Can a Robot Do Your Job?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Robotic arm (Nicholas Lan/flickr)

If you've ever seen 'Terminator,' you know how frightening it can be for angry robots to take over the world. But how about friendly robots who can do your job quicker, cheaper, and more efficiently than you do? And these robots don't show up late or ask for overtime. 

It's already happened — and is happening — in plenty of industries. Take farming. Before the Industrial Revolution, thousands of laborers were threshers in the fields. Once the mechanized thresher hit the markets and eventually sold for fairly cheap prices, those jobs were lost to mechanization.

Displaced farmers managed to find employment in other burgeoning sectors, but that's becoming harder to do in the modern economy, according to Erik Brynjolfsson, professor at the M.I.T.'s Sloan School of Management. Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, a research scientist at M.I.T.'s Center for Digital Business, co-wrote “Race Against the Machine,” explaining that even as the economy recovers, the amount of jobs will not increase due to technological innovation and globalization. 

"Technology's always been creating jobs, and it's always been destroying jobs," Brynjolfsson says. "It's part of our economy." At one point, the professor estimates, around 90 percent of workers labored in the agriculture sector. Since the Industrial Revolution and other advancements, that figure has dropped to two percent. 

"This time, however, the pace of job destruction as digital technologies in particular automate routine tasks is happening a lot faster, and the job creation side of the equation isn't keeping up," Brynjolfsson says. Companies have begun to implement labor in a wide variety of fields, such as tech support, warehouse operations, and call centers. Even the legal profession may not be safe — there are  tools that do much of the discovery work that young associates do. 

Brynjolfsson points to Watson, IBM's supercomputer that beat out its human opponents on the show Jeopardy, including perennial champion Ken Jennings. Now off the game show circuit, Watson has excelled during stints in a tech support call center, and has even applied to and been given jobs on Wall Street and in medical centers. 

Technology's rapid advances are certainly impressive, but the implementation of those advances is already shouldering aside many workers who make up the middle class, making for serious structural changes in the economy. "There's been job polarization where those routine tasks that make up the bulk of middle class work," Brynjolfsson says. Think of a tax preparer that now has to compete with Turbo Tax or payroll clerks, or travel agents. All those types jobs have really been hit the hardest and have fallen tremendously."

These middle-class jobs face considerably more risk than either extreme. According to Brynjolfsson, the median wage for the middle class is lower than it was 15 years ago. People at the top of the income ladder have seen their incomes soar, but what the professor finds the most interesting is the resilience of low wage earners. "Gardeners, barbers, people who do physical work that's non-routine — they've actually done OK," the professor says. "They haven't been automated as quickly as those people in the middle of the income distribution. It's serious job polarization." 


Erik Brynjolfsson

Produced by:

Robert Balint and Joe Hernandez

Comments [17]

Matt from Australia

It reminds me of this song :

where the last battle is fought between robots and mammals to see who command the next millenium....

Jul. 16 2012 08:14 PM
Paulette from Queens

I'm a teacher. I've always thought my job was safe, and then my husband came up with an entire scenario where technology takes over my role. Artificial intelligence imbedded in educational programming enables each student to take personality/psychology tests matching them with the best "personalized" "teacher" to lead them through all sorts of subject classes. This is probably not as far away as I would like to think as there are plenty of educational technology - language courses (Rosetta Stone), iTunesU, plenty of tutoring programs, etc.

I realize someone has to write these - but most teachers thrive on interaction with their students... As much as I argue that students need human interaction and guidance, let's face it, the education system operates without many things that students need. Right now, the technology is not advanced enough (i think), and it is still cost prohibitive. Let's hope it stays that way...

Jul. 11 2012 04:02 PM
RichK from NJ

Erin - yes, he's threatened, unless he is one of those who changes his skills to steer HOW those documents are digitized. No system out there looks around corners very well, yet. Been there, changed that, lived to tell, at least for a while.
Anna nails it too. If there are even 2 highly qualified people for every job available, salaries depress. If the "person" hiring is a computer, programmed to look for an impossible assortment of skills, you never reach the human who might say "This person's skills are unique for where we're going, and what he doesn't know is easy to learn. Call him in, and fix that job description."

Jul. 11 2012 03:52 PM
Roxie Munro from Long Ilsand City, NY

I write and illustrate children's picture books - don't know how this can be done by technology. Some illustration can be done by a computer, but children's books have a lot of variety and different styles, including odd-ball humor. And require quirky original ideas.

Jul. 11 2012 03:25 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn

Of course, I am worried about losing my job as a smart ass, but first let me correct the Professor about how wrong he is.

The Professor is completely wrong about Nannies...

I take care of my two kids after school every day. I have seen horrible Nannies who spend all their time on their phones texting and ignoring the kids they are supposed to be watching.

I have even snitched on Nannies to parents when the Nanny so completely does not have a clue as to where or what the kids are doing. And kids can do really bad stuff. And the parents have kept that same Nanny without dismissal.

So, in the future Nannies who won't kiss boo-boos won't be necessary because the parents won't know that anyone is supposed to kiss boo-boos. (This might only be in parts of Brooklyn and not the rest of the world.

After listening to this conversation today I had a very Phillip K. Dickian moment:

I wondered if in a couple of years from now, John Hockenberry would be calling and interviewing a Computer... A computer Professor at MIT about some erosion of the Human Academic world. I told you, very dark and Phillip K, Dick.

I continued down the dark, paranoid, future telling vision of Phillip K. Dick ,and heard in my head a Computer who had his own radio show interviewing John Hockenberry about what he was doing with his time, now that he had been replaced. The computer and John went at it.

Now, as a Smart Ass my job is fairly secure in the world... except that... well, there has been an erosion of things not being as funny as they used to be because people are worried about their jobs and their future... and they are having a hard time laughing when they are hurting so much

Maybe my job as a Smart Ass isn't as secure as I thought. Still, I do like poking bubbles. Maybe I will call that guy at MIT and see if they can make a Smart Ass Computer

Jul. 11 2012 11:58 AM
anna from new york

Well, that's easy. Five new professional picture framers who will be cheaper.
And the population which doesn't care about you and your picture frames.
I know, know ... it's counting on rich bastards. I wouldn't. They know that pictures are cumbersome when fleeing.

Jul. 11 2012 11:43 AM
sandi from massachusetts

I'm a professional picture framer and have been for 24 years. What kind of machine would replace me?

Jul. 11 2012 11:23 AM
anna from new york

One more comment. Those few who are at the moment protected to a degree (some narrow specialists who started at better times or just plain rich bastards) are wrong to feel glee. Two things (at least) - it's abnormal to be happy when so much unhappiness is around and being in a "let them cake" (or rather consequences) situation can me interesting but rarely pleasant.
"History teaches" that specialists' heads fall as fast as any other head.

Jul. 11 2012 11:03 AM
anna from new york

Some good comments. Jacob, of course. The problem is systemic and should be addressed as such. Sashkyn, of course.

Jul. 11 2012 10:50 AM
Angel from Miami, FL

I, robot. (Maybe coworkers just say that 'cause they liked the last guy more than me.)

Jul. 11 2012 10:17 AM
Sashkyn Chevalier from Charlotte, NC

Professor is correct. Regarding the nanny and other jobs like barbers etc. when middle class lose their jobs they will need less nannies and cut their own hair. I cut my own, mowe our yard, clean our house. Middle class will complete for ever lower wage jobs, further putting pressure on the wages for those jobs especially when when more decent paying jobs are automated or exported. It is a vicious cycle.

Jul. 11 2012 09:37 AM
Erin from PA

I am a stay at home mom, and I'm not worried about a Robot taking my job. My husband however is a file clerk and administrative assistant for the state, and if the government ever decides to move away from paper documents to digital files he will be out of a job. It's thanks to the redundancy and inefficiency of state government that he has a job at all.

Jul. 11 2012 09:30 AM
Jacob from Brooklyn

Read "Winner-Take-All Politics" by Hacker and Pierson. They demonstrate clearly that the skills-based technological change (or structural) explanation of inequality is nonsense. Middle class jobs would be safer if we had a robust social movement to challenge systemic inequality.

Jul. 11 2012 09:20 AM
anna from new york

I am not American born and I am familiar with such concepts as "history" "society" "systemic problem" "systemic collapse," "descent into madness" "accumulation of problems." etc.
I don't vote for Obama (and I am not going to vote at all), but I am pretty sure that he is more a sign of a problem (domestically, it's different internationally) than the actual problem. The fact that the population elects someone who smiles broadly and gives speeches about "hope, unity, change" when the country is in a real trouble is symptomatic - it's a bad sign of problems outside the President.
I do think that is unqualified to represent the country internationally - he's mismanaging the world at one of the most dangerous moments.

Jul. 11 2012 08:07 AM
anna from new york

My former foreign born hairdresser who had done quite well in her spa salon (oh, ah, salon) on the East Side, got very irritated several years ago when she realized that many unemployed kids ... well ... opened their spa salons. It was even before Columbia undergraduates started to go into occupations, such as nursing and the like. When there are so many hands eager to offer human touch, there can be a problem. Not true, friends? Not to mention the fact, the humans needing human touch can go somewhere else for this touch using the same technology.

Jul. 11 2012 07:56 AM

Do not fault the President and his policies for unemployment. Blame the society, the country, the politics, the culture and now the robots?

Jul. 11 2012 07:46 AM
anna from new york

The professor is right. People are delusional. They miss a tiny detail - the competition. When people loose their jobs, some of them switch into what looks like secure occupation. In addition, young newcomers adjust their training to their job prospects. Moreover, people shouldn't forget about "insourcing."
When everyone wants her job, the caller nanny might loose hers.
In other words, not a single zombie is safe. It's time for people to replace their ideology "I, I, I, me, me, me; I'll push, and I'll grab and I'll do well" with something more civilized. Look up the word "society," friends.

Jul. 11 2012 07:44 AM

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