Government // Mobile & Wireless
Commentary
9/26/2013
11:19 AM
Robert Atkinson
Robert Atkinson
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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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bfately914
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bfately914,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/27/2013 | 9:41:01 PM
re: Robots Taking All Our Jobs? Ridiculous
@barnabyD077 is correct - just because the historical argument against the Luddite position ("don't worry, in ten years there will be jobs we can't imagine today!") has held true thus far in no way means it will continue to do so. No doubt there will be jobs ten years hence that we cannot imagine today - but the "photonic transmogrification engineer" position of the future will require high levels of skill and education which the vast majority of people will not have. Meanwhile, when (not if) iRobot (or someone) comes out with a robot that can pick strawberries, all those displaced workers will have no place to go.
In the 1900 US census, something like a third of the population worked on farms. A mere 100 years later, under 3% did so. All those workers, replaced as they were by the technologies of tractors and fertilizers, etc., moved to the cities and essentially became apprentices, learning hos to put wheels on cars or whatever. That kind of apprenticeship education will simply not work when one will need PhD-level knowledge. Workers in certain high touch jobs - nurses, cops, (call girls?) etc. will not be replaced so easily, but the vast majority of the workforce will become, as it was put in that episode of Twilight Zone, obsolete.
rantsalot
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rantsalot,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/27/2013 | 8:41:52 PM
re: Robots Taking All Our Jobs? Ridiculous
A huge use for Gogle's self-driving car concept can be found in the trucking industry. Big 18-wheelers will slowly be replaced by fleets of smaller box trucks that will drive themselves to their destinations at optimum hours and delivery times. This will reduce the need for OTR drivers and increase the need for people who know how to run robotic loading/unloading devices. It will be weird driving at night alongside all the robotic trucks everywhere on the interstates.
RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Author
9/27/2013 | 8:31:34 PM
re: Robots Taking All Our Jobs? Ridiculous
it's an argument some people made (persuasively) for labor unions back in the day: auto, steel and other workers making a very decent wage have more disposable income to buy the goods and services of American companies.
RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Author
9/27/2013 | 6:37:26 PM
re: Robots Taking All Our Jobs? Ridiculous
Companies invest in robots and other forms of automation to cut costs (as well as improve productivity). To require companies to continue paying the wages of the people who they've replaced is self-defeating. Then are we to create and fund an agency to find the "cheaters" as well?
aditshar
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aditshar,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/27/2013 | 5:24:04 PM
re: Robots Taking All Our Jobs? Ridiculous
Larger the Datacenter larger is the manforce required to manage that, but i guess robots can make our job easy for us..in the same way they are helping in automobile industry from fitting glass panes to bolts but replacing us definitely not now...
ANON1242159798500
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ANON1242159798500,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/27/2013 | 5:05:57 PM
re: Robots Taking All Our Jobs? Ridiculous
When a person looses a job to a Robot that person should continue to get a wage earned by that robot until gainfully employed again.

Of course they would have to prove they are really, seriously, and actively looking for work too.

Not the easy kick back and take everything they are giving until it is all gone methods like unemployment recipients. Get caught cheating the system? Loose all income available including food stamps. No resources for you here on this earth! Go away, or get a job if you are hungry. And stop making it easy to live on the streets for the cheaters that get caught. A real problem OK, but if you cheat once you are on your own at least until you loose the next job. Then if they are caught twice. They will just have to take care of them selves in bad times from that point forward. Second chances only work if they are real drop dead points of fact.

There's a problem we could solve today.
HandyManDanDBR
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HandyManDanDBR,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/27/2013 | 5:02:13 PM
re: Robots Taking All Our Jobs? Ridiculous
What's really killing jobs is welders and other workers that earn $7 a day in other countries (Bloomberg). We now live in a world economy. Wages will always match supply and demand. There are tons of workers world wide giving companies tons of supply and therefore, people asking for higher wages get little demand. Corporations do need to be careful as consumers without income will kill the demand for their products.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
9/27/2013 | 4:38:57 PM
re: Robots Taking All Our Jobs? Ridiculous
Robert, where do innovations like Google's self-driving car fit into your point of view?

A related question: Will medicine-delivering robots free hospitals up to employ more nurses? Or will they point that savings elsewhere? Jury is still out on that.
Greg MacSweeney
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Greg MacSweeney,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/27/2013 | 4:01:33 PM
re: Robots Taking All Our Jobs? Ridiculous
I used to get $1 for doing the dishes when i was a kid, then we got a dishwasher and i lost that income. Instead, i was able to take the time i saved to go an mow lawns in the neighborhood for $25 a lawn. I was a happy kid!
BarnabyD077
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BarnabyD077,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/27/2013 | 2:22:43 PM
re: Robots Taking All Our Jobs? Ridiculous
Atkinson refers to the Luddite fallacy. Fundamentally this is claimed to be a fallacy as automation does not result it higher unemployment in the long term as displaced workers have or can learn skill sets that are still of economic value. This being so, on average workers are better off after the automation because a more productive economy increases wages or decreases prices.

Atkinson is correct in claiming that, in the past, the Luddite fallacy has proven to be incorrect. However, the contention that it will always remain incorrect depends on the assumption that workers will always have or will always be able to learn skill sets that have economic value which have not been automated. This is turn implicitly depends on a certain degree of pessimism with regard to progress in artificial intelligence.

If Atkinson is unduly pessimistic with regards to progress in AI then the Luddite fallacy may yet prove not to be entirely fallacious. Once AI exceeds humans in a sufficiently broad domain of intellectual tasks then it may indeed result in workers without marketable skill sets. The arguments then used in the rest of the article would not apply.

Perhaps Atkinson could address this point?
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