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.
If you're taking a break from work to read this article, I've got one question for you: Are you crazy? I know you think no one will notice, and I know that everyone else does it. Perhaps your boss even approves of your Web surfing; maybe she's one of those new-age managers who believes the studies showing that short breaks improve workers' focus. But those studies shouldn't make you feel good about yourself. The fact that you need regular breaks only highlights how flawed you are as a worker. I don't mean to offend. It's just that I've seen your competition. Let me tell you: You are in peril.
At this moment, there's someone training for your job. He may not be as smart as you are—in fact, he could be quite stupid—but what he lacks in intelligence he makes up for in drive, reliability, consistency, and price. He's willing to work for longer hours, and he's capable of doing better work, at a much lower wage. He doesn't ask for health or retirement benefits, he doesn't take sick days, and he doesn't goof off when he's on the clock.
What's more, he keeps getting better at his job. Right now, he might only do a fraction of what you can, but he's an indefatigable learner—next year he'll acquire a few more skills, and the year after that he'll pick up even more. Before you know it, he'll be just as good a worker as you are. And soon after that, he'll surpass you.
By now it should be clear that I'm not talking about any ordinary worker. I'm referring to a nonhuman employee—a robot, or some kind of faceless software running on a server. I've spent the last few months investigating the ways in which automation and artificial intelligence are infiltrating a range of high-skilled professions. What I found was unsettling. They might not know it yet, but some of the most educated workers in the nation are engaged in a fierce battle with machines. As computers get better at processing and understanding language and at approximating human problem-solving skills, they're putting a number of professions in peril. Those at risk include doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, scientists, and creative professionals—even writers like myself.
This is not a new story. People have been fretting about the rise of the machines since Ned Ludd took a hammer to his knitting frames, and probably before. In general, these fears have been unfounded. Yes, better technology sometimes replaces workers in the short run, but over the long march of history, technological improvements have been a key to economic growth, and economic growth improves prospects for workers across a range of industries. Indeed, economists have a name for the popular but misguided notion that technology will displace human workers: They call it the Luddite fallacy, after old Ned himself. To many in the academy, it's an iron-clad law of how economies work.
But this time could be different. Artificial intelligence machines are getting so good, so quickly, that they're poised to replace humans across a wide range of industries. In the next decade, we'll see machines barge into areas of the economy that we'd never suspected possible—they'll be diagnosing your diseases, dispensing your medicine, handling your lawsuits, making fundamental scientific discoveries, and even writing stories just like this one. Economic theory holds that as these industries are revolutionized by technology, prices for their services will decline, and society as a whole will benefit. As I conducted my research, I found this argument convincing—robotic lawyers, for instance, will bring cheap legal services to the masses who can't afford lawyers today. But there's a dark side, too: Imagine you've spent three years in law school, two more years clerking, and the last decade trying to make partner—and now here comes a machine that can do much of your $400-per-hour job faster, and for a fraction of the cost. What do you do now?
There is already some evidence that information technology has done permanent damage to workers in a large sector of the economy. This specifically applies to workers who are considered "middle skilled," meaning that they need some training, but not much, to do their jobs.
Middle-skilled jobs include many that are generally recognized to be antiquated—secretaries, administrative workers, repairmen, and manufacturing workers, among others. Since the 1980s, across several industrialized nations (including the United States), the number of workers in these job categories has been rapidly declining (the pace of the decline increased greatly during the last recession). Instead, most job growth has been at the poles, in professions that require very high skills and earn high wages, and in the service sector, where most jobs require few skills and pay tiny wages.
David Autor, an economist at MIT who is the leading scholar of this phenomenon, calls it "job polarization." Autor identifies a number of causes for the decline of middle-skilled work, including the decreasing power of unions and the declining federal minimum wage. He puts one factor above the rest, however: The rise of information technology.
Video: How real-life robots differ from bots in TV and movies.