We have no idea how robots and automation are impacting jobs

Nobody is keeping track of how technology impacts employment across sectors.
Nobody is keeping track of how technology impacts employment across sectors.
Image: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
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The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently convened a committee to investigate the impact of technology on jobs. In its 184-page paper, published yesterday, 13 experts in economics and computer science reported that, well, they don’t have enough data to determine exactly how automation, robots, and innovations like the on-demand economy are affecting employment.

“Despite much anecdotal evidence suggesting that big changes are under way, surprisingly little data are available to help determine which anecdotes correspond to significant country-wide or economy-wide trends,” they wrote.

Fears that automation and robots will lead to widespread unemployment have been alive and well for centuries. But some argue that such worries today are acute. Proposals to mitigate the threat of technology include taxing robots if they take jobs, paying everyone a guaranteed salary regardless of whether they work, or trying to stop adoption of machines that eat into human jobs.

While it’s obvious that work effort in some jobs–toll booth operators, airline check-in counter attendants, and stock and bond traders, to name just a few–has been greatly reduced due to technology, there’s little accounting for the overall impact of technology on employment.

A recent study by economists Daron Acemoglu of MIT and Boston University’s Pascual Restrepo found that each additional robot in an area reduced employment in that area by three to six workers. But the study only looked at jobs replaced by industrial robots, which leaves out, for instance, the 600 traders Goldman Sachs replaced with 200 computer programmers. While estimating the future impact of technology across all fields, researchers have said that up to 47% of US jobs are at risk of being automated. Others have concluded that merely 9% of all jobs are at risk of being automated.

There’s been little attempt, meanwhile, to quantify how many jobs have been or could be created by new technologies.

In order to better understand technology’s impact on jobs–and how to guide education and jobs skills training–the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s committee recommended creating a standard strategy for understanding technology’s capabilities and how they are changing, a “technology progress index.”

Analogous to the Consumer Price Index, this index would track the current state of technology and its impact on the economy and workforce using, for instance, progress in data storage costs and speeds, speech recognition and computer vision benchmarks, and progress in computational hardware. Another index, the committee wrote, might track how companies are adopting new technologies and where labor shortages and skills mismatching appears.

Without better data about technology and its impact on jobs, pundits and policymakers who attempt to address a potentially large shift in how and where people work will be proposing solutions to a problem they can’t describe.