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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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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.
Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence, according to Brynjolfsson, is a chart that only an economist could love. In economics, productivity—the amount of economic value created for a given unit of input, such as an hour of labor—is a crucial indicator of growth and wealth creation. It is a measure of progress. On the chart Brynjolfsson likes to show, separate lines represent productivity and total employment in the United States. For years after World War II, the two lines closely tracked each other, with increases in jobs corresponding to increases in productivity. The pattern is clear: as businesses generated more value from their workers, the country as a whole became richer, which fueled more economic activity and created even more jobs. Then, beginning in 2000, the lines diverge; productivity continues to rise robustly, but employment suddenly wilts. By 2011, a significant gap appears between the two lines, showing economic growth with no parallel increase in job creation. Brynjolfsson and McAfee call it the “great decoupling.” And Brynjolfsson says he is confident that technology is behind both the healthy growth in productivity and the weak growth in jobs.
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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.
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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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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.”
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.)
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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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.
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.
David Autor, an economist at MIT who has extensively studied the connections between jobs and technology, also doubts that technology could account for such an abrupt change in total employment. “There was a great sag in employment beginning in 2000. Something did change,” he says. “But no one knows the cause.” Moreover, he doubts that productivity has, in fact, risen robustly in the United States in the past decade (economists can disagree about that statistic because there are different ways of measuring and weighing economic inputs and outputs). If he’s right, it raises the possibility that poor job growth could be simply a result of a sluggish economy. The sudden slowdown in job creation “is a big puzzle,” he says, “but there’s not a lot of evidence it’s linked to computers.”
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None of this is to say that automation and AI aren’t having an important impact on the economy. But that impact is far more nuanced and limited than the doomsday forecasts suggest. A rigorous study of the impact of robots in manufacturing, agriculture, and utilities across 17 countries, for instance, found that robots did reduce the hours of lower-skilled workers—but they didn’t decrease the total hours worked by humans, and they actually boosted wages. In other words, automation may affect the kind of work humans do, but at the moment, it’s hard to see that it’s leading to a world without work. McAfee, in fact, says of his earlier public statements, “If I had to do it over again, I would put more emphasis on the way technology leads to structural changes in the economy, and less on jobs, jobs, jobs. The central phenomenon is not net job loss. It’s the shift in the kinds of jobs that are available.”
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