A less dramatic change, but one with a potentially far larger impact on employment, is taking place in clerical work and professional services. Technologies like the Web, artificial intelligence, big data, and improved analytics—all made possible by the ever increasing availability of cheap computing power and storage capacity—are automating many routine tasks. Countless traditional white-collar jobs, such as many in the post office and in customer service, have disappeared. W. Brian Arthur, a visiting researcher at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center’s intelligence systems lab and a former economics professor at Stanford University, calls it the “autonomous economy.” It’s far more subtle than the idea of robots and automation doing human jobs, he says: it involves “digital processes talking to other digital processes and creating new processes,” enabling us to do many things with fewer people and making yet other human jobs obsolete.
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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.
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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.
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.
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.
Take the bright-orange Kiva robot, a boon to fledgling e-commerce companies. Created and sold by Kiva Systems, a startup that was founded in 2002 and bought by Amazon for $775 million in 2012, the robots are designed to scurry across large warehouses, fetching racks of ordered goods and delivering the products to humans who package the orders. In Kiva’s large demonstration warehouse and assembly facility at its headquarters outside Boston, fleets of robots move about with seemingly endless energy: some newly assembled machines perform tests to prove they’re ready to be shipped to customers around the world, while others wait to demonstrate to a visitor how they can almost instantly respond to an electronic order and bring the desired product to a worker’s station.
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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.
But are these new technologies really responsible for a decade of lackluster job growth? Many labor economists say the data are, at best, far from conclusive. Several other plausible explanations, including events related to global trade and the financial crises of the early and late 2000s, could account for the relative slowness of job creation since the turn of the century. “No one really knows,” says Richard Freeman, a labor economist at Harvard University. That’s because it’s very difficult to “extricate” the effects of technology from other macroeconomic effects, he says. But he’s skeptical that technology would change a wide range of business sectors fast enough to explain recent job numbers.
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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While such changes can be painful for workers whose skills no longer match the needs of employers, Lawrence Katz, a Harvard economist, says that no historical pattern shows these shifts leading to a net decrease in jobs over an extended period. Katz has done extensive research on how technological advances have affected jobs over the last few centuries—describing, for example, how highly skilled artisans in the mid-19th century were displaced by lower-skilled workers in factories. While it can take decades for workers to acquire the expertise needed for new types of employment, he says, “we never have run out of jobs. There is no long-term trend of eliminating work for people. Over the long term, employment rates are fairly stable. People have always been able to create new jobs. People come up with new things to do.”
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.
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.”

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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.
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