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Are Robots Taking Our Jobs, or Making Them?

Are advances in technology (automation and robotics) hurting jobs?

Jeremy Rifkin in his 1995 book, The End of Work, laments that “[technological change] is now leading to unprecedented levels of technological unemployment.”

In fact a broad chorus of more mainstream voices claiming that technological change (referred to interchangeably with “innovation,” “automation,” and “increasing productivity”) is leading to fewer jobs. Many economists, journalists, and policymakers now routinely claim that technology, instead of being a key driver of increased standards of living, is to blame for the inability to climb out of the economic doldrums. In the last few years there has been an outpouring of books, articles, op-eds, and blogs warning that it is technology that is behind today’s high unemployment rates and that the destructive effect of technology on jobs will only increase going forward.

I’ve covered many of them so far on this blog and believe the real solution is for individuals, governments and organizations to retrain to augment and work better alongside machines and software that increases productivity.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation recently published a report outlining some of the headlines stating robots are taking our jobs, the report goes on to explain why many of these headlines are wrong and new productivity tools are not taking jobs – a summary of those headlines follows… If a wake up call is needed these articles and books should be taken as a nudge to get fully acquainted with the robotic economy:

  • In perhaps the most widely cited tract making this case, MIT professors Erik Byrnsolfson and Andrew McAfee state in Race against the Machine that “it may seem paradoxical that faster progress can hurt wages and jobs for millions of people, but we argue that’s what’s been happening.”
  • In a New York Times op-ed entitled “Sympathy for Luddites,” columnist and Nobel- Prize-winner Paul Krugman warns that “a much darker picture of the effects of technology on labor is emerging. In this picture, highly educated workers are as likely as less educated workers to find themselves displaced and devalued, and pushing for more education may create as many problems as it solves.”
  • Noted legal scholar and economist Richard Posner writes that “there is nothing inevitable about the virtuous process whereby automation and related negative effects on particular jobs merely shift workers to other jobs that are equally or more desirable. Workers may be highly compensated for possessing human capital that is specialized to a labor market that is shrinking…If technological advance is very rapid, causing in turn a large and very rapid drop in demand in a large labor market, the economy may not be able to absorb the sudden surplus of labor in a short period of time.”
  • Nobel Prize winning economist Joe Stiglitz states, “It doesn’t have political appeal to say the reason we have a problem [job losses] is we’re so successful in technology.”
  • Professor Tyler Cowen, blogger at Marginal Revolution and author of The Great Stagnation, writes: “Self-driving vehicles threaten to send truck drivers to the unemployment office. Computer programs can now write journalistic accounts of sporting events and stock price movements. There are even computers that can grade essay exams with reasonable accuracy, which could revolutionize my own job, teaching. Increasingly, machines are providing not only the brawn but the brains, too, and that raises the question of where humans fit into this picture — who will prosper and who won’t in this new kind of machine economy?”
  • James B. Huntington’s book, Work’s New Age, warns that due to technological change, “No longer will the number of American jobs approximate the number of those who can work them.”
  • Stuart Elliot of the National Research Council said, “As long as computer abilities continue to improve, we should expect that the skill requirements for the human workforce will continue to shift up. With this steadily moving target, there will come a time when we are simply unable to move human skills up quickly enough to keep the full workforce employed.”
  • In Who Owns the Future, Jaron Lanier writes, “We’re setting up a situation where better technology in the long term means more unemployment” that may lead to “political and social chaos.”
  • A 60 Minutes program entitled “Are Robots Hurting Job Growth?” notes that “technology…is putting new categories of jobs in the sites [sic] of automation—the 60 percent of the workforce that makes its living gathering and analyzing information.”
  • Bernard Condon and Paul Wiseman write in a widely distributed multi-part AP story entitled “Recession, tech kill middle-class jobs” that “overall…technology is eliminating far more jobs than it is creating,” and that jobs are “being obliterated by technology.”
  • Financial Times blogger Izabella Kaminska blogs regularly about possible negative effects of technology, arguing: “The natural unemployment [rate] may be changing on a permanent basis in the US, but… much of this is down not to global forces, but technology and the reboot of our economy, which in many cases is making those with jobs hugely over-productive.”
  • At The Atlantic, Tim Fernholz’s piece, “What Bankrupted Detroit—China or robots?” notes that “the problem of adapting social and economic institutions to a world where mechanization enhances productivity but costs jobs is one that all wealthy countries face, regardless of trade competition.”
  • A recent article on The Economist’s Schumpeter blog warns: “Brain work may be going the way of manual work.”
  • Gary Marcus in a New Yorker article titled “Will a Robot Take Your Job?” argues that “there is no causal mechanism, physical, economic, sociological, or legal, that guarantees that new jobs will always come into existence.”
  • Martin Ford, author of The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future, writes, “As jobs and income are relentlessly automated away, the bulk of consumers will lack the income necessary to drive the demand that is critical to economic growth.”
  • Marshall Brain, founder of the website How Stuff Works and host of “Factory Floor” on the National Geographic channel, writes, “I firmly believe that the rapid evolution of computer technology will bring us smart robots starting in a 2030 time frame. These robots will take over approximately 50% of the jobs in the U.S. economy over the course of just a decade or two. Something on the order of 50 million people will be unemployed.”
  • Anonymous investment banker “Wufnik,” in an article for the blog Scholars & Rogues entitled “Where will the new jobs come from?” writes that “it’s true that technology can create more jobs—and in the past this has often been the case. Whether we’re at some sort of inflection point on this in the US (and eventually elsewhere as well) remains to be seen.”
  • Frederico Pistono, author of Robots will Steal Your Job but that’s OK, writes that “the total number of jobs required by industry will be gradually reduced over time, and each time we will have to reinvent ourselves, finding new occupations for the newly displaced people by automation. …This becomes very tiring after some time. It is a game you cannot win.”
  • Kevin Drum, in an article for Mother Jones entitled “Welcome, Robot Overlords. Please Don’t Fire Us?” asserts that “smart machines probably won’t kill us all—but they’ll definitely take our jobs, and sooner than you think.” He concludes: “The Luddites weren’t wrong. They were just 200 years too early.”
  • Gavin Mueller’s “The Rise of the Machines” argues that “in the short term, the new machines benefit capitalists, who can lay off their expensive, unnecessary workers to fend for themselves in the labor market. But, in the longer view, automation also raises the specter of a world without work, or one with a lot less of it, where there isn’t much for human workers to do.”
  • Blogger at Boing Boing and science fiction author Cory Doctorow writes in “Will robots take all the jobs?” that “if market economies can’t figure out how to equitably distribute the fruits of automation, [they] might end up with an even bigger, even more hopeless underclass”
  • Even President Obama has joined the chorus, arguing, “There are some structural issues with our economy where a lot of businesses have learned to become much more efficient with a lot fewer workers… You see it when you go to a bank and you use an ATM, you don’t go to a bank teller, or you go to the airport and you’re using a kiosk instead of checking in at the gate.”

Automation and other productivity improvements are expected to have eliminated 2.2 million business-services jobs in the United States and Europe from 2006 to 2016, at a rate of about 200,000 jobs annually, according to the Hackett Group.

Whilst there are concerns about technology and automation displacing many from the workplace I have an optimism for the future and believe the attempt to better the world for all humanity is hidden somewhere within the automated robotic economy.


2 Comments

  1. sleicest says:

    Great summary & article.
    Will robotics effectively be pulled in different directions by the following scenarios, all playing out together in the future?

    ‘State-sponsored virtual colonialism’. A visionary nation recognises the eventual dangers of its citizens being reliant on trans-national intelligent networks with remote peripherals (robotic applications). It invests heavily in the short term at the State level, to obtain ‘first mover advantage’ and exploits such networks to ensure its own citizens prosper (reap the benefits) from trade, as other nations become weaker. National identity usurps the progress of global institutions.

    ‘Rise of the entrepreneur’. As technological progress changes economic variables and erodes multi-national corporate power, job growth comes from people in all countries using technology to embrace and exploit advanced engineering developments in very diverse ways. Entrepreneurs and their robotic systems innovate and compete against other entrepreneurs and their robotic systems. The entrepreneurs are close enough to their robotic systems to influence their power for social good. The successful entrepreneurs participate in philanthropy and charitable acts within their physical communities to preserve social harmony. They also belong to global communities of interest, fostering open systems and new models of IP management.

    ‘A world of corporate cartels.’ Multi-national corporates exploit technology to place increasingly more wealth in the hands of their specific shareholders. The cartels control the development and deployment of technology to influence government policies to their advantage. Innovation becomes proprietary intellectual property. People increasingly rely on corporate brands to run their lives, job or no job. National governance ceases to be relevant to people’s lives.

  2. […] to manage and interpret computer systems, and whose work, instead of competing with the software, augments and extends it. Over the next several decades wages for that new class of workers will grow rapidly, while the […]

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