Economists see more jobs for machines, not people

Steve Lohr / New York Times News Service /


Published Oct 26, 2011 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

A faltering economy explains much of the job shortage in America, but advancing technology has sharply magnified the impact, more so than is generally understood, according to two researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The automation of more and more work once done by humans is the central theme of “Race Against the Machine,” an e-book published Monday.

“Many workers, in short, are losing the race against the machine,” the authors write.

The authors, Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist and director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, and Andrew McAfee, associate director and principal research scientist at the center, are two of the nation’s leading experts on technology and productivity. The tone of alarm is a departure for the pair, whose previous research has focused mainly on the benefits of advancing technology.

Indeed, they were originally going to write a book titled, “The Digital Frontier,” about the “cornucopia of innovation that is going on,” McAfee said. Yet as the employment picture failed to brighten in the last two years, the two changed course to examine technology’s role in the jobless recovery.

The authors are not the only ones recently to point to the job fallout from technology. In the current issue of the McKinsey Quarterly, W. Brian Arthur, an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, warns that technology is quickly taking over service jobs, following the waves of automation of farm and factory work. “This last repository of jobs is shrinking — fewer of us in the future may have white-collar business process jobs — and we have a problem,” Arthur writes.

The MIT authors’ claim that automation is accelerating is not shared by some economists. Prominent among them are Robert Gordon of Northwestern and Tyler Cowen of George Mason University, who contend that productivity improvement owing to technological innovation rose from 1995 to 2004, but has trailed off since. Cowen emphasized that point in an e-book, “The Great Stagnation,” published this year.

But Brynjolfsson and 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.

Yet computers, the authors say, tend to be narrow and literal-minded, good at assigned tasks but at a loss when a solution requires intuition and creativity — human traits. A partnership, they assert, is the path to job creation in the future.

“In medicine, law, finance, retailing, manufacturing and even scientific discovery,” they write, “the key to winning the race is not to compete against machines but to compete with machines.”