How will a mass influx of robots affect human employment?
In the book Race Against the Machine, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT’s Sloan School of Management present a chart showing U.S. productivity, GDP, employment, and income from 1953 to 2011. The chart looks as you would expect from 1953 until the mid-1980s, with every one of the measures rising together: employees work more productively, companies make more money, and more hires occur as the middle class swells.
Then, during Reagan’s tenure, the bad news begins to show its face. First, even though productivity and GDP continue their upward arc, median household income starts to level off. That is unsettling, since it suggests that companies can get richer and yet employees can stop benefiting from increasing GDP: what happened to trickle-down? A decade later, in the mid-1990s, more trouble crops up: employment flattens as GDP and productivity continue even faster growth.
Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that these are signs of a true sea change in the dynamics of productivity and employment. Contrary to popular conceptions that all we need is more technological innovation to increase employment, they argue, technological innovation is itself among the forces behind the change.
The elephant in the room is how robotics will play out for human employment in the long term. New robots will take on advanced manufacturing, tutoring, scheduling, and customer relations. They operate equipment, manage construction, operate backhoes, and yes, even drive tomorrow’s cars.