Monday, October 18, 2010

Will Robots take our jobs? Probably

A decent short piece in Good Magazine makes the argument that the middle class is basically doomed from a combination of automation and offshoring, with automation (and personal robotics in particular) posing a growing threat to the service jobs we've tried to insulate from offshoring:
Here’s the thing, though: The erosion of the middle class is a phenomenon that’s bigger than the Great Recession. Middle-range jobs have been getting scarcer since the late 1970s, and wages for the ones that are still around have remained stagnant.

In his report, Autor says that a leading explanation for the disappearance of the middle class is “ongoing automation and off-shoring of middle-skilled ‘routine’ tasks that were formerly performed primarily by workers with moderate education (a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree).” Routine tasks, he explains, are ones that “can be carried out successfully by either a computer executing a program or, alternatively, by a comparatively less-educated worker in a developing country.”

The culprit, in other words, is technology. The hard truth—and you don’t see it addressed in news reports—is that the middle class is disappearing in large part because technology is rendering middle-class skills obsolete....

On the low end of the spectrum, we have physical jobs that we can’t automate yet (yard work, for example). On the high end of the spectrum, we have creative and cognitive jobs that we can’t automate yet (law and management, for example). But as technology advances, and it certainly will, more people are going to be elbowed out of the workforce.

We may be heading toward a future with plentiful high-end jobs and plentiful low-end jobs, and not much in the middle. What if only doctors, lawyers, engineers, and managers can live a decent life, buy a house or apartment, and pay for their children to get specialized degrees?
Early Warning had a good point about the recent news that Google has working robot cars: Google has (presumably accidentally) put 3.6 million jobs at risk. (A lot of people employed driving people or things from one place to another.)

Now, robot cars are pretty awesome and I sure hope I can afford a robot butler/chef/babysitter someday. But we're well past the point where glib assurances that technology would create more jobs than it destroyed will suffice.

At a certain point, we need to rethink the bargain we've made in society, and need to make sure there's enough middle-wage jobs out there. This presumes we need a wage policy, where instead of trying to stream high school students in to careers we think (maybe) will be income-stable for a decade or two, we instead adopt a more general, economy-wide principle that tries to push wages up (gasp!) even if bankers freak out about mild inflation at first.

1 comment:

xlpharmacy said...

This is the same speech that has been flowing the discussions of academics and syndicates since the 1880's...
Now, I really agree with Autor's explanation of this phenomenon, which, by the way, is even clearer in the third World.
It's all about fair and humanitarian wealth repartition!