Last week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he wasn’t worried at all about advancing artificial intelligence taking over jobs anytime soon. In fact, he said, he wouldn’t be worried about it for for another 50 to 100 years.
As I wrote recently, many experts would disagree with the notion that displacement—or at the very least, shifts—in the labor market due to automation are that far afield. Recent studies from McKinsey and the economists Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne estimate that around 45 percent of workers currently perform tasks that could be automated in the near future. And the World Bank estimates that around 57 percent of jobs could be automated within the next 20 years.
In a new paper, two economists—Daron Acemoglu, of MIT, and Pascual Restrepo, of Boston University—endeavor to answer the question of what an increasing number of robots will mean for workers. Acemoglu and Restrepo look to the (recent) past, studying how the increased use of industrial robots affected local labor markets between 1990 and 2007. These robots, defined as machines that are fully autonomous and can be reprogrammed for a variety of tasks, from welding to painting, increased fourfold between 1993 and 2003 in the U.S. and Europe. According to some estimates there are now more than 1.5 million such machines operating in just these two continents—a number that could grow to between 4 to 6 million in less than a decade.