If robots take our jobs, will they make it up to us?

Credit: Glen Gyssler

Jeff Cockrell | Jul 03, 2017

Sections Economics

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As technology continues to improve, it requires less and less imagination to foresee how robots, computers, and artificial intelligence might drastically improve productivity in many industries—and displace human workers. According to a McKinsey Global Institute report, 60 percent of all occupations comprise tasks that are at least 30 percent automatable. Although automation could improve global productivity growth by as much as 1.4 percent per year, “about half the activities people are paid almost $15 trillion in wages to do in the global economy have the potential to be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technology,” the report finds.

But concerns about technology crowding out human labor are longstanding. “Technology is creating both new opportunities and new obligations for us,” US president Lyndon Johnson said in 1964, upon signing a bill to create a National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress. “Opportunity for greater productivity and progress; obligation to be sure that no workingman, no family must pay an unjust price for progress.”

How concerned should workers be about robots coming for their jobs? To find out, Chicago Booth’s Initiative on Global Markets asked its European Economic Experts Panel a pair of related questions. The panelists were divided about whether increasing robots and AI would lead to a substantial uptick in long-term unemployment rates in advanced countries. Nearly a quarter of the panel expressed uncertainty. Jan Eeckhout of University College London pointed out that falling wages and job satisfaction could lead some people to opt out of working altogether, decreasing labor-force participation without necessarily raising the unemployment rate. 

A majority of the panelists agreed that the benefits of automation are likely to be large enough to compensate workers whose wages suffer. As some point out, however, whether those workers are actually compensated is another question.

Jordi Galí, Universitat Pompeu Fabra
“Must be true in the short run, unless it takes place in the context of expanding aggregate demand, which would facilitate reabsorption.”
Response: Agree

Luigi Guiso, Einaudi Institute for Economics and Finance
“Robots may be accompanied by other innovations that can absorb the workers laid off, but [the] extent of this is uncertain.”
Response: Uncertain

Christopher Pissarides, London School of Economics
“Jobs will be destroyed in some sectors but created in other sectors. Sectoral shifts are common without large unemployment hikes.”
Response: Strongly disagree

Pol Antras, Harvard
“It seems pretty clear that the potential gains would outweigh the losses.”
Response: Strongly agree

Agnès Bénassy-Quéré, Paris School of Economics
“In theory, yes. However, the workers want jobs, not transfers. Very difficult during the transition.”
Response: Agree

Richard Portes, London Business School
“The question is not whether they could be compensated, but whether they will. Experience suggests not.”
Response: Agree