People Are Still More Adaptable Than Robots

By  |  September 5, 2014, 1:25 PM


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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