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The Droids Are Coming

By Brock N. Meeks, Ideas Lab September 12, 2013

When we look at the ability of technology to encroach on skills and jobs and tasks that used to belong to human beings alone, it's pretty overwhelming.

“The Androids are coming,” says Andrew McAfee, Principal Research Scientist, MIT Sloan School of Management.  And they are taking aim at a big portion of the jobs we humans do today.  And while droids would free us from “drudgery and toil and hard labor,” McAfee says.  “It would not be great news for someone trying to offer their labor in the labor force.

McAfee, appearing at a debate with Information Technology and Innovation Foundation President Robert Atkinson—in part to counter Atkinson’s earlier Ideas Lab piece “Robots Are Not the Enemy,”—made the case about technology’s impact on  employment.

“The question that we’re confronting today is, ‘Is technology responsible for American job loss?’” McAfee said.  “I want to end the suspense right now.  The answer is ‘yes,’ technology is partially responsible for what’s going on with employment these days.”

Robert Atkinson, Robert Mcfee

ITIF President Robert Atkinson (left) debates MIT’s Andrew McAfee on technology’s impact on employment.

McAfee set out explaining that he is a fan of technology and that technological progress is leading us into “a second machine age, a time of great abundance were we are all going to have access to greater wealth with less work.”  And while he acknowledged that was a very optimistic outlook, he cautioned to not call it “utopian,” something he tries very hard not to be, he said.  “A Utopian view would be the idea that everything is for the best for everyone in this best of all possible worlds.  I wish that were the case, it’s not quite the case.”

McAfee wove a tale of 200 years of technological progress that kicked off in earnest with the first Industrial Revolution.  And he gave a nod to Atkinson saying “and for most of that time, Rob has the story exactly right.  Technological progress was unambiguously good news for poor persons.  It raised their wages instead of lowering them and it actually created even more jobs than it was destroying.”

But after nearly 200 years of the Luddite Fallacy holding true, the tables have turned, McAfee asserts.  “There is no economic law that says that technological progress has to raise all boats equally,” McAfee said.   “And that it’s perfectly possible for this kind of progress to be bias, in other words, to favor some groups at the expense of others.”   He pointed to three types:

  • Skills bias technological change or the idea that technology, in general, favors more skilled workers over less skilled one.  Reason:  less skilled workers tend to do work that is easily replicated by machines.
  • Capital bias technological change, which is the idea that technological progress can alter the equation of capital versus labor.
  • Superstar bias technological change, which is the notion that progress will favor the absolute top at the expense of everyone else.

McAfee pointed to data that showed a graph of employment and productivity and wages and GDP for America in the post-World War II era.  It was a time of unprecedented growth, with each line on the chart rising in lockstep.  But things start to change dramatically.  “My version of events is that one of the major reasons things started to change is that we invented the computer,” McAfee said.

McAfee acknowledged that “technological progress in the computer revolution were not the only things happening in recent decades,” that had an impact on slow growth, there were big, global economic stories, too.  “There has been globalization and out-sourcing… there have been tax and policy changes and there have been, unfortunately, worldwide debt crisis,” he said.

McAfee agreed with Atkinson that one can’t predict what’s going to happen 20, 30 or 40 years down the road; however, that’s “not because [technology] keeps low-balling our expectations, it’s because it keeps out-stripping our expectations,” he said.  However, “to think that we are not in a new age because of information technology and all it’s associated advances is just incredibly shortsighted,” he said.

McAfee ended with a short monologue:

“The point I want to leave you with is that the Androids are coming.  They’re not going to come in a science-fiction form like we see in the Matrix or Terminator movies.  They’re not going to look like the Androids we see in science fiction.  But when we look at technological progress and the ability of technology, just in recent years, to encroach on skills and jobs and tasks that used to belong to human beings alone, it’s pretty overwhelming.  I don’t know if in 20, 30, 40 years we’re going to have computers that write our songs and write our novels and write poetry for us.  I sincerely hope we don’t.

“I like to believe there is something ineffable about the human mind, but the encroachment is absolutely undeniable.  And the one thing I’ve learned about technological progress after studying it for quite a while is never say never.”

Brock N. Meeks is Editor of Ideas Lab.