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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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.
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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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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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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 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.
To be sure, Autor says, computer technologies are changing the types of jobs available, and those changes “are not always for the good.” At least since the 1980s, he says, computers have increasingly taken over such tasks as bookkeeping, clerical work, and repetitive production jobs in manufacturing—all of which typically provided middle-class pay. At the same time, higher-paying jobs requiring creativity and problem-solving skills, often aided by computers, have proliferated. So have low-skill jobs: demand has increased for restaurant workers, janitors, home health aides, and others doing service work that is nearly impossible to automate. The result, says Autor, has been a “polarization” of the workforce and a “hollowing out” of the middle class—something that has been happening in numerous industrialized countries for the last several decades. But “that is very different from saying technology is affecting the total number of jobs,” he adds. “Jobs can change a lot without there being huge changes in employment rates.”
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.
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.