October 24, 2011

NYT: More Jobs Predicted for Machines, Not People

The New York Times has published an article about how robotics, automation and information technologies are increasingly impacting on the dwindling job market. The article was posted in consideration of a new book titled Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. Excerpt from the NYT article:
Technology has always displaced some work and jobs. Over the years, many experts have warned — mistakenly — that machines were gaining the upper hand. In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes warned of a “new disease” that he termed “technological unemployment,” the inability of the economy to create new jobs faster than jobs were lost to automation.

But Mr. Brynjolfsson and Mr. McAfee argue that the pace of automation has picked up in recent years because of a combination of technologies including robotics, numerically controlled machines, computerized inventory control, voice recognition and online commerce.

Faster, cheaper computers and increasingly clever software, the authors say, are giving machines capabilities that were once thought to be distinctively human, like understanding speech, translating from one language to another and recognizing patterns. So automation is rapidly moving beyond factories to jobs in call centers, marketing and sales — parts of the services sector, which provides most jobs in the economy.
Here's a description of the book:
Why has median income stopped rising in the US?

Why is the share of population that is working falling so rapidly?

Why are our economy and society are becoming more unequal?

A popular explanation right now is that the root cause underlying these symptoms is technological stagnation-- a slowdown in the kinds of ideas and inventions that bring progress and prosperity.

In Race Against the Machine, MIT's Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee present a very different explanation. Drawing on research by their team at the Center for Digital Business, they show that there's been no stagnation in technology -- in fact, the digital revolution is accelerating. Recent advances are the stuff of science fiction: computers now drive cars in traffic, translate between human languages effectively, and beat the best human Jeopardy! players.

As these examples show, digital technologies are rapidly encroaching on skills that used to belong to humans alone. This phenomenon is both broad and deep, and has profound economic implications. Many of these implications are positive; digital innovation increases productivity, reduces prices (sometimes to zero), and grows the overall economic pie.

But digital innovation has also changed how the economic pie is distributed, and here the news is not good for the median worker. As technology races ahead, it can leave many people behind. Workers whose skills have been mastered by computers have less to offer the job market, and see their wages and prospects shrink. Entrepreneurial business models, new organizational structures and different institutions are needed to ensure that the average worker is not left behind by cutting-edge machines.

In Race Against the Machine Brynjolfsson and McAfee bring together a range of statistics, examples, and arguments to show that technological progress is accelerating, and that this trend has deep consequences for skills, wages, and jobs. The book makes the case that employment prospects are grim for many today not because there's been technology has stagnated, but instead because we humans and our organizations aren't keeping up.

1 comment:

nazgulnarsil said...

most analysts seem to underestimate the frictional costs of human workers, which leads to underestimates of how quickly various automation becomes a cost effective proposition for a business.