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.
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.
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At least since the Industrial Revolution began in the 1700s, improvements in technology have changed the nature of work and destroyed some types of jobs in the process. In 1900, 41 percent of Americans worked in agriculture; by 2000, it was only 2 percent. Likewise, the proportion of Americans employed in manufacturing has dropped from 30 percent in the post–World War II years to around 10 percent today—partly because of increasing automation, especially during the 1980s.
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.
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.
Last year, the Japanese company SoftBank opened a cell phone store in Tokyo and staffed it entirely with sales associates named Pepper. This wasn’t as hard as it sounds, since all the Peppers were robots.
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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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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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It’s hard not to instantly like Baxter, in part because it seems so eager to please. The “eyebrows” on its display rise quizzically when it’s puzzled; its arms submissively and gently retreat when bumped. Asked about the claim that such advanced industrial robots could eliminate jobs, Brooks answers simply that he doesn’t see it that way. Robots, he says, can be to factory workers as electric drills are to construction workers: “It makes them more productive and efficient, but it doesn’t take jobs.”
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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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Take productivity, which is a measure of how much the economy puts out per hour of human labor. Since automation allows companies to produce more with fewer people, a great wave of automation should drive higher productivity growth. Yet, in reality, productivity gains over the past decade have been, by historical standards, dismally low. Back in the heyday of the US economy, from 1947 to 1973, labor productivity grew at an average pace of nearly 3 percent a year. Since 2007, it has grown at a rate of around 1.2 percent, the slowest pace in any period since World War II. And over the past two years, productivity has grown at a mere 0.6 percent—the very years when anxiety about automation has spiked. That’s simply not what you’d see if efficient robots were replacing inefficient humans en masse. As McAfee puts it, “Low productivity growth does slide in the face of the story we tell about amazing technological progress.”
Over the past few years, it has become conventional wisdom that dramatic advances in robotics and artificial intelligence have put us on the path to a jobless future. We are living in the midst of a “second machine age,” to quote the title of the influential book by MIT researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, in which routine work of all kinds—in manufacturing, sales, bookkeeping, food prep—is being automated at a steady clip, and even complex analytical jobs will be superseded before long. A widely cited 2013 study by researchers at the University of Oxford, for instance, found that nearly half of all jobs in the US were at risk of being fully automated over the next 20 years. The endgame, we’re told, is inevitable: The robots are on the march, and human labor is in retreat.
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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.
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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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)
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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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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