It’s pretty easy to blame technology for everything from poor social skills to crappy music. But one MIT professor is arguing that robots are actually to blame for productivity going up while the job market stagnates. And that it’ll get worse.
To be fair, Erik Brynjolfsson is not just some nut, or if he is a nut he’s a well-educated and respected one. He works for MIT’s Sloan School of Management, where nerds go to get MBAs. His basic argument boils down to this: That software and robotics are destroying more jobs than they create.
The pattern is clear: as businesses generated more value from their workers, the country as a whole became richer, which fueled more economic activity and created even more jobs. Then, beginning in 2000, the lines diverge; productivity continues to rise robustly, but employment suddenly wilts. By 2011, a significant gap appears between the two lines, showing economic growth with no parallel increase in job creation. Brynjolfsson and McAfee call it the “great decoupling.”
To be fair, Brynjolfsson isn’t wrong, per se. Robots really are taking our jobs, or at least taking some jobs. He’s also correct in that technology increases productivity in a company, but doesn’t require more workers to do it.
The problem is, first of all, the assumption that this is a permanent and ongoing effect that will only spread. Not to put too fine a point on it, but robots are, by any reasonable human standard, idiots. Want to do something better than a robot? Get up, go to the nearest kitchen, and pour yourself a glass of water. It took decades of research and millions of dollars in grant money to create a robot that does that. And he doesn’t do it as well as you.
Robots and software are destroying jobs, but they’re destroying mindless, drudge-work jobs, many of which are hard to fill in the first place. The autoworker robot is the symbol of job destruction, but you notice nobody is complaining about robots, say, cleaning up sewers or venturing into toxic waste dumps. It is absolutely true that technology is improving, and in fact robotics are getting better all the time, but we’re a long, long way off from the Terminator.
Secondly, there are cultural taboos here. This is borne out by various attempts to incorporate robots into public spaces: Companies using automated call service robots find themselves struggling to get people to actually talk to the robot. Some cultures are more flexible on this than others, but we’re a long way off from the robot barista.
This isn’t to say there aren’t concerns here. It’s telling that the unemployment problems faced by Americans are weighed heavily towards groups that used to be able to get a high-paying role doing… mindless, drudge-work jobs. That said, it’s more complex than either side of the issue really would prefer.