New Scientist

Robots Will Take Our Jobs

Three scenarios for how technology will change the workforce.

The industrial robot Baxter uses a vacuum gripper to pack parts in an order.
The industrial robot Baxter uses a vacuum gripper to pack parts in an order.

Image via Rethink Robotics/YouTube

Andrew McAfee is the principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. With Erik Brynjolfsson he is co-author of The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. Fear of machines taking our jobs dates back to the invention of the loom, but this time, he says, the world of work will change forever.

Niall Firth: Are robots really taking our jobs?
Andrew McAfee: Sure, but there has always been job destruction because of automation and technological progress. The important thing to keep in mind is that there has also always been job creation because of these same forces. Right now, there is a wave of tech hitting the economy and the workforce. The question is: is the balance shifting?

NF: How do you see it playing out?
AM: Three possible scenarios could happen with this current wave of technology. One is that it is going to hit the economy, and it might take a while to work itself out, but in the end we will reach a happy equilibrium. The Industrial Revolution was great news, eventually, for British workers. Electrification of factories eventually led to a large, stable, and prosperous American middle class. That pattern should give us confidence that we will wind up in another happy equilibrium.

NF: What are the other possible scenarios?
AM: Scenario two is that we see successive waves: artificial intelligence, automated driving that will impact people who drive for a living, robotics that will impact manufacturing. If scenario two happens, the problem is a bit worse because it will be difficult for the economy to keep adjusting and for workers to keep retraining.

Scenario three is that we finally transition into this science-fiction economy, where you just don’t need a lot of labor.

NF: Do you really think that we’ll shift away from having human laborers altogether?
AM: I believe that in my lifetime—I’m in my mid-40s—we’re going to see that third scenario. We won’t see a zero-labor economy, but we’re going to head into a labor-light economy. Of course, people like me have been saying some version of that for 200 years. The Luddites, John Maynard Keynes, a lot of people have said it and been wrong. But when I look at the encroachment of digital stuff into the total bundle of skills and abilities that humans have, I think this time it is different.

NF: So which jobs do you think will no longer exist in 10 or 20 years?
AM: We’re going to see a lot of automation and displacement in areas of routine information processing and routine physical work. When I talk to my favorite geeks in Silicon Valley, they look around and say, “man, the work of a financial adviser, a junior analyst at an asset management firm, a pathologist, a hamburger flipper, I can automate that.” I don’t know if all those are going to be successful within the next 10 years, but there’s a whole lot of technology coming.

NF: You say the upside of all of this is greater “bounty.” What do you mean by that?
AM: Bounty, to me, is the purpose of a society’s economic engine—to turn out more stuff and a greater variety of goods and services, at higher quality and at lower prices. When you phrase it like that it sounds a bit consumerist, but it’s not. Entertainment, education, communication, and health are all being affected by the digital revolution. This is fantastic news.

NF: But doesn’t this revolution threaten the intangible essence of what it means to be part of the workforce?
AM: Our economies have needed a lot of labor to run properly. In the industrialized West, we’ve had close to a full employment economy since the Industrial Revolution. This provides people with the means to buy the bounty and gives some direction and purpose to the bulk of their lives. A lot of us, in addition to our families, are defined by our work.

But both the tangible and the intangible can go away. The tangible is your paycheck. Luckily, you don’t need money to buy access to Instagram, Facebook, or Wikipedia. If you have access to a connected device you have an astonishing amount of stuff for free. That’s part of the bounty. But the intangible is this sense of dignity, community, purpose, and direction that comes from having work.

NF: Since the economic downturn, profits have bounced back but employment hasn’t. Is technology to blame?
AM: I believe it is. It is very tough to say for sure what has been going on with the jobless recovery. An all-time high in profits is great news if you’re an investor. But other stuff we care about is looking really bad—unemployment, wages, and participation rates. What’s interesting to me is that most of these indicators have to do with the workforce. They have not recovered much if at all from last decade’s recession. I don’t think it’s an accident that this is happening as we see these technologies coming at us fast and furious.

NF: One new technology is the industrial robot Baxter. Is he taking jobs—or creating them?
AM: Both. Baxter is taking away some routine manual work in factories. At the same time, he is going to need people to repair him, to add functionality, to train him. So Baxter and his kin are absolutely going to create labor.

NF: OK, let’s assume there are things that robots will never be able do. Doesn’t that mean we’ll always need a human labor force?
AM: The one thing I’ve learned is never say never, but in the foreseeable future I agree with you. Take journalism: I’ve never seen a computer that could sniff out the next good story, although we have computers that can write perfectly capable prose if you give them the data and tell them what to write about.

I’ve never seen a creative computer, or one that had empathy or compassion or could negotiate complex deals and figure out where the other party is coming from. There are a lot of human abilities that appear relatively immune from digital encroachment. And I haven’t even mentioned physical abilities such as locomotion and dexterity. The robots are getting better, but we’re not anywhere close to a robot busboy for a restaurant.

NF: In a thought experiment, you imagine an android that can do any job a human can. What would the implications be for society?
AM: One far-future scenario is something like a digital Athens, where the citizens are free to pursue their enlightened lives supported not by an army of human slaves but by automated technologies.

But the other scenario is something like dystopian science fiction, where a fairly small core of elites own the capital and the androids, and are walled off from the rest of society where people live without a lot of opportunity. Neither of those futures is cast in stone. We are not technological determinists. The world that we are building is up to us, not our machines.

NF: The gap between winners and losers is widening. Is that likely to get worse?
AM: The most naive notion about technological progress is that it is a rising tide that floats all boats equally. Progress is biased. The most highly skilled, talented, and maybe lucky people reap really, really big rewards.

But that doesn’t mean inequality will just get worse and we might as well just throw up our hands and walk away. Absolutely not.

NF: What makes you so confident in a positive outlook for our technological future?
AM: With technology we are doing things like restoring hearing to the deaf and sight to the blind; giving feeling back to people who lost limbs. How can we not be happy about this?

We do have workforce challenges, absolutely, and we need to be concerned about those and spend time on them. But with the opportunities I see, overall I would call myself a mindful optimist.

This article originally appeared in New Scientist.