wealthier, but they think that it can also have a dark side: technological progress is eliminating the need for many types of jobs and leaving the typical worker worse off than before. Brynjolfsson can point to a second chart indicating that median income is failing to rise even as the gross domestic product soars. “It’s the great paradox of our era,” he says. “Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time, we have a falling median income and we have fewer jobs. People are falling behind because technology is advancing so fast and our skills and organizations aren’t keeping up.”
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