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Government // Mobile & Wireless
Commentary
9/26/2013
11:19 AM
Robert Atkinson
Robert Atkinson
Commentary
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Robots Taking All Our Jobs? Ridiculous

Neo-Luddite idea that automation causes high unemployment rates has been disproved throughout history.

With unemployment rates so high for so long, one explanation making the rounds is that "the robots are taking our jobs." This neo-Luddite, anti-technology narrative argues that high productivity driven by increasingly powerful IT-enabled "machines" is the main cause of U.S. labor market problems, and accelerating technological change will only make those problems worse.

If technology enables the same amount of work to be done with fewer people, the argument goes, then it must be bad for employment. More sophisticated variants of this thesis further claim that accelerating technological change has created too much churn in labor markets, and robots are now storming the last few bastions of scarce human abilities.

This tale is not new. The original British Luddites rose up in the early 1800s to oppose mechanization of the textile industry and went so far as to destroy looms that were replacing workers. In the two centuries since, whenever unemployment rates have risen there have been some who blamed the machines. Many even argued that we were heading toward mass permanent unemployment.

What is different today is how widespread the neo-Luddite view has become and how well-received it is in Western society. When the leading proponents of this view get an amiable hearing on the TV news magazine 60 Minutes, you know that something has changed.

[ Take a look at some robots that are keeping humans safer. See DARPA Robot Challenge: Disaster Recovery. ]

Fortunately for workers and for those who understand the potential of new technologies, these ideas are essentially misguided speculation. They fly in the face of years of economic data as well as current trends.

They all fall into what economists call the "Lump of Labor" fallacy, the idea that there's a limited amount of labor to be done. In reality, labor markets aren't fixed. If jobs in one firm or industry are reduced, they're replaced by jobs in other areas of the economy. This is why we did not see massive unemployment as agriculture mechanized in the early 20th century -- the workforce shifted to other professions.

In addition, focusing on job loss creates a distorted view of the process of technological change. First, many businesses actually increase employment as they increase productivity rather than lay workers off, because productivity gains let them cut costs, in turn enabling them to increase sales. Second, savings from increased productivity are recycled back into the economy in the form of lower prices and/or higher wages that create demand that, in turn, creates even more jobs.

The neo-Luddite, anti-robot case is clearly refuted by the data and by scholarly research. Macroeconomic studies have shown convincingly that technology improvements neither decrease the rate of people working in an economy nor raise the unemployment rate. Comprehensive analyses from sources as varied as the World Bank, the International Labor Organization and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco have noted that technological change doesn't play an important role in determining employment in the long run. If anything, productivity may actually reduce unemployment in the medium term.

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The potential for job losses in the future is often overstated as well, with grandiose claims about human obsolescence and the end of labor as we know it. A more realistic view of the economy shows why these claims miss the mark.

One reason is that our economy is complex, with a broad range of industries and occupations, some amenable at a particular time to automation and many others not. Another reason is that technological change, no matter how advanced, doesn't happen overnight -- in fact, current productivity increases are trending downward. But the main reason is that human wants are close to infinite. We need look no further than the fact that most people would love to win the Powerball lottery so they can buy a mansion and luxury car. And as long as that's true, those wants will require labor to fill them (even if that labor is eventually supplemented by 22nd century robots).

The erroneous view that machines are the problem and not the solution goes against the uniquely American grain of faith in the desirability and inevitability of progress. And it threatens to sap the American spirit of its relentless and aggressive support for innovation and technological development.

It is time to consign neo-Ludditism and its particular refrain that "technology costs jobs" once and for all to the dustbin of history. Robots, automation, machines and productivity are key enablers of human progress and absolutely no threat to overall employment. As such, economic policy should put the pedal to the metal, at every possible opportunity, for faster technological improvement, better use of that technology in the workplace, and higher productivity.

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ZachA193
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ZachA193,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/24/2013 | 11:32:00 PM
Article misses the bigger picture
This article misses the bigger picture by claiming that robots will not replace jobs and ultimately most all human labor. You can't look back to find precedents for this prediction because in the past our technology was not at a level of complete automation, including self repair/maintenance. Looking at this from the bigger more principled perspective you can see that any Capitalist democracy is on a one way street to a fully automated economy. The primary drivers that will inevitably, though certainly not imminently, get us there are the pursuit of profit by the lowering of cost in production and the evolution of robotic ability. As certain milestones are reached, ie self-driving cars, self-healing machines and computer thought, which are all being done today at primitive levels, then we will see major leaps forward whereby labor sectors will be largely eliminated without comepensatory new sectors for the human labor to go. Desires will expand and goods and services will expand but robotics will be used for the rendering of these things not human labor. BUT none of this is bad, and seeing it clearly should spawn the opposite of technophobia. This is the ticket to the end of human slavery and the birth of a civilization where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are fulfilled on orders of magnitude beyond anything the forefathers of America could have ever dreamed. This is the New American Dream.
CTSM73
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CTSM73,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/4/2013 | 7:24:29 PM
re: Robots Taking All Our Jobs? Ridiculous
There is a real problem with availability of jobs despite the platitudes of the author. When you have engineers, computer scientists and other highly qualified people unable to find work while companies are begging to be able to hire H1B workers something is wrong. When salaries for software developers, system administrators and others have been stagnant for many years you see another facet of the problem.
Jobs eliminated in one place are not being replaced by other jobs! The real threat to the American spirit is the ongoing exportation of jobs and the replacement of skilled jobs here with minimum wage "service sector" jobs!
RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Author
10/1/2013 | 9:39:07 PM
re: Robots Taking All Our Jobs? Ridiculous
The iPhone didn't put any of those industries out of business (with the exception of PDAs, I guess). In some cases, it's threatening those industries, but in most cases it's driving them to be more innovative, to add more value.
awebb199
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awebb199,
User Rank: Moderator
10/1/2013 | 3:24:54 AM
re: Robots Taking All Our Jobs? Ridiculous
One of my favorite songs is entitled: "Computer took my job", by Maurice
John Vaughn
I first heard it on Cleveland radio driving past the empty factories. Now, I listen to it while programming sometimes.
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
9/30/2013 | 9:47:13 PM
re: Robots Taking All Our Jobs? Ridiculous
Atkinson fails to address whether there's a 1-to-1 relationship between jobs destroyed and jobs created. If 10 human workers are replaced by robots and only 5 jobs end up being created, that's a problem.

Also, statements like "human wants are close to infinite" simply aren't true. There's a level of material satisfaction beyond which some people just don't want any additional stuff. Our lives are bounded by finite time and our appetites have limits.
mHealthTalk
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mHealthTalk,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/30/2013 | 5:14:36 PM
re: Robots Taking All Our Jobs? Ridiculous
Look at all the devices and industries my iPhone put out of work G«Ű still
& video cameras, photo albums & movie studios, watches & stop watches,
alarm clocks & timers, stereo systems & music libraries, calendars &
calculators, GPS & PDAs, travel agent & bank teller, and SO MUCH
more, including my PC next. Sure, there are new opportunities for developers of apps, but most are
free.

Atkinson is wrong to only look at past history of automation and disruption. The future is advancing exponentially with Moore's Law today and even faster with bio & quantum computing on the horizon
mHealthTalk
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mHealthTalk,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/30/2013 | 5:03:42 PM
re: Robots Taking All Our Jobs? Ridiculous
Will the smart and well-educated workers of the future be rewarded for their productivity-improving innovations? Given current conditions, it seems they will not. High unemployment has allowed employers to reduce wages, cut benefits, and avoid collective bargaining. And there's no longer a need for profit-sharing incentive programs. So as a result, all of the profits from increased productivity and reduced costs have flowed upward to the investor class, not the working class or innovation class. This has greatly widened the wealth gap as shown in the video infographic at http://www.mhealthtalk.com/201....
mHealthTalk
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mHealthTalk,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/30/2013 | 4:56:51 PM
re: Robots Taking All Our Jobs? Ridiculous
Traditional automation (e.g. factory automation) may be
easier for low-skilled, but IT is increasingly making it easier to automate
knowledge work, including that of attorneys, radiologists, college professors, and
even surgeons.

One way to put things into perspective is to compare the iPhone to the multimillion dollar mainframe computers that sold in the mid-1970's, such as the IBM System/370 Model 158 that I worked on back then. The iPhone is more than 10,000 times faster, fits in my pocket, and is personal -- i.e. I don't have to share with hundreds of other users.

The iPhone also replaces the need for a separate camera, camcorder, photo album, movie studio, watch, stop watch, alarm clock, timer, stereo system, music library, calendar, calculator, PC, and so much more. The same can be said for all smartphones, and theyG«÷re now much more affordable in emerging markets worldwide. Could they be cheaper still? Yes, but don't lose track of the progress made so far. Yes, there are new opportunities for developers of apps (most are free), but also consider all the other devices and industries that have been made obsolete by this one disruptive innovation.

That's Moore's Law for ya, and I donG«÷t see it slowing down. Sure, there are limits to electronic cross-talk in silicon, but new technologies like bio & quantum mechanics could make MooreG«÷s Law look sluggish.

See http://www.mhealthtalk.com/201....
mHealthTalk
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mHealthTalk,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/30/2013 | 4:48:58 PM
re: Robots Taking All Our Jobs? Ridiculous
About outsourcing work offshore, the Internet makes it much
easier to now offshore knowledge work, especially since there are much faster
connections to South Korea than South Carolina or cheaper connections to much
of India than Indiana.
mHealthTalk
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mHealthTalk,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/30/2013 | 4:46:21 PM
re: Robots Taking All Our Jobs? Ridiculous
There are lots of jobs machines canG«÷t do, including jobs where empathy and G«£emotional intelligenceG«• are required. Personal service and G«£high touchG«• interactive positions have by and large been immune to the creeping mechanization of the workplace. And hereG«÷s the twist: most of these empathy-driven jobs are performed by women.

Nursing, primary school teaching, personal grooming G«Ų these jobs require varying levels of education and knowledge, but all have a strong caretaker component, and demand the ability to understand the unspoken or non-obvious needs of patients/students/clients/etc.

This raises some big questions, and not the least of which is how this might affect the social and economic status of these professions, and that of knowledge work that is easier to automate. Might nurses eventually be more valued than surgeons? Would kindergarten teachers be paid better than university professors? Contrast opposing views at http://www.mhealthtalk.com/201....
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