Where have all the jobs gone? Marketplace on American Public Media answered that question with a weeklong series titled “Robots Ate My Job.” I heard parts of this program on the radio last week as I worked on clearing out our storage unit and then went to the website to catch up on the ones I’d missed. I’m glad I did as Marketplace has a number of very illustrative videos that accompany the radio program. I especially like the one showing not only that we are surrounded by robots, but that had ghostly hands sketched in to demonstrate the replacement of human workers.
One of the discussions about the economic recovery focuses on the continuing slow job growth, the huge number of the ‘long-term’ unemployed, and the concern that many of the jobs that were lost, are lost forever. Yes, some have been outsourced overseas to countries with lower labor costs; but the consensus is that other jobs are obsolete, no longer available for human workers. These are the jobs the robots ate.
Of course robots, or automation, have been taking human jobs away for the past 100+ years and that hasn’t been a bad thing, economically speaking, so why worry now? Automated industrial and farm machinery has increased production and moved people out of jobs that were monotonous, hard, and sometimes even dangerous.
These days automation is everywhere. It’s so prevalent that Marketplace’s David Brancaccio tested whether he could drive from New Jersey to California without ever having to interact with another human (he took along a robot dog for company on his road trip). He bought gas at self-serve gas stations (is there any other kind these days?), stayed at hotels where robot attendants check you in and dispense key cards to a room, bought groceries at stores with self-checkout stations, drove toll roads with EZ-Pass technology, used GPS to navigate and listened to music picked by Pandora (a computer algorithm that selects songs based on your input). He did not however get to drive Google’s self-driving robot car as currently Nevada is the only state that has self-driving car rules in place. Seriously. “Nevada is the first state to embrace what is surely the future of automobiles,” Department of Motor Vehicles director Bruce Breslow said in a statement.
Twenty or even 10 years ago David would have been dealing with hotel staff, toll booth attendants, and grocery clerks. He may have even had a gas station attendant, out somewhere in the middle of the country, ask if he wanted his oil checked with his fill up. You might be thinking that people would be glad to give up jobs like these – service jobs, repetitive, boring, and low paying to boot – but these aren’t the only sorts of jobs being replaced by automation (oh, and by the way, Marketplace interviewed a number of people who still have service jobs and who are fighting to keep them). According to David Autor, an economist at MIT who studies labor markets, there are plenty jobs for highly educated workers (especially those who specialize in robotics technology) and robots are unlikely to take over janitor or home health aide jobs anytime soon. It’s the jobs in the middle of what he terms an ‘hourglass economy’ that are getting squeezed out.
In Race Against the Machine the authors (professors at MIT) demonstrate that digital technologies are rapidly encroaching on skills that used to belong to humans alone. Some skills, they say, have become worthless, and “people who hold the wrong ones now find that they have little to offer employers.” They aren’t just talking about pumping gas or attaching widgets to whatsits. They aren’t talking about automated cup cake makers or envelope stuffers. They are talking about middle class, white collar jobs. Banking, accounting, sales, even the law profession is becoming automated as computers perform the document analysis law clerks would have done a few years ago. And they perform it in a fraction of the time, with fewer errors, and they “don’t get headaches.”
Researching this post, I came across article after article with titles like “More Jobs Predicted for Machines, Not People,” “Most jobs could be lost to automation in the near future,” and “Lost your job? Blame the robots.” Interestingly enough, despite the dour, even grimly warning tone of these articles in general, nearly all ended on an upbeat note. Sounding (to my cynical ear) like a native people confronted with an overwhelming invading force they suggest we should not panic. All will be well. We just need to make friends with the robots; we should partner with them, enter into a sort of binary brotherhood. After all, they need us as much as we need them. Don’t they?
Here’s a challenge for you David Brancaccio – try driving across country without coming into contact with any robots!