Jobs Manufacturing

People Are Still More Adaptable Than Robots

The Baxter robot from Rethink Robotics may not displace as many middle-class jobs as feared.

Robots like Baxter from Rethink Robotics may not displace as many middle-class jobs as feared.

Media and pundits have exaggerated the threat robots present to human workers’ livelihood, claims labor market scholar David Autor. Reporting on ideas Autor presented at a recent bankers’ conference, New York Times writer Neil Irwin sums up the argument: “Even as computers have gotten better at rote tasks, they have progressed far less in applying common sense.”

The MIT economist, who traces the origins of “automation anxiety” back to the early 19th century Luddites, argues that “journalists and expert commentators overstate the extent of machine substitution for human labor and ignore the strong complementarities.”

Instead, his research indicates that “the challenges to substituting machines for workers in tasks requiring adaptability, common sense, and creativity remain immense.” And contrary to popular belief that robots are partly to blame for job market shrinkage, he notes that “the onset of the weak U.S. labor market of the 2000s coincided with a sharp deceleration in computer investment” by private industry. He blames the dot-com bubble’s burst, the housing market collapse, and the rise in Chinese imports for a deceleration in jobs.

Not only are robots not a long-term threat to workers, Autor argues, but they actually amplify “the comparative advantage of workers in supplying problem solving skills, adaptability, and creativity.” In tasks that demand “flexibility, judgment, and common sense” such as “developing a hypothesis or organizing a closet,” he argues, “computers are often less sophisticated than preschool age children.”

The Times’ Irwin asks, “So what does that mean for workers over the years and decades ahead?” Autor sees increasing opportunities for jobs that “combine routine technical tasks with the set of non-routine tasks in which workers hold comparative advantage.”

Though Techonomy’s own events have explored several aspects of the robotics age with an optimistic outlook, we’re as guilty as any media outlet of reporting that robots will kill industrial jobs. Autor’s outlook promotes what we would call a 180 degree shift.

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  • Tim

    This article is ignorant of real measurable labor demands. In a world with 7 billion people, a couple hundred people can train robots to organize closets and develop new hypothesis. If you take the time to do meta analysis of new hypotheses per year for research that actually gets published, the current rate could be the work of a single person in each academic discipLine. That is far from ideal, but utopian musings have no connection to realistic economic demand for these services.

    For people to be employed, someone has to pay then for their goods or services. If people spend all of their waking hours consuming digital goods and automated services mass produced at zero marginal cost, exponentially improving efficiency, and from sustainable localized decentralized energy production; then there will not be demand for most people in the economy. Examples include television and movies, where the ratio of content creators to content consumers is less than 1 to 1 million. The future of automation, virtual and ugumented reality, and sustainable energy suggests a similar ratio will extend to other sectors of the economy.