Are Robots Taking Over Our Jobs?

Research shows that robots are very good at doing routine or repetitive tasks. And repetitive jobs are easier to automate – meaning that it can be programmed, so the robot can do it without human assistance. As computers has become faster and cheaper over the years, it’s now possible to build robots to do more routine tasks previously done by humans. The tasks can be divided into steps and then into computer code for a computer to duplicate. Some of these tasks are mathematical calculations, information retrieval, and data sorting. It’s harder to automate tasks that require flexibility, judgment, intuition, creativity, and common sense.

Automation does not mean that jobs with routine or repetitive tasks will simply disappear. When ATMs appeared in the 1970s, a lot of people worried that they would replace bank branches and tellers and that people will lose their jobs. Actually, the arrival of ATMs resulted in an increase of the number of bank branches. Why? Because while the number of tellers per branch decreased, more challening employment opportunities for tellers opened up. There were more tellers employed in 2010 than in 1980, and their duties have since expanded to include “relationship banking”—something ATMs cannot do.

A similar effect happened in the Auto Manufacturing. While a lot of manual labor jobs were replaced by machines, cars have become more complex, requiring more humans using their brains. As a result, it takes more human labor to produce a car now than in the past.

Advancement in technology will likely change the types of jobs available and what those jobs pay. As new technology take away routine work, economists suggest that polarization will happen, which means that many jobs in the “middle” will disappear through automation, but the number of low-skill/low-income jobs and high-skill/high-income jobs will see gains. This makes some worry that the gap between high-income workers and middle- and low-income workers will grow even wider. Will it?

Low-skill jobs often require skills such as adaptability, physical mobility, and interpersonal interaction—food preparation and serving, cleaning and janitorial services, home healthcare, hair styling—which are difficult to replicate through automation.

On the other side are “abstract” jobs that require skills such as problem-solving, intuition, creativity, and persuasion; in the job market these are professional, technical, and managerial positions. These workers generally have a lot of education, and the jobs require inductive reasoning, communication, and specialized skills. And they are also difficult to replicate through automation.

The fact is, productivity-enhancing new technology has changed the economy in dramatic ways over the past two centuries, but it has not made human labor obsolete. Many economists see new technology and automation as a trend that has been happening for most of human history, and it will continue to happen in the future.

The challenge is in helping future workers with the skills they need to be competitive and productive in an ever changing economy.

Source: Economic Research St. Louis Fed

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