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.
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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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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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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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The irony of our anxiety about automation is that if the predictions about a robot-dominated future were to come true, a lot of our other economic concerns would vanish. A recent study by Accenture, for instance, suggests that the implementation of AI, broadly defined, could lift annual GDP growth in the US by two points (to 4.6 percent). A growth rate like that would make it easy to deal with the cost of things like Social Security and Medicare and the rising price of health care. It would lead to broader wage growth. And while it would complicate the issue of how to divide the economic pie, it’s always easier to divide a growing pie than a shrinking one.
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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.”
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.
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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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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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.
The talking bot can supposedly identify joy, sadness, anger, and surprise and determine whether a person is in a good or bad mood—abilities that Pepper’s engineers figured would make “him” an ideal personal assistant or salesperson. And sure enough, there are more than 10,000 Peppers now at work in SoftBank stores, Pizza Huts, cruise ships, homes, and elsewhere.
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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.
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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.