New research by economists Acemoglu and Restrepo gives specifics about the substitution of capital, in the form of robotics, for labor. From the Washington Post:
Industrial robots alone have eliminated up to 670,000 American jobs
between 1990 and 2007, according to new research from MIT’s Daron
Acemoglu and Boston University’s Pascual Restrepo.
The number is
stunning on the face of it, and many have interpreted the study as an
indictment of technological change — a sign that “robots are winning the race for American jobs.” But the bigger takeaway is that the nation has been ill-equipped to deal with the upheaval caused by automation.
researchers estimate that half of the job losses resulted from robots
directly replacing workers. The rest of the jobs disappeared from
elsewhere in the local community. It seems that after a factory sheds
workers, that economic pain reverberates, triggering further
unemployment at, say, the grocery store or the neighborhood car
In a way, this is surprising. Economists understand
that automation has costs, but they have largely emphasized the
benefits: Machines makes things cheaper, and they free up workers to do
other jobs. For instance, 41 percent of Americans
were farmers a century ago, but thanks to tractors and mechanical
harvesters, only 2 percent work in the agriculture today. The rest of us
now can now aspire to be programmers or anesthesiologists or DJs or
The latest study reveals that for manufacturing
workers, the process of adjusting to technological change has been much
slower and more painful than most experts thought. “We
were looking at a span of 20 years, so in that timeframe, you would
expect that manufacturing workers would be able to find other
employment,” Restrepo said. Instead, not only did the factory jobs
vanish, but other local jobs disappeared too. Acemoglu and Restrepo say
that every industrial robot eliminated about three manufacturing
positions, plus three more jobs from around town.
Now the robots are coming for my job and eventually for yours. Is it an inevitable change?