Home » Machine Economy » Robots will augment jobs not take them – “The future ain’t what it used to be”

Robots will augment jobs not take them – “The future ain’t what it used to be”

Autor paper

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the planet is abuzz with humans designing, organizing, manufacturing, servicing, transporting, communicating, trading, buying, and selling

Think of all the economic activity around you on a day-to-day basis, things that may seem commonplace but nevertheless require a great deal of coordination and ‘work.’ Ms. Rifkin who owns the local flower shop gets her delivery of tulips, Mr. Friedman’s insurance claim for his colonoscopy is processed, petrol stations have their pumps replenished over night so the millions of drivers on our roads can refuel on their way to or from the hundreds of thousands of different office locations, retail stores, factories and warehouses where they complete a myriad of professions. Look outside your window and you will have an idea of just how the global economy is a marvel of complexity, people talking on mobile phones, wearing clothes, shoes and make-up made on the other side of the world.

Now think about how many of the world’s professions have been or could be replaced by automation or robotics. It is highly probable that we will “see robots doing the jobs of humans in manufacturing plants (it is already the case), in grocery stores, in pharmacies, driving cars and making deliveries.”

But it is also highly probable that much of the work robots will do… will actually augment human labor not displace it. MIT professor of economics, David Autor believes the media vastly oversells the degree to which technology will displace highly skilled workers. He believes changing technology will instead complement these workers’ skills and help them to become more productive. In a new paper that accompanied Autor’s speech at Jackson Hole last Friday he actually reflects: “on how recent advances in artificial intelligence and robotics should shape our thinking about the likely trajectory of occupational change and employment growth.” (RobotEnomics emphasis added).

Autor considers the oft quoted meme that the “robot overlords” will soon take our jobs, and asks:

But where are these robot overlords? And if they are not here already — and all outward appearances suggest that they are not — should we expect their imminent arrival?

The main thesis of the report is that whilst automation and robotics can do the work of routine tasks it is far more difficult for robots to complete non-routine tasks:

Executing non-­routine tasks is a central obstacle in computer-based automation.

Referring to Amazon’s acquisition of Kiva robotics Autor refers to the fact that Amazon still needs thousands of human’s in their warehouses:

These warehouses employ legions of dexterous, athletic “pickers,” who run and climb through shelves of typically non-­‐‑air conditioned warehouses to locate, collect, box, label and ship goods to purchasers. There is at present no technologically viable or cost-­‐‑effective robotic facsimile for these human pickers.

The job’s steep requirements for flexibility, object recognition, physical dexterity, and fine motor coordination are too formidable (for robots or automation).

But large components of warehousing can be automated as Amazon’s Kiva systems shows. However Autor emphasizes humans and robots working together in these warehouses:

Human flexibility is still required in the Kiva operated warehouse: only workers handle merchandise; robots only move shelves.

The report highlights the fact that machines need clear goals or instructions, whereas humans can operate with flexibility and judgment:

Humans naturally tackle tasks in a manner that draws on their inherent flexibility, problem solving capability, and judgment. Machines currently lack many of these capabilities, but they possess other facilities in abundance: strength, speed, accuracy, low cost, and unwavering fealty to directions.

The author indicates that even with advances in machine learning his: “general observation is that the tools (automation, soft A.I.) are inconsistent.”

Whilst acknowledging that there could be breakthroughs in technology (I think the author should have looked closer at Google’s DeepMind), the principal conclusion from the report is “that the challenges to computerizing numerous everyday tasks — from the sublime to the mundane — remain substantial,” and therefore robots will not be taking millions of jobs any time soon.

Outlining jobs where wages have stagnated and also those that the report author believes cannot be done by robots he concludes with the belief that robots and humans will collaborate and complement each other in the workplace (see also Human-computer symbiosis, not Artificial Intelligence, will spur new jobs):

There is a long history of leading thinkers overestimating the potential of new technologies to substitute for human labor and underestimating their potential to complement it.

He calls on governments and institutions to increase investment in training and education that produces skills which are complemented rather than substituted by technology. A point echoed by the European Union Commission who state: “More than 20% of GDP would quite simply disappear from Europe without intensive use of advanced robotics.” And that intensive use of robotics requires people skilled in building and working with advanced technologies. As I’ve said before – it’s a good time to join the robotics sector…

H/T William Rineheart and Andre Montaud for alerting me to Autor’s paper.


  1. […] Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the planet is abuzz with humans designing, organizing, manufacturing, servicing, transporting, communicating, trading, buying, and selling Think of all t…  […]

  2. Colin Lewis says:

    Comments from Reddit (http://www.reddit.com/r/robotics/comments/2et4nc/robots_will_augment_jobs_not_take_them_the_future/)

    [–]base736 1 point 11 hours ago
    My favourite response to this. In particular, I find the horses analogy pretty compelling. A month ago, I’d have sided with harmonious “augmenting”, and would have said my job (as a teacher) would be among the last on the chopping block. The CGP Grey video has changed both viewpoints.
    In particular, if we consider automation more generally, then the statement that “all outward appearances” suggest that robots are not taking all jobs is ridiculous. As a teacher, my job is simplified somewhat by the fact that I don’t keep a paper mark book. I don’t calculate grades manually. That job has been automated away. Much as I’m sure we’ll see self-driving cars completely take over the day (soon) that they are demonstrably safer in a broad range of conditions, I predict we’ll see high school classes hit 100 soon after we reach the point (and we will) that one augmented teacher can manage that.
    Same for robots. Are robots augmenting humans? Absolutely — many environments are too complex for robots to manage everything autonomously today, and a lot of those will remain so for some time. Does that mean that a construction site that today employs 100 humans will, in 20 years, employ 100 humans working in harmony with their robot augmentation? Absolutely not.

    [–]Jigsus 1 point 8 hours ago
    The horses analogy is retarded. Humans are not a one trick pony like horses.

    [–]SDH500 2 points 5 hours ago
    I feel peoples short shortsightedness leads to irrational fear of technology. People forget that over a few hundred years our jobs went from just trying to survive to having a global network of jobs. The inability to accept change and to adapt is the reason for societies and species as a whole to fail.

    [–]base736 1 point 7 hours ago
    That’s certainly a valid point. I would argue that horses, like people, can do many jobs (though of course people can do more). And in both cases, many or all of those jobs will soon either be fully automated, or will require substantially fewer fleshy participants.
    And that, I think, is the crux of the thing. Certainly new jobs will open up, but the assumption in the article (and elsewhere) is that the number of jobs that open up will somehow necessarily be equal to the number that disappear. I think what the horse analogy highlights is that that’s a silly assumption. It’s entirely silly for a creature that can do only a few jobs, and it’s only slightly less silly for a creature that can do more jobs.
    If it is in fact true that more and better jobs accessible to those who are displaced will necessarily open up, then I think that needs to be proven rather than merely asserted. I’d be curious to see why it holds for an animal that can do (say) 5,000 jobs but not for one that can do 50.
    If, on the other hand, it’s not true, then we need to deal with the real and inevitable issue here — which is how we want to live when paid employment, for ourselves or for others, in one job or in many, is not the norm.

    [–]Jigsus 1 point 33 minutes ago
    The working population of the planet is decreasing. Falling birthrates in developed and developing countries mean a lot of people are having a hard time finding applicants for some jobs especially those that depend on geographic location like agriculture. That means that if we need to keep the economy expanding we need to hire fewer people that do more. Automation is the only way go do it.

    [–]1wf 2 points 12 hours ago
    No, they will take jobs too…. they will take jobs and eliminate them.
    Making workers more productive while being paid less (more unemployment, more demand for jobs, lower wages)
    Unless something comes along that creates a greater demand for HUMAN workers then well, they will definitely be replacing a large amount of jobs in the near and long term.

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