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Robot Employment Survival 101

Fear not the rise of the machines? That appears to be the advice given by MIT economist David H. Autor in a paper he recently presented [1] at the Kansas City Fed’s symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Responding to a significant uptick in economists’ concern over the effects of automation on employment, including the “stunning” results of a poll suggesting “that a plurality of mainstream economists has accepted—at least tentatively—the proposition that a decade of technological advancement has made the median worker no better off, and possibly worse off,” Autor suggests that it will be a lot harder to automate us all away than many journalists and expert commentators have indicated.

Autor argues that “Polanyi’s paradox,” whereby “We can know more than we can tell…” saves us from the threat of total automation dislocation, because there will always be jobs that rely on a variety of particularly human skills and tasks, skills and tasks that we can’t entirely explain to ourselves, much less to a computer. As the philosopher Michael Polanyi himself put it, “The skill of a driver cannot be replaced by a thorough schooling in the theory of the motorcar; the knowledge I have of my own body differs altogether from the knowledge of its physiology.”

While jobs consisting almost entirely of routine tasks, i.e. those easily codified into rules that can then be automated, have been and will continue to be replaced by machine labor, then, there is according to Autor a natural buffer to keep many people employed (if not necessarily well paid). In fact, Autor sees a significant opportunity for computer-enhanced human labor, for “tasks that cannot be substituted by computerization are generally complemented by it.” The construction worker, in his example, has to manage too many variables in a fluid environment to be automated away. However, he can be given a backhoe to replace his shovel, enhancing the productivity of his labor while making backhoe-trained workers more valuable than the merely shovel-ready.

This is a blue-collar example of “skill-biased technical change,” more traditionally described by [2] Autor’s fellow MIT professors (and techno-employment pessimists) Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee:

Technologies like robotics, numerically controlled machines, computerized inventory control, and automatic transcription have been substituting for routine tasks, displacing those workers. Meanwhile other technologies like data visualization, analytics, high-speed communications, and rapid prototyping have augmented the contributions of more abstract and data-driven reasoning, increasing the value of those jobs.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee discuss in their book a polarization of the employment market, where high-skill abstract-task intensive jobs are increasingly well compensated, and well complemented by machine labor. Low-skill Polanyi paradox jobs, like janitorial work and home health care, are also insulated from being automated away, but as Autor describes it, they are too well-insulated to even benefit from automation complementing their labor. Because their jobs require only the minimal amount of human reasoning that any competent adult can provide, their wages are depressed by the large supply of interchangeable labor. Middle-skill jobs, however, are nearly wiped out in Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s analysis.

Here, too, Autor finds some reason for more optimism. He concludes that “employment polarization will not continue indefinitely,” for “While many middle-skill tasks are susceptible to automation, many middle-skill jobs demand a mixture of tasks from across the skill spectrum.” Moreover, “many of the tasks currently bundled into these jobs cannot readily be unbundled—with machines performing the middle-skill tasks and workers performing the residual—without a significant drop in quality.” Autor’s example here is the technical support call center where a human is retained as a social conveyance device for the troubleshooting heuristics of the computer system sitting in front of him. That may seem like efficient low-skill complementarity, but it in fact turns out to be very frustrating to discover that the technical support person has no knowledge, creativity, or initiative beyond what the computer tells them to read. Autor says “this is generally not a productive form of work organization because it fails to harness the complementaries between technical and interpersonal skills.”

Both Autor and Brynjolfsson and McAfee describe how systems are redesigned in order to take advantage of automation, however. Brynjolfsson and McAfee wrote that “a key aspect of SBTC was not just the skills of those working with computers, but more importantly the broader changes in work organization that were made possible by information technology.” They continued, “It was not so much that those directly working with computers had to be more skilled, but rather that whole production processes, and even industries, were reengineered to exploit powerful new information technologies.” Autor gives the example of Amazon, formerly reliant on low-skill runners to pick their products for shipping, dashing around the warehouse, bringing in Kiva Systems to design a more robot-friendly system where the shelves were programmed to come to the pickers, reducing the human job to only that task that could not be exported.


As the automated economy progresses, we would do well to remember that, while there is certainly a baked-in pattern and logic to computerized work, the programming away of jobs is performed by people. Programmers and management consultants decide how best to “reengineer” “whole production processes, and even industries” to take advantage of the capabilities of computers. That it so happens that jobs resembling those of the programmers and consultants, jobs high in abstraction, turn out to also be those best complemented, rather than replaced, by automation may be more than convenient.

The seemingly mundane routinized tasks of the Amazon picker, or the retail worker, or the technical support specialist may seem to be little more than drudgery and tasks to be automated. But, as Autor describes in several contexts, there are many ways in which those routine tasks can be embedded in more comprehensive work environments, and computerization can add value to the job as it stands. The trick is, the programmer and the consultant have to see the job in all its particularity before they could know how to complement it. They rarely do, and so those jobs are rarely complemented. They have to see how the support specialist uses his whole repertoire of human advantages before they replace him with a screen reader.

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#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 25, 2014 @ 12:38 pm

What drives it is the purpose of the system for those who own and control it: to cost them as little as possible to generate huge profits for themselves. There is no design involved to benefit society at large or those who are not the owners whatsoever. If it could be done, they would neither employ or pay anyone at all in order to maximize returns to themselves.

The rest of us are only important for how much profit we can give them. We have no other intrinsic worth or rights.

Given that this is our society’s organizational principal, the only other employment offered that they find it necessary to pay others for, is security for themselves: militarized occupation police; “Homeland” security; a colossal for-profit mass imprisonment system driven by draconian punishments based on their fears of societal insurrection; and a world garrisoned against rebellion of the imposition of resource extraction that does not benefit those living amidst their foreign holdings.

Certain limitations in the past limited the scope of the owner class to exceed reasonable bounds, but those limitations have been swept away. Ferguson MO is the canary in the mineshaft for us all, unless the purpose of society changes to specifically benefit everyone, not just those who have concentrated wealth and power for themselves alone.

But given history as a guide, taking into account human nature, abusers do not change their ways willingly or suffer pangs of conscience. There is great heartache ahead.

#2 Comment By Criostoir On August 25, 2014 @ 1:42 pm

Guaranteed Basic Income.

#3 Comment By Cascade Joe On August 25, 2014 @ 3:48 pm

He wasn’t an MIT economist, but a steel mill superintendent described the automation of a specialty steel plant as: “Boys, when all this is done, a few of us will have really good jobs.”

This was in the late 80s and I have yet to see a better description of the “effects of automation on employment”.

#4 Comment By the unworthy craftsman On August 25, 2014 @ 8:22 pm

So. What to do with the superfluous humans. I know we’re all supposed to retrain, but many of us won’t, for one reason or another; and “he who does not work shall not eat” is no longer a viable ideology.

#5 Comment By Escher On August 25, 2014 @ 10:05 pm

@Cascade Joe

Those good jobs will be heavily taxed to support the drug/alcohol habits of the unemployables, and the Circuses of the NFL/NBA to keep them further distracted.

#6 Comment By stef On August 26, 2014 @ 8:23 am

Meanwhile, the population continues to rise. What do the bright boys from MIT suggest happen to all that superfluous labor?

#7 Comment By Barry On August 26, 2014 @ 9:57 am

“The seemingly mundane routinized tasks of the Amazon picker, or the retail worker, or the technical support specialist may seem to be little more than drudgery and tasks to be automated. But, as Autor describes in several contexts, there are many ways in which those routine tasks can be embedded in more comprehensive work environments, and computerization can add value to the job as it stands. ”

Interesting, because the actual effect has been the opposite.

#8 Comment By cka2nd On August 26, 2014 @ 12:54 pm

Because the bosses and the professionals have drunk the technophile Kool-Aid, automation and job loss will continue in tandem while more and more duties are dumped on the remaining workers. I see this all the time in my public agency. I myself am trying (and failing!) to do four jobs, five if you count the clerical support that the project I am working on has never had.

I love word processing and spreadsheets and automated systems with the rules built in but they don’t eliminate the need for the workers – professional AND clerical – to oversee and intervene in the systems as necessary (it’s hard to build in every single iteration of every single rule). Not to mention that all of these new automated systems often result in an exponential increase in the number of reports demanded by our overlords and we need not just the subject matter experts to design them and the programmers to write the code but the clericals to run them as needed and sort or filter or tweak them as Big Wig #1 wants it this week and Big Wig #2 desires next week.