Will robots take our jobs? Not “if” but “when”.

Jan 5 JDN 2458853

The prospect of technological unemploymentin short, robots taking our jobs—is a very controversial one among economists.

For most of human history, technological advances have destroyed some jobs and created others, causing change, instability, conflict—but ultimately, not unemployment. Many economists believe that this trend will continue well into the 21st century.

Yet I am not so sure, ever since I read this chilling paragraph by Gregory Clark, which I first encountered in The Atlantic:

<quote>

There was a type of employee at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution whose job and livelihood largely vanished in the early twentieth century. This was the horse. The population of working horses actually peaked in England long after the Industrial Revolution, in 1901, when 3.25 million were at work. Though they had been replaced by rail for long-distance haulage and by steam engines for driving machinery, they still plowed fields, hauled wagons and carriages short distances, pulled boats on the canals, toiled in the pits, and carried armies into battle. But the arrival of the internal combustion engine in the late nineteenth century rapidly displaced these workers, so that by 1924 there were fewer than two million. There was always a wage at which all these horses could have remained employed. But that wage was so low that it did not pay for their feed.

</quote>

Based on the statistics, what actually seems to be happening right now is that automation is bifurcating the workforce: It’s allowing some people with advanced high-tech skills to make mind-boggling amounts of money in engineering and software development, while those who lack such skills get pushed ever further into the margins, forced to take whatever jobs they can get. This skill-biased technical change is far from a complete explanation for our rising inequality, but it’s clearly a contributing factor, and I expect it will become more important over time.

Indeed, in some sense I think the replacement of most human labor with robots is inevitable. It’s not a question of “if”, but only a question of “when”. In a thousand years—if we survive at all, and if we remain recognizable as human—we’re not going to have employment in the same sense we do today. In the best-case scenario, we’ll live in the Culture, all playing games, making art, singing songs, and writing stories while the robots do all the hard labor.

But a thousand years is a very long time; we’ll be dead, and so will our children and our grandchildren. Most of us are thus understandably a lot more concerned about what happens in say 20 or 50 years.

I’m quite certain that not all human work will be replaced within the next 20 years. In fact, I am skeptical even of the estimates that half of all work will be automated within the next 40 years, though some very qualified experts are making such estimates. A lot of jobs are safe for now.

Indeed, my job is probably pretty safe: While there has been a disturbing trend in universities toward adjunct faculty, people are definitely still going to need economists for the foreseeable future. (Indeed, if Asimov is right, behavioral economists will one day rule the galaxy.)

Creative jobs are also quite safe; it’s going to be at least a century, maybe more, before robots can seriously compete with artists, authors, or musicians. (Robot Beethoven is a publicity stunt, not a serious business plan.) Indeed, by the time robots reach that level, I think we’ll have to start treating them as people—so in that sense, people will still be doing those jobs.

Even construction work is also relatively safe—actually projected to grow faster than employment in general for the next decade. This is probably because increased construction productivity tends to lead to more construction, rather than less employment. We can pretty much always use more or bigger houses, as long as we can afford them. Really, we should be hoping for technological advances in construction, which might finally bring down our astronomical housing prices, especially here in California.

But a lot of jobs are clearly going to disappear, sooner than most people seem to grasp.

The one that worries me the most is truck drivers. Truck drivers are a huge number of people. Trucking employs over 1.5 million Americans, accounting for about 1% of all US workers. It’s one of the few remaining jobs that pays a middle-class salary with entry-level skills and doesn’t require an advanced education. It’s also culturally coded as highly masculine, which is advantageous in a world where a large number of men suffer so deeply from fragile masculinity (a major correlate of support for Donald Trump, by the way, as well as a source of a never-ending array of cringeworthy marketing) that they can’t bear to take even the most promising “pink collar” jobs.

And yet, long-haul trucking is probably not going to exist in 20 years. Short-haul and delivery trucking will probably last a bit longer, since it’s helpful to have a human being to drive around complicated city streets and carry deliveries. Automated trucks are already here, and they are just… better. While human drivers need rest, sleep, food, and bathroom breaks, rarely exceeding 11 hours of actual driving per day (which still sounds exhausting!), an automated long-haul truck can stay on the road for over 22 hours per day, even including fuel and maintenance. The capital cost of an automated truck is currently much higher than an ordinary truck, but when that changes, trucking companies aren’t going to keep around a human driver when their robots can deliver twice as fast and don’t expect to be paid wages. Automated vehicles are also safer than human drivers, which will save several thousand lives per year. For this to happen, we don’t even need truly full automation; we just need to get past our current level 3 automation and reach level 4. Prototypes of this level of automation are already under development; in about 10 years they’ll start hitting the road. The shift won’t be instantaneous; once a company has already invested in a truck and a driver, they’ll keep them around for several years. But in 20 years from now, I don’t expect to see a lot of human-driven trucks left.

I’m pleased to see that the government is taking this matter seriously, already trying to develop plans for what to do when long-haul trucks become fully robotic. I hope they can come up with a good plan in time.

Some jobs that will be automated away deserve to be automated away. I can’t shed very many tears for the loss of fast-food workers and grocery cashiers (which we can already see happening around us—been to a Taco Bell lately?); those are terrible jobs that no human being should have to do. And my only concern about automated telemarketing is that it makes telemarketing cheaper and therefore more common; I certainly am not worried about the fact that people won’t be working as telemarketers anymore.

But a lot of good jobs, even white-collar jobs, are at risk of automation. Algorithms are already performing at about the same level as human radiologists, contract reviewers, and insurance underwriters, and once they get substantially better, companies are going to have trouble justifying why they would hire a human who costs more and performs worse. Indeed, the very first job to be automated by information technology was a white-collar job: computer used to be a profession, not a machine.

Technological advancement is inherently difficult to predict: If we knew how future technology will work, we’d make it now. So any such prediction should contain large error bars: “20 years away” could mean we make a breakthrough next year, or it could stay “20 years away” for the next 50 years.

If we had a robust social safety net—a basic income, perhaps?—this would be fine. But our culture decided somewhere along the way that people only deserve to live well if they are currently performing paid services for a corporation, and as robots get better, corporations will find they don’t need so many people performing services. We could face up to this fact and use it as an opportunity for deeper reforms; but I fear that instead we’ll wait to act until the crisis is already upon us.

2 thoughts on “Will robots take our jobs? Not “if” but “when”.

  1. You write “Some jobs that will be automated away deserve to be automated away. I can’t shed very many tears for the loss of fast-food workers and grocery cashiers (which we can already see happening around us . . . those are terrible jobs that no human being should have to do.”
    Leaving aside those who do these menial jobs while planning to go up the ladder, where are the less competent, less ambitious people to be gainfully occupied? Aside from Yang’s universal basic income, what deeper reforms should we undertake?

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  2. I’m definitely a big fan of basic income, so that would certainly be one part of the solution. Aside from that, I think there are many kinds of low-skill but relatively satisfying work that are currently volunteer-based that could instead become paid jobs through public funds, like cleaning up parks, caring for shelter animals, and various forms of community organizing. These often provide public goods that are undersupplied by the market.

    Many of these would be part-time jobs, but the whole idea of automation is that it is increasing our productivity, so we can make more with less. We shouldn’t need to have everyone working full-time anymore.

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