How to Freak Out Responsibly About the Rise of the Robots

It's fun to imagine an economy where machines are smarter than humans. But we don't need  an artificial crisis over artificial intelligence.

615 robot reuters 1.jpg
Reuters

It's become very fashionable very quickly to talk about robots and their insatiable appetite for your job. Industrial machines can and do replace human beings in car factories, electronics plans, and food manufacturing centers. But the editorial rage against the machines is messy, and the automatons might not have as much to do with our current jobs crisis as the volume of robot reportage might suggest.

Let's say it upfront: Technology can replace jobs and (at least temporarily) increase income inequality. From the spinning jenny to those massive mechanical arms flying wildly around car assembly lines, technology raises productivity by helping workers accomplish more in less time (i.e.: put a power drill in a human hand) and by replacing workers altogether (i.e.: build a power-drilling bot).

Some worry that AI is getting so smart that we're making workers replaceable at an accelerating rate -- not just with car assembly bots, but also with big data and software that do white-collar work. Technology of the robot and non-robot variety has been replacing people for decades. ATM machines and airport kiosks tellers and simple office software does the work of thousands of tellers, and attendants, and office assistants better than humans ever could. But we had many of these technologies in the 1990s when unemployment was about 4 percent. So what's changed?

ROBOT PRESENT

The robot fascination is leading some to think we are living through a particularly disruptive Age of Robots right now, and that it might even be contributing to the slow recovery. Maybe, but the case is far from clear. In the Financial Times, the super-sharp Edward Luce advances some frightening thinking about the future of robots shoving workers out their office chairs under the admonishing headline (which he might not have written, himself) "Obama must face the rise of the robots." 

Must he, though? Where is the evidence that the Obama recovery has been slowed by a recent acceleration of industrial bots, as Luce suggests? In fact, Obama's so-called jobless recovery has been significantly more "jobful" than the recovery we had in 2001 when you compare the pace of private sector jobs created. The labor recovery has been only slightly worse than our pace following the early '90s slowdown.

Screen Shot 2012-08-03 at 7.14.25 AM.png

You might respond that all of these recoveries have been stamped out by accelerating technology. And that might be true. But if it is true, you would expect two things to be true, as well. First, you would expect GDP to grow considerably faster than jobs, as technology added to productivity without adding to payrolls. Second, it should be easy to make the case the technology is replacing workers on a massive scale because the most technologically advanced sectors should be performing the worst.

Real GDP growth in 2011 and 2012 barely kissed 2 percent, which is almost fine for a healthy economy and really not at all fine for a recovery. In that time, we added a similarly fine but not especially remarkable 180,000 jobs per month. This doesn't look to me like an AI nightmare. It looks more like an old-fashioned demand-starved economy.

When you tab over to the sector-by-sector breakdown of jobs lost and gained between 2008 and 2012, you find construction and manufacturing scraping the bottom. Let's draw a bright white line between these two. Construction, which is clearly the economy's worst-performance industry, hasn't had much productivity growth, according to the analysis from the McKinsey Global Institute, and its miserable performance reflects a simple truth that has nothing to do with robots. Nobody's buying houses.

Presented by

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Business

Just In