The Robots Are Coming, but Are They Really Taking Our Jobs?

A new study shows experts are split on whether artificial intelligence will boost—or decimate—the economy. 
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Francois Lenoir/Reuters

Here's what we can agree on: The robots are coming. They're coming to your house, to your doctor's office, to your car, and to your favorite coffee shop. By 2025, technologists believe artificial intelligence will permeate wide swaths of day-to-day life. 

And, obviously, these robots are going to take some human jobs. Machines have been displacing humans this way for centuries. What's less clear is whether the overall economic and employment picture for humans will be bleaker or brighter as a result. 

In a survey the Pew Research Center published today, nearly 2,000 technologists, engineers, and other experts were "deeply divided" on how advances in artificial intelligence will change the economy. On one hand, giving robots some human jobs will free up humans to focus on things that only we can do. Then again, while some highly-skilled workers will thrive in this robot-filled future, many, many others are likely to be forced into lower-paying jobs at best—"or permanent unemployment at worst."

And the experts are fairly evenly split on what this will mean for society. About 48 percent of them said they believe robots will have displaced "significant" number of blue-collar and white-collar workers in the next 10 years, which will widen the income gap, exacerbate unemployment, and make life generally worse for a lot of people. But 52 percent of those surveyed predict that robots won't displace more jobs than they create by 2025. While many existing jobs will be turned over to the machines, this cohort says, "human ingenuity will create new jobs, industries, and ways to make a living, just as it has been doing since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution."

The latter view is a common refrain in the technology sector. When machines replace humans, humans are better off, the argument goes. “Historically, technology has created more jobs than it destroys," Google's Vint Cerf told Pew, "and there is no reason to think otherwise in this case. Someone has to make and service all these advanced devices.”

And yet, just because an industry survives a major transition doesn't mean the workers who are trained in the old way of doing things emerge unscathed—especially for those who don't have the skills or experience to adapt to new systems. In other words, humans may have figured out a way forward after the Industrial Revolution, but many of them suffered before society as a whole benefitted from the widespread innovation spurred by all that change. 

"There is great pain down the road for everyone as new realities are addressed," said Mike Roberts, president emeritus of ICANN. "The only question is how soon.”

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Adrienne LaFrance

Adrienne LaFrance is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Technology Channel. Previously she worked as an investigative reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat, Nieman Journalism Lab, and WBURMore

Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gawker, The Awl, and several other publications. 
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