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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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.
Though advances like these suggest how some aspects of work could be subject to automation, they also illustrate that humans still excel at certain tasks—for example, packaging various items together. Many of the traditional problems in robotics—such as how to teach a machine to recognize an object as, say, a chair—remain largely intractable and are especially difficult to solve when the robots are free to move about a relatively unstructured environment like a factory or office.
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.
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.”
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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.”
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.”
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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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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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In a less anxious world, Pepper might come across as a cute technological novelty. But for many pundits and prognosticators, he’s a sign of something much more grave: the growing obsolescence of human workers. (Images of the doe-eyed Pepper have accompanied numerous articles with variations on the headline “robots are coming for your job.”)
A warehouse equipped with Kiva robots can handle up to four times as many orders as a similar unautomated warehouse, where workers might spend as much as 70 percent of their time walking about to retrieve goods. (Coincidentally or not, Amazon bought Kiva soon after a press report revealed that workers at one of the retailer’s giant warehouses often walked more than 10 miles a day.)
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.
However, Indeed reports that interest in blockchain-related roles has endured, with the search term garnering 47 searches per million at the time of the report – only slightly lower than during its February high.
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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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.
What’s more, even if today’s digital technologies are holding down job creation, history suggests that it is most likely a temporary, albeit painful, shock; as workers adjust their skills and entrepreneurs create opportunities based on the new technologies, the number of jobs will rebound. That, at least, has always been the pattern. The question, then, is whether today’s computing technologies will be different, creating long-term involuntary unemployment.
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