Join Farhad Manjoo in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Sept. 29, for a Future Tense event on robots and the workforce. Manjoo will be joined by Tyler Cowen, author of The Great Stagnation and blogger at Marginal Revolution; Robbie Allen, whose company StatSheet could put sportswriters on unemployment lines; and others. To RSVP for a free ticket, click here.
Autor argues that middle-skilled jobs tend to have two factors in common—they are composed of lots of tasks that are both routine and geographically portable. What does a secretary do all day? He files, sorts, organizes, watches for calendar conflicts, and in other ways manipulates information. What does a tax preparer do? He asks you a series of questions, and performs some calculations based on your answers. These are all tasks that can be written in software—and, once there, they can be done faster, and more cheaply, by machines. And even when a computer can't completely replace these middle-skilled jobs, it can make them easier to transfer to lower-wage humans—you still need a human being to answer tech support questions, but now you can hire someone in Andra Pradesh rather than Alabama. This decimation of middle-skilled work explains another unsettling trend in American business. New companies today are starting up with far fewer workers than in the past, and they're staying smaller as they grow.
Low- and high-skilled jobs have so far been less vulnerable to automation. The low-skilled jobs categories that are considered to have the best prospects over the next decade—including food service, janitorial work, gardening, home health, childcare, and security—are generally physical jobs, and require face-to-face interaction. At some point robots will be able to fulfill these roles, but there's little incentive to roboticize these tasks at the moment, as there's a large supply of humans who are willing to do them for low wages.
So if computers have already come for middle-skilled workers, and if low-skilled workers aren't an attractive enough target, who's left? That's right: Professionals—people whose jobs required years of schooling, and who, consequently, make a lot of money doing them. As someone who is fascinated with technology, the stuff I found in my investigation of robots and the workforce tickled me. I got to see a room-size pill-dispensing robot, machines that can find cervical cancer on pap-smear slides, and even servers than can write news stories. As someone who likes his job (and his paycheck), what I saw terrified me.
Most economists aren't taking these worries very seriously. The idea that computers might significantly disrupt human labor markets—and, thus, further weaken the global economy—so far remains on the fringes. The only deep treatment of this story that I've seen has come from a software developer named Martin Ford. In 2009, Ford self-published a small book called The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future. In his book, Ford argues persuasively that computers will redefine the very idea of "work" in the modern age.
When I spoke to him recently, I asked Ford about economists' standard rebuttal to fears of automation—the story of the decline of agricultural jobs in the United States. In 1900, 41 percent of the American workforce was employed in agriculture. Over the next 100 years, the technological revolution in farming dramatically increased productivity, enabling fewer and fewer people to produce more and more food. By 2000, just 2 percent of the workforce was employed in agriculture. Yet this shift, which required millions of people to move off farms and acquire new skills, didn't ruin the economy. Instead, by reducing food prices and freeing up people to do more profitable things with their time, it contributed to massive growth. Why won't that happen again with information technology—why won't we all just learn new skills and find other jobs?
"There's no question that there will be new things in the future," Ford says. "But the assumption that economists are making is that those industries are going to be labor-intensive, that there are going to be lots of jobs there. But the fact is we don't see that anymore. Think of all the high-profile companies we've seen over the past 10 years—Google, Facebook, Netflix, Twitter. None of them have very many employees, because technology is ubiquitous—it gets applied everywhere, to new jobs and old jobs. Whatever appears in the future, whatever pops up, we can be certain that IT will get applied right away, and all but the most non-routine-type jobs won't be there anymore."*
Over the next few days, I'll be examining how Ford's predictions are playing out in a number of professions. I'll start by looking at how the people in my own life are being replaced by machines. First, I'll look at my dad's career, pharmacy. Then, I'll examine my wife's line of work, medicine. In my third piece, I'll turn my investigation inward—how will robots replace writers like myself and Web curators like Jason Kottke? I'll end the series with a pair of stories on how machines will change the lives of lawyers and scientists. I hope you read every part—if you're going to outsmart the robots, you'll need all the help you can get.
Correction, Sept. 26, 2011: Due to a transcription error, this article originally misquoted software developer Martin Ford. Ford said that in the future, "all but the most non-routine-type jobs" will cease to exist, not "all but the most routine-type jobs." (Return to the corrected sentence.)