Rise Of The Machines
The nation’s unemployment problem may be harder to fix than people realize thanks to the increasing use of machines to do things that humans used to do:
A faltering economy explains much of the job shortage in America, but advancing technology has sharply magnified the effect, more so than is generally understood, according to two researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The automation of more and more work once done by humans is the central theme of “Race Against the Machine,” an e-book to be published on Monday.
“Many workers, in short, are losing the race against the machine,” the authors write.
Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist and director of the M.I.T. Center for Digital Business, and Andrew P. McAfee, associate director and principal research scientist at the center, are two of the nation’s leading experts on technology and productivity. The tone of alarm in their book is a departure for the pair, whose previous research has focused mainly on the benefits of advancing technology.
Indeed, they were originally going to write a book titled, “The Digital Frontier,” about the “cornucopia of innovation that is going on,” Mr. McAfee said. Yet as the employment picture failed to brighten in the last two years, the two changed course to examine technology’s role in the jobless recovery.
The authors are not the only ones recently to point to the job fallout from technology. In the current issue of the McKinsey Quarterly, W. Brian Arthur, an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute, warns that technology is quickly taking over service jobs, following the waves of automation of farm and factory work. “This last repository of jobs is shrinking — fewer of us in the future may have white-collar business process jobs — and we have a problem,” Mr. Arthur writes.
The M.I.T. authors’ claim that automation is accelerating is not shared by some economists. Prominent among them are Robert J. Gordon of Northwestern and Tyler Cowen of George Mason University, who contend that productivity improvement owing to technological innovation rose from 1995 to 2004, but has trailed off since. Mr. Cowen emphasized that point in an e-book, “The Great Stagnation,” published this year.
Technology has always displaced some work and jobs. Over the years, many experts have warned — mistakenly — that machines were gaining the upper hand. In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes warned of a “new disease” that he termed “technological unemployment,” the inability of the economy to create new jobs faster than jobs were lost to automation.
But Mr. Brynjolfsson and Mr. McAfee argue that the pace of automation has picked up in recent years because of a combination of technologies including robotics, numerically controlled machines, computerized inventory control, voice recognition and online commerce.
Faster, cheaper computers and increasingly clever software, the authors say, are giving machines capabilities that were once thought to be distinctively human, like understanding speech, translating from one language to another and recognizing patterns. So automation is rapidly moving beyond factories to jobs in call centers, marketing and sales — parts of the services sector, which provides most jobs in the economy.
During the last recession, the authors write, one in 12 people in sales lost their jobs, for example. And the downturn prompted many businesses to look harder at substituting technology for people, if possible. Since the end of the recession in June 2009, they note, corporate spending on equipment and software has increased by 26 percent, while payrolls have been flat.
In short, the more advanced computers and robotic equipment become, the few humans are need to perform the same tasks, and the less new hiring a business needs to do even when the economy does turnaround. This has been an issue ever since the first machine replaced the first human, of course, and the natural response of some will be to blame the machines for the loss of jobs in much the same way people blame immigrants for the loss of jobs. Technological progress is inevitable, the only alternative is stagnation, so blaming machines is kind of misplaced. We all benefit from advancing computer technology in one way or another. Our cars are safer and more fuel efficient in part because of the fact that machines and computers have taken over many of the tasks that human auto workers used to perform. And automation that allows companies to make goods at lower cost, and in less time, benefits the economy as a whole. Trying to resist any of this is both foolish and counterproductive.
At the same time, though, news like this does raise concerns for the economic recovery. With technology now playing an increasing roles in places like call centers, marketing, and sales, the question becomes where will the new jobs come from? Both sides of the political divide seem to think they have the answer to that question. On the left, people like President Obama think that “Green Jobs” will be the wave of the future, although cases like Solyndra call that hypothesis in the question. On the right, people like Rick Perry argue that expanding energy exploration will create jobs. Even if they’re both right, though, not all of us can build solar panels or be oil rig roughnecks. Those sales and marketing jobs are the type of jobs that many new college graduates were filling a decade ago, now they’re finding that they’re not needed as much because of technological improvements. Where they’re going to go is the unanswered question we now face.