Posts Tagged "robots"

Imagining the End of The Age of Labor

The tension between technology and work is at least as old as the economics profession itself. A question some people are asking now is: if computers run by artificial intelligence can do the job of humans, will work disappear someday?

Two economists are proposing a couple different scenarios in a new paper that is part science fiction and part mathematical models. In one scenario, lower-paid workers who are not highly valued by society – say, McDonald’s hamburger flippers – are more readily replaced by computers than a scientist searching for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. This will drive down wages for a larger and larger segment of the lower-paid labor force.

In a second sci-fi scenario, machines run by artificial intelligence, or AI, will ultimately be able to do any worker’s job. In that world, work “would cease to play the central role that it currently plays in our society,” the researchers predict. A computer, they muse, could even stand in for a judge. Farfetched? An AI judge might be superior if it “make[s] more accurate and humane judgments than humans, leaving behind the noise, discrimination and biases that have plagued our justice system.”

There are a host of reasons to doubt work will disappear. The economists who reject this worst-case scenario argue that technology is not job-crushing but job-creating. Machines, they say, free up workers from one type of job but open up new opportunities. Only the nature of work changes. It does not disappear. After World War II, for example, new industrial technologies created jobs that lured farmers into the cities. Artificial intelligence shouldn’t be any different.

The authors of this new paper do concede that what they call the End of Labor is far in the future. Supercomputers capable of the most sophisticated AI are extraordinarily expensive. It seems more plausible that jobs involving simple, repetitive tasks will be the ones increasingly replaced by machines. This has already started happening as robots have moved onto factory floors.

But if workers of all types are eventually replaced by machines, how would they buy their groceries, cell phones, and shoes? Something would have to be done to replace their earnings and “avoid mass misery” and “political instability,” the researchers say. They propose a universal basic income. …Learn More

Photo of the inside of a computer

Older Workers Ride Out Computer Age

The computer revolution, unleashed in the 1970s, has not stopped. Minicomputers replaced mainframes, and IBM introduced its personal computer. Then came the Internet, laptops, robots, iPhones, and increasingly intelligent software that can drive cars and discern music preferences.

Continual technological change has reshaped and regenerated the economy several times over, creating new types of jobs unimaginable a few years earlier. But the past four decades have also been tumultuous for the workers who were either replaced by machines or couldn’t keep up with the evolving demands of their jobs.

This is a pressing issue for the older workers who would benefit from working longer to improve their retirement finances. An erosion in their physical stamina or mental agility conceivably makes them more vulnerable to losing out to progress. And it can be difficult for people who have invested years in a job to train for and find new employment.

But a new study of labor force trends by the Center for Retirement Research finds this has not been the case. The computer age has had about the same impact on workers over age 55 as it has had on the labor force overall.

Two factors have proved essential to whether people – whatever their age – have had job security in this period of change: whether the work is routine and whether it requires a college education.

Since the 1970s, job options have narrowed for many workers who did not attend college, because computers have been especially good at rapidly and tirelessly performing the routine tasks this group’s work often entails. Examples are the computerized financial transactions that replaced back-office workers who entered the data manually and the robots inserted into assembly lines. The more routine a worker’s job, the more vulnerable he is to being replaced by a machine.

The upshot is that this segment of the labor force is shrinking: roughly a third of U.S. workers hold routine jobs currently, down from more than half in 1979. Nevertheless, the magnitude of this decline has been roughly the same for workers over 50 as for the labor force overall, according to the study, which was conducted for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

In contrast, computerization has not affected the demand for non-routine work that is physical in nature, such as construction and food preparation. These jobs typically do not require a college education either, but it has been virtually impossible to program computers to do non-repetitive work. “The rules governing our innate abilities are a mystery,” and this has protected jobs that emphasize uniquely human abilities, the researchers said.Learn More