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:

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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 Though they had been replaced by rail for long-distance haulage and by steam engines for driving machinery, they still plowed fields, hauled wagons and carriages short distances, pulled boats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.

The Parable of the Dishwasher

JDN 2456478

Much like free trade, technological unemployment is an issue where the consensus opinion among economists diverges quite sharply from that of the general population.

Enough people think that “robots taking our jobs” is something bad that I’ve seen a fair number of memes like this:

EVERY TIME you use the Self Checkout you are ELIMINATING JOBS!

But like almost all economists, I think that self-checkouts, robots, and automation in general are a pretty good thing. They do have a few downsides, chiefly in terms of forcing us to make transitions that are costly and painful; but in general I want more robots, not fewer.

To help turn you toward this view, I offer a parable.

Suppose we have a family, the (stereo)typical American family with a father, a mother, and two kids, a boy named Joe and a girl named Sue.

The kids do chores for their allowance, and split them as follows: Joe always does the dishes, and Sue always vacuums the carpet. They both spend about 1 hour per week and they both get paid $10 a week.

But one day, Dad decides to buy a dishwasher. This dramatically cuts down the time it takes Joe to do the dishes; where he used to spend 1 hour washing dishes, now he can load the dishwasher and get it done in 5 minutes.

  1. Mom suggests they just sell back the dishwasher to get rid of the problem.
  2. Dad says that Joe should now only be paid for the 5 minutes he works each week, so he would now be paid $0.83 per week. (He’s not buying a lot of video games on that allowance.)
  3. Joe protests that he gets the same amount of work done, so he should be paid the same $10 for doing it.
  4. Sue says it would be unfair for her to have to work so much more than Joe, and has a different solution: They’ll trade off the two sets of chores each week, and they should of course get paid the same amount of money for getting the same amount of work done—$10 per kid per week, for an average of 32.5 minutes of work each.

Which of those solutions sounds the most sensible to you?

Mom’s solution is clearly the worst, right? It’s the Luddite solution, the one that throws away technological progress and makes everything less efficient. Yet that is the solution being offered by people who say “Don’t use the self-checkout machine!” Indeed, anyone who speaks of the virtues of “hard work” is really speaking Mom’s language here; they should be talking about the virtues of getting things done. The purpose of washing dishes is to have clean dishes, not to “work hard”. And likewise, when we construct bridges or make cars or write books or solve equations, our goal should be to get that thing done—not to fulfill some sense of moral obligation to prove our worthiness through hard work.

Joe’s solution is what neoclassical economics says should happen—higher productivity should yield higher wages, so the same amount of production should yield the same pay. This seems like it could work, but empirically it rarely happens. There’s also something vaguely unfair about it; if productivity increases in your industry but not in someone else’s, you get to cut your work hours dramatically while they are stuck working just as hard as before.

Dad’s “solution” is clearly terrible, and makes no sense at all. Yet this is what we actually tend to observe—capital owners appropriate all (or nearly all) the benefits of the new technology, and workers get displaced or get ever-smaller wages. (I talked about that in a recent post.)

It’s Sue’s solution that really seems to make the most sense, isn’t it? When one type of work becomes more efficient, people should shift into different types of labor so that people can work fewer hours—and wages should rise enough that incomes remain the same. “Baumol’s disease” is not a disease—it is the primary means by which capitalism raises human welfare. (That’s why I prefer to use the term “Baumol Effect” instead.)

One problem with this in practice is that sometimes people can’t switch into other industries. That’s a little hard to imagine in this case, but let’s stipulate that for some reason Joe can’t do the vacuuming. Maybe he has some sort of injury that makes it painful to use the vacuum cleaner, but doesn’t impair his ability to wash dishes. Or maybe he has a severe dust allergy, so bad that the dust thrown up by the vacuum cleaner sends him into fits of coughing.

In that case I think we’re back to Joe’s solution; he should get paid the same for getting the same amount of work done. I’m actually tempted to say that Sue should get paid more, to compensate her for the unfairness; but in the real world there is a pretty harsh budget constraint there, so we need to essentially pretend that Dad only has $20 per week to give out in allowances. A possible compromise would be to raise Sue up to $12 and cut Joe down to $8; Joe will probably still be better off than he was, because he has that extra 55 minutes of free time each week for which he only had to “pay” $2. This also makes the incentives work out better—Joe doesn’t have a reason to malinger and exaggerate his dust allergy just to get out of doing the vacuuming, since he would actually get paid more if he were willing to do the vacuuming; but if his allergy really is that bad, he can still do okay otherwise. (There’s a lesson here for the proper structure of Social Security Disability, methinks.)

But you know what really seems like the best solution? Buy a Roomba.

Buy a Roomba, make it Sue’s job to spend 5 minutes a week keeping the Roomba working at vacuuming the carpet, and continue paying both kids $10 per week. Give them both 55 minutes more per week to hang out with their friends or play video games. Whether you think of this $10 as a “higher wage” for higher productivity or simply an allowance they get anyway—a basic income—ultimately doesn’t matter all that much. The point is that everyone gets enough money and nobody has to work very much, because the robots do everything.

And now, hopefully you see why I think we need more robots, not fewer.

Of course, like any simple analogy, this isn’t perfect; it may be difficult to reduce the hours in some jobs or move more people into them. There are a lot of additional frictions and complications that go into the real-world problem of achieving equitable labor markets. But I hope I’ve gotten across the basic idea that robots are not the problem, and could in fact be the solution–not just to our current labor market woes, but to the very problem of wage labor itself.

My ultimate goal is a world where “work” itself is fundamentally redefined—so that it always means the creative sense “This painting is some of my best work.” and not the menial sense “Sweeping this floor is so much work!”; so that human beings do things because we want to do them, because they are worth doing, and not because some employer is holding our food and housing hostage if we don’t.

But that will require our whole society to rethink a lot of our core assumptions about work, jobs, and economics in general. We’re so invested in this idea that “hard work” is inherently virtuous that we forgot the purpose of an economy was to get things done. Work is not a benefit; work is a cost. Costs are to be reduced. Puritanical sexual norms have been extremely damaging to American society, but time will tell if Puritanical work ethic actually does more damage to our long-term future.