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How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Robots


One of the most important and interesting conversations happening in America today centers around the future of employment. The rise of “job-stealing robots” has a lot of worried wonks and policy scholars asking whether millions of Americans will be left without any work to do in the future.

The MIT Technology Review has a must read piece on these questions. It details the work of two economists—Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee—who believe that we are witnessing “the great decoupling” of productivity from employment:

Technologies like the Web, artificial intelligence, big data, and improved analytics—all made possible by the ever increasing availability of cheap computing power and storage capacity—are automating many routine tasks. Countless traditional white-collar jobs, such as many in the post office and in customer service, have disappeared. W. Brian Arthur, a visiting researcher at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center’s intelligence systems lab and a former economics professor at Stanford University, calls it the “autonomous economy.” It’s far more subtle than the idea of robots and automation doing human jobs, he says: it involves “digital processes talking to other digital processes and creating new processes,” enabling us to do many things with fewer people and making yet other human jobs obsolete.

It is this onslaught of digital processes, says Arthur, that primarily explains how productivity has grown without a significant increase in human labor. And, he says, “digital versions of human intelligence” are increasingly replacing even those jobs once thought to require people. “It will change every profession in ways we have barely seen yet,” he warns.

On the surface this article paints a grim picture of the future, but it also incorporates some counterpoints. A few experts deny that the changes will be profound, which seems implausible. The more interesting case for optimism in the article is historical: mankind has faced deep and painful economic transitions before (from agriculture to manufacturing) and still found ways of realizing widespread employment and enjoyment.

We have to learn to see this transition as an opportunity as well as a challenge. We’ve sketched before some ways we think service jobs could offer wide employment as manufacturing continues to shed jobs. But it’s important to clearly see the changes around us before we can start working on responses; this article is a very good place to do just that. Read the whole thing.

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  • Andrew Allison

    As is all too typical of the Ivory Tower, the authors note an inevitable process (jobs climate change) and focus on the change rather than how to live with it. VM has, IMO, consistently struck the right note in saying, in effect, we must stop preparing people for yesterday’s vanishing jobs and start preparing them for the jobs of the future. The most compelling need is for a major adult education drive in order to put today’s jobless to work. Regardless of any economic recovery, their old jobs are simply not coming back. The only alternative to long-term unemployment is to learn new skills.

  • Atanu Maulik

    Recent research has busted a great liberal myth that the wages of workers and productivity has decoupled. It shows that the total compensation (wages+ benefits) has tacked closely with productivity gains.

  • dankingbooks

    There is a post about the future of STEM careers here:

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