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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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.
Brynjolfsson himself says he’s not ready to conclude that economic progress and employment have diverged for good. “I don’t know whether we can recover, but I hope we can,” he says. But that, he suggests, will depend on recognizing the problem and taking steps such as investing more in the training and education of workers.
McAfee points to both retail and transportation as areas where automation is likely to have a major impact. Yet even in those industries, the job-loss numbers are less scary than many headlines suggest. Goldman Sachs just released a report predicting that autonomous cars could ultimately eat away 300,000 driving jobs a year. But that won’t happen, the firm argues, for another 25 years, which is more than enough time for the economy to adapt. A recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, meanwhile, predicts that 9 percent of jobs across 21 different countries are under serious threat from automation. That’s a significant number, but not an apocalyptic one.
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Of course, if automation is happening much faster today than it did in the past, then historical statistics about simple machines like the ATM would be of limited use in predicting the future. Ray Kurzweil’s book The Singularity Is Near (which, by the way, came out 12 years ago) describes the moment when a technological society hits the “knee” of an exponential growth curve, setting off an explosion of mutually reinforcing new advances. Conventional wisdom in the tech industry says that’s where we are now—that, as futurist Peter Nowak puts it, “the pace of innovation is accelerating exponentially.” Here again, though, the economic evidence tells a different story. In fact, as a recent paper by Lawrence Mishel and Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute puts it, “automation, broadly defined, has actually been slower over the last 10 years or so.” And lately, the pace of microchip advancement has started to lag behind the schedule dictated by Moore’s law.
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.
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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.”
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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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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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