Are Machines Taking Our Jobs? And Should We Be Scared?

Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg
August 16, 2013

This episode of Economics in Plain English tackles the pervasive fear that technology is making humans (or at least human work) obsolete. How long before the robots take over the jobs we do today -- and is it time to panic? Not just yet, senior business editor Derek Thompson explains in the video above. Decades of film footage from the Prelinger Archive illustrate the steady march of progress in America, from farms to factories and beyond, all thanks to technological innovation. Machines have been doing more and more of our work for us since the industrial revolution, and that's not a bad thing.

Don't miss Thompson's introduction to the project and the previous installments answering the questions, "Why is bottled water so expensive?" and "Are bottomless drinks good business?"



Are machines taking our jobs? And should we be scared?

Well machines and technology have been replacing our jobs for about as long as the concept of a “job” has existed. In the early 1800s, British textile workers called the Luddites launched a series of massive protests against fancy new spinning machines and looms. They had a point. These machines worked better than people worked alone. They did steal jobs. But eventually, these dreaded machines and the rest of the industrial revolution made the vast majority of workers much richer by making us all more productive.

Think about the U.S. In 1900, more than 40 percent of Americans worked on farms. Now it’s about 2 percent. Technology has largely replaced us. But this isn’t a sad story. Farm tech has made us richer, better fed, more productive. And it's freed up people who would otherwise be farmers to do all sorts of other cool stuff, like be neurosurgeons and software engineers. Just about everything that we consider awesome about the modern life has been made possible because technology liberated us from these farms.

But since machines are starting to take over not just farm jobs and factory jobs, but also white-collar professions, there's a spookier question. What happens if machines can do so many jobs that we just run out of work? What if software eats the legal industry? What if robots start doing the work of doctors? What if they start cooking and serving all the food in restaurants? And driving all of our cars? And stocking all of our warehouses? And manning all of our retail floors? Today we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that robots are really good at repetitive tasks and we're really good at managing them. But what if artificial intelligence rises to the point that robots are better at managing robots?

The honest answer is: I don’t know. I have no idea what would happen.

But isn’t that kind of the point of progress? To make the present obsolete? To find new ways to do the old things so that we free up space to invent new stuff. A farm economy could never have mass-produced airplanes, or designed wi-fi networks, or built the iPad. Our lives are immeasurably better because of all the human-replacing technology that came before us.

So to answer your question: Are robots replacing our jobs? Of course. Should you be scared? Well, some economists and some really smart people are. They fear that we’re nearing a threshold where robots learn to do our jobs faster than we find new things to do. But I don’t think we’re there just yet.


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