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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.
Brynjolfsson and McAfee are not Luddites. Indeed, they are sometimes accused of being too optimistic about the extent and speed of recent digital advances. Brynjolfsson says they began writing Race Against the Machine, the 2011 book in which they laid out much of their argument, because they wanted to explain the economic benefits of these new technologies (Brynjolfsson spent much of the 1990s sniffing out evidence that information technology was boosting rates of productivity). But it became clear to them that the same technologies making many jobs safer, easier, and more productive were also reducing the demand for many types of human workers.
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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.
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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That robots, automation, and software can replace people might seem obvious to anyone who’s worked in automotive manufacturing or as a travel agent. But Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s claim is more troubling and controversial. They believe that rapid technological change has been destroying jobs faster than it is creating them, contributing to the stagnation of median income and the growth of inequality in the United States. And, they suspect, something similar is happening in other technologically advanced countries.
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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.
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.
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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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.
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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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.
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.
The phrase “don’t quit your day job” is a humorous response to a poor or mediocre performance not up to professional caliber. The phrase implies that the performer is not talented enough in that activity to be able to make a career out of it.
McAfee, associate director of the MIT Center for Digital Business at the Sloan School of Management, speaks rapidly and with a certain awe as he describes advances such as Google’s driverless car. Still, despite his obvious enthusiasm for the technologies, he doesn’t see the recently vanished jobs coming back. The pressure on employment and the resulting inequality will only get worse, he suggests, as digital technologies—fueled with “enough computing power, data, and geeks”—continue their exponential advances over the next several decades. “I would like to be wrong,” he says, “but when all these science-fiction technologies are deployed, what will we need all the people for?”
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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.
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