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human-machine collaboration Are robots likely to replace labor at an increasing rate? Or, are robots and labor sufficiently complimentary as inputs that there will be a continuing role for humans in production? The first argument has been made by pessimists and Luddites for at least two centuries, often hysterically, and they have been consistently wrong, as Mark Mills demonstrates in “The Data Are Clear: Robots Do Not Create Unemployment!

Of course, “labor” has many facets: there is physical labor, there are skilled crafts, and there is so-called knowledge work; many other categories and sub-categories can be delineated. Mills makes the simple distinction between “drudgery” and higher-level “cognitive chores,” and he notes that automation has primarily functioned to eliminate the former. He also emphasizes that over time, automation has actually given rise to various cognitive chores that were never imagined prior to the substitution of capital for human drudgery. In this sense, new forms of labor are seen to be complimentary to capital. So, at once, the automation of tasks is both “labor-saving” and generative of new human functionality. There is every reason to believe that this process will continue to play out as robots begin to collaborate with humans in more complex ways.

Mills links to this interesting paper by David Autor of MIT, which the author Autor recently presented at the Federal Reserve’s annual conference in Jackson Hole, WY. The paper offers an interpreted history of the labor market over the five decades since the computor revolution. He summarizes the thrust of his thinking on the subject by appealing to the paradox that “our tacit knowledge of how the world works often exceeds our explicit understanding.” This implies that technological advance can and does tend to create expansive opportunities for humans. Autor says:

… journalists and expert commentators overstate the extent of machine substitution for human labor and ignore the strong complementarities. The challenges to substituting machines for workers in tasks requiring adaptability, common sense, and creativity remain immense.

Autor and Mills both note that automation necessarily leads to reduced demand for certain types of labor, and that the process can lead to severe dislocations and losses for many individuals in the short run. Autor also notes that some lower-level tasks are not yet especially amenable to automation, and that workers in such occupations are unlikely to benefit as automation takes place elsewhere. This serves to emphasize the importance of gaining the kinds of complex skills that can be of value in collaboration with more intelligent machinery. In other words, investment in human capital will be as valuable as ever.