Robots will improve our lives — if we let them
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"The Terminator" aside, the relationship between humans and machines has been fairly amicable over the years. More recently, renewed talk of mass displacement by robots has started to generate some anxiety.

Stoking this fear is a recent report from U.K. PricewaterhouseCoopers concluding that up to 30 percent of jobs in the U.K. are at a high risk of automation by the early 2030s. In the United States, the number is even higher — 38 percent — while 21 percent of Japan’s jobs are threatened. 

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Other studies have also connected robots to job destruction, including one by economists at MIT and Boston University finding that robots’ higher productivity eliminated approximately 670,000 manufacturing jobs in the United States from 1990 to 2007. In America, automation and robots have been linked to everything from the opioid epidemic to Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems seek to chip away at Trump’s economic record Trump to sign directive to reform commercial space regulations Trump on collision course with Congress on ZTE MORE’s rise to the presidency. 

 

Machines have been helping humans get more done since the invention of the wheel, so why, after centuries, are we still worried about an automation Armageddon?

The common retort is that this time is different and that, while we may have adapted in the past, new industries replaced the old and machines helped increase output and wages, but that’s not happening today.

There is some evidence to support this. Even though unemployment is low and job growth appears strong — 211,000 jobs were created in April according to the recent jobs report — wages are barely growing faster than inflation. Median earnings for male workers, who were most affected by the influx of robots in manufacturing, have been essentially flat since 1970.

But the real problem with wages is not robots per se, but low productivity growth. Average worker compensation and productivity are closely connected. Just as economic theory predicts, new machines made us more productive and compensation rose accordingly.

Today, labor productivity growth is anemic — it has averaged only 1.2 percent over the current business cycle, the lowest average since the early 1980s. Without greater productivity growth, wage growth will remain low. That makes people more uneasy about the future, especially in the face of perceived competition from machines.

Additionally, even though jobs are being created, most of them are confined to a handful of thriving local economies. The unemployed coal miner in West Virginia or factory worker in Ohio doesn’t necessarily have the skills to integrate into the booming high-tech economies of San Francisco, Austin or New York.

This explains why some view robots as a threat while others view them as a boon. The robots that have increased the productivity of American manufacturing and mining are viewed as competitors by the workers they displaced, while workers in other industries primarily experience these changes in the form of cheaper cars, TVs, clothes, toys, household furnishings and energy. Meanwhile, workers in Silicon Valley and elsewhere view the computers and software they use every day as tools that increase productivity.

How can we help more people reap the benefits of robots and automation? First, reducing occupational licensing restrictions can make it easier for people to get jobs in occupations that involve less routine tasks and are thus less exposed to automation, such as HVAC contractors or cosmetologists.

Less land-use regulation would make it cheaper for people to move to places with more opportunities. Previous generations faced difficult adjustments when they left their farms for manufacturing and service-sector jobs in the cities, but they recognized that moving would ultimately improve their families’ lives.

Making it cheaper to move to areas with robust job growth would help more people share in the economic benefits of robots without the fear of being permanently replaced by them. 

We also need to figure out how to train people so that robots are more apt to serve as complements rather than substitutes. This would expand the productivity-enhancing aspect of robots and help boost wages.

Improvements in K-12 education that foster a mindset of lifelong learning would help anchor people’s expectations about the nature of work in the modern economy. More internship programs and on-the-job-training that provide relevant work skills would make it easier to transition to new industries mid-career.

However, this is a harder problem to solve than reducing occupational and land-use regulations: There isn’t a top-down, one-size-fits-all solution. 

While the future is inherently uncertain, if history is a guide, more robots will be a net benefit overall. Living standards have risen sharply since Henry Ford introduced the assembly line, and, by global standards, poverty is substantially lower in America.

Moreover, robots and artificial intelligence technologies are already improving our lives: We use them to help us fly planes, avoid car accidents, diagnose diseases and find romantic partners, among other things. Few among us would trade places with a similar person in the 1880s or even the 1980s largely due to the rise of robots and automation, and we should think twice before interfering with this progress.

 

Adam Millsap is a research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.