Monday, August 7, 2017

Can't We and the Robots Just Be Friends?


Jared Bernstein is out with a great piece on his blog about whether robots will or will not steal all our jobs. He provides this super-short summary of the main strands in this argument:
Pro: Automation is killing jobs! The robots are coming!
Anti: Nuh-uh. If it were, productivity growth, or output per hour of work, would be climbing. Instead, it’s been slowing down…a lot.
Pro: Then we must be mis-measuring productivity growth.
Anti: Sorry, but solid evidence shows that’s not the case. Not to mention that thanks to years of job gains, we’re closing in on full employment.
Pro: Yeah, well, believe me. The robots are coming and the end of work is near!
Anti: Maybe. No one knows. But that claim has always been made and it has always been wrong.
As the summary implies, it is the "anti" side (no, robots won't take all our jobs) that is on firmer ground empirically and historically in this debate. That is exactly the case I made in a recent Vox article on the future of jobs

Bernstein develops a very important point in the remainder of his blog post that he summarizes as: "the robots are here, they’ve been here all along, and they’re not just substitutes that replace workers; they’re also complements that work with them." (emphasis added) He goes on to say:
In the earlier research, two analysts from Oxford University (Frey and Osborne) looked at the tasks done by workers in hundreds of US jobs, like number-crunching by accountants or selling clothes in retail outlets. They found that 47 percent of jobs had a high likelihood of being replaced by automation within a decade or two. Scary, right?
Except a deeper dive into those same weeds by couple of researchers from the OECD took that 47 percent down to 9 percent. The large fall off in the share of jobs threatened by automation was, the OECD authors argued, “driven by the fact that even in occupations that Frey and Osborne considered to be in the high risk [of automation] category, workers at least to some extent also perform tasks that are difficult to automate such as tasks involving face-to-face interaction.”…
In other words, the robot thing is not a zero-one situation, as in what you do at work is either totally automate-able or totally un-automate-able. For many workers, robots, AI, and other labor-saving technologies will be complementary to their work, boosting “throughput” in retail (“stack ‘em high and let ‘em fly”) and assembly-line work, efficiency in auto-maintenance, accuracy in accounting, etc., but not fully replacing human interactions. Moreover, this has been going on forever in one form or another as machines enter the workforce, and its one reason why productivity almost always–even now–increases year after year.
That leads me to be skeptical of “this time will be different” arguments in this space...
Unquestionably, the robots are going to keep coming. Some will replace jobs, some will create new sectors that add jobs, and some may even turn out to be, if not our besties, then at least helpful in improving the speed and quality of our output.
So stop panicking about the rise of the robots. As Rick Blaine says to Captain Renault at the end of Casablanca, this could "be the beginning of a beautiful friendship".

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