As the editor of MIT Technology Review, I spend much of my time thinking about the types of stories and journalism that will be most valuable to our readers. What do curious, well-informed readers need to know about emerging technologies? As a… More writer, I am particularly interested these days in the intersection of chemistry, materials science, energy, manufacturing, and economics.
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.
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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So if the data doesn’t show any evidence that robots are taking over, why are so many people even outside Silicon Valley convinced it’s happening? In the US, at least, it’s partly due to the coincidence of two widely observed trends. Between 2000 and 2009, 6 million US manufacturing jobs disappeared, and wage growth across the economy stagnated. In that same period, industrial robots were becoming more widespread, the internet seemed to be transforming everything, and AI became really useful for the first time. So it seemed logical to connect these phenomena: Robots had killed the good-paying manufacturing job, and they were coming for the rest of us next.
To get some insight into Katz’s question, it is worth looking at how today’s most advanced technologies are being deployed in industry. Though these technologies have undoubtedly taken over some human jobs, finding evidence of workers being displaced by machines on a large scale is not all that easy. One reason it is difficult to pinpoint the net impact on jobs is that automation is often used to make human workers more efficient, not necessarily to replace them. Rising productivity means businesses can do the same work with fewer employees, but it can also enable the businesses to expand production with their existing workers, and even to enter new markets.
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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.)
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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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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.”)
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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.
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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.)