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Will robots steal our jobs?

April25

This Washington Post article speaks to the paranoia-inducing question of “Will robots steal our jobs?”, and takes a historical perspective on the issue.

This question seems to be popping up more and more frequently, though. Economists warn that the amazing technological strides made in recent years—everything from smartphones, to automatons that can work safely on shop floors alongside humans, to driver-less cars—could soon put large swaths of the workforce out of a job. The technological strides of the past few decades have contributed to the nation’s rising income inequality, because only a small group of people tends to benefit income-wise from inventing the next iPhone or tax-preparation software. A large portion of American jobs are seen as “high risk” of being taken over by robots in the next decade or two. Economists take this idea seriously, and it has a number of policy implications, particularly when it comes to higher education.

But while this futuristic scenario is scary or exciting, depending on your point of view, a number of liberal economists argue that there’s just no evidence yet that this is the course the economy will chart. If technology is leading us to generate more output with fewer workers, that should show up in higher productivity, and we’re no really seeing that. Another place I’d expect to see signs of the robot takeover is in businesses’ investment in equipment, and that has been declining over the past decade. 

As the degree of automation increases in society, employment of the future will have to focus on creative jobs, caring jobs and ones that involve craftsmanship and social intelligence–things that are not susceptible to computerization.

One thing for certain is that the world will look different as it fills up with these technological advances. Will it be one of mass unemployment? Not necessarily, as robots don’t seem to be cropping up in the latest worrisome data about the labor market. Now, will the robots one day rise up and revolt against us? That’s a different question.

posted under Econ488

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