Tag Archives: robots

Looking at America’s future: economic stagnation, or will computers take our jobs?

Summary:  “Is the economy in technological stagnation? Or will computers take all our jobs?” An analysis from the Fed gives us an answer. Another in a series of posts about the future of America’s economy and the coming of the next industrial revolution.

Crystal Ball

The Productivity Paradox: Is Technology Failing or Fueling Growth?
By Andrew Flowers (senior economic research analyst)
EconSouth, of the Federal Research Bank of Atlanta
Q4 2013
“Is the economy in technological stagnation? Or will computers take all our jobs?”


The U.S. economy has grown slowly since the recession ended in 2009, more slowly than in past recovery periods. The depth of the recession, and the financial crisis that exacerbated it, surely explain this sluggishness  — right? Not according to some economists, who think we have a bigger problem on our hands: that the underlying dynamics of the economy are impaired and our ability to innovate new technologies is the root cause of the current stagnation. In other words, they argue, slow growth is the new normal.

But other economists take the opposite stance. These economists say that technology is improving so rapidly that machine intelligence and automation will replace much of human labor. And while overall growth will improve, technology is bound to radically reshape our economy, making it more unequal.

Which story is correct? Let’s look at some evidence found in long-run trends. …

That’s an important question, about which he provides an excellent summary. It is also discussed in several posts (links below). But it’s not our focus today.

Labor market implications

Considering these competing views on productivity and technology, we come to the most salient economic issue of our time: jobs. The rate of technological innovation obviously has major labor market effects. What is the relationship between new technological advances and the current skill distribution of the labor force?

Skill-biased technical change is the economic theory for how advances in technology can increase worker productivity, given compatible skills, but how they also displace certain workers. Think of the automation improvements in U.S. manufacturing. Total inflation-adjusted manufacturing production has never been higher than it is now, and manufacturing productivity, if anything, increased following World War II. But the total number of persons employed in manufacturing industries fell sharply, even more so as a percentage of the labor force.

… Cowen and the authors of Race Against the Machine foresee skill-biased technical change as accelerating in the future. They see the fruits of this third industrial revolution — information technology — as having just begun to disrupt the labor market.

This view is augmented by the recent research of David Autor, an MIT economist, who highlights a slightly different, and perhaps more disturbing, phenomenon: labor market polarization. Autor and his coauthors document the rise in demand for both high- and low-skill occupations alongside a decline in demand for middle-skill workers. They then tie technological automation to this erosion of middle-skill occupations. Manufacturing is one big area where these middle-skill jobs exist.

… If the techno-optimists are correct about the future, the combination of skill-biased technical change and greater labor market polarization will complicate the already serious state of the U.S. labor market.

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The promise and peril of automation

Summary:  Today we have a status report on society’s recognition of the coming industrial revolution. The next wave of automation (the next industrial revolution) was long forecast (even in the 1950s), but became clearly visible in 2010 with the writings of far-seeing people like Martin Ford (reported to readers of the FM website in August 2010). The news hit the mainstream in 2012 with the publication of Race Against The Machine by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (reported here in April 2012). 2013 was the year of declaring it no big deal. 2014 might be the year we realize the scale of the challenge it faces — and the potential rewards.

The future of automation

The future of work


  1. The promise and peril of robots
  2. The robots are coming and will terminate your jobs“, Tim Harford, Financial Times
  3. The robots are coming. Will they bring wealth or a divided society?“, Gavin Kelly, The Guardian
  4. Remembering sabots (wooden shoes)
  5. For More Information

Red emphasis added.

(1)  The promise and peril of robots

Automation of service jobs will, like the first industrial revolutions (agriculture, then manufacturing), probably will increase humanities wealth and income. A successful transition requires again managing two challenges:

  • Most of the gains will go not to workers, but capital (i.e., owners of the machinery).
  • There will be massive unemployment.

That means

  • distributing these gains to maintain both social stability democracy,
  • creating new jobs for the unemployed — or otherwise supporting them,
  • creating new jobs for the next generation.

So far the typical responses have been to assume past success guarantees success today — without the need for special effort (the invisible hand will provide for us) — and education. The first is a Marxist-like faith in history. The second is illogical innumeracy: not everybody can benefit from advanced education (already we produce more undergraduate degrees than the market requires), and there is no evidence that the market for advanced degrees will expand sufficiently to absorb those unemployed by automation.

They still tend look to the past for signs of this new revolution, failing to see that it has barely started — with little recognition of its potential magnitude and the resulting human cost.

The two articles shown below show progress in recognition of these things, and improvement over the blindness that characterized articles to date in the news media.

(2) The robots are coming and will terminate your jobs“, Tim Harford, Financial Times, 27 September 2013 — “In future, there may be people who – despite being fit to work – have no economic value.” Excerpt:

Computing power is starting to solve everyday problems – which turn out to be the hardest ones. Computers were laughable drivers in 2004, when a computer-driving competition was “won” by a car that crashed after completing seven miles of a 150-mile course. Now computers drive cars safely.

In 2008, robots still struggled with a problem known as “Slam” – simultaneous localisation and mapping, the process of mentally building up a map of a new location, including hazards, as you move through it. In 2011, Slam was convincingly addressed by computer scientists using Microsoft’s “Kinect” gaming hub, an array of sensors and processors that until recently would have been impossibly costly but is suddenly compact and cheap.

Problems such as language recognition and Slam have so far prevented robots working alongside humans; or on tasks that are not precisely defined, such as taping up parcels of different sizes or cleaning a kitchen. Perhaps the robots really are now on the rise.

… What is sobering is that we have already seen convincing evidence of the impact of technology on the job market. Alan Manning of the London School of Economics coined the term “job polarisation” a decade ago, when he discovered that employment in the UK had been rising for people at the top and the bottom of the income scale. There was more demand for lawyers and burger flippers. It was middle-skill jobs that were disappearing. The same trend is true in the US, and is having the predictable effect on wages: strong gains at the top, some gains at the bottom, stagnation in the middle.

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A book about one of the trends shaping the 21st century: the next industrial revolution (robots)

Summary:  It’s not too soon to prepare your 2014 reading list. Today we have an excerpt from what might be one of the most important books of the year, about a trend which will drive events in the 21st century — the next wave of automation. AKA the rise of smart machines, the next industrial revolution. Distributing its fruits might be the defining political challenge for each society, with almost unimaginable rewards for nations that do so peacefully.

Robot Revolution

RobotRevolution by PackRatGraphics



  1. The Book
  2. Excerpt: about the next Age
  3. Reviews
  4. About the authors
  5. For More Information

(1)  The Book

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee (2014) — “Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies”

A revolution is under way.

In recent years, Google’s autonomous cars have logged thousands of miles on American highways and IBM’s Watson trounced the best human Jeopardy! players. Digital technologies — with hardware, software, and networks at their core — will in the near future diagnose diseases more accurately than doctors can, apply enormous data sets to transform retailing, and accomplish many tasks once considered uniquely human.

In The Second Machine Age MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee—two thinkers at the forefront of their field — make the case that we should be optimistic about the future because technological progress, ‘the only free lunch that economists believe in,’ is accelerating quickly past our intuitions and expectations. But we should also be mindful of our values and our choices: as technology races ahead, it may leave a lot of people, organizations and institutions behind.

This is the book that explains the new age we’re quickly heading into and shows why we should be optimistic about it, yet also discusses the challenges it will bring.

(2)  Excerpt from Chapter One

This work led us to three broad conclusions.

The first is that we’re living in a time of astonishing progress with digital technologies — those that have computer hardware, software, and networks at their core. These technologies are not brand-new; businesses have been buying computers for more than half a century, and Time magazine declared the personal computer its “Machine of the Year” in 1982.

But just as it took generations to improve the steam engine to the point that it could power the Industrial Revolution, it’s also taken time to refine our digital engines. We’ll show why and how the full force of these technologies has recently been achieved and give examples of its power. “Full,” though, doesn’t mean “mature.” Computers are going to continue to improve and to do new and unprecedented things. By “full force,” we mean simply that the key building blocks are already in place for digital technologies to be as important and transformational to society and the economy as the steam engine.

In short, we’re at an inflection point — a point where the curve starts to bend a lot — because of computers. We are entering a second machine age.

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Applebees automates, and brings a new world of jobs one step closer

Summary:  The FM website serves to help readers more clearly see the future (it’s an unplanned emergent role). Today we look at one aspect of America’s future, bring both peril and promise: the next wave of automation. It’s already here, but seen by few. Today is not too soon to consider how this might affect your family.

Seeing the future

Ron Chapple/Getty Images

“Fortune favors the prepared mind.”
— Lecture by Louis Pasteur, 7 December 1854


Our experts fret about decreasing fertility, slowing population growth (we need immigrants! otherwise wages will rise and consumption fall!) and aging populations of longer-living retirees (we must slash social security and medicare!).

These are daft recommendations for a nation with real wages stagnant for a generation — taxes on the rich near multi-generational lows — corporate profits at record highs — inequality rising — a health care system grossly less cost-effective than that of any other developed nation’s — and perhaps most important, the next wave of automation already hitting us.

From another perspective, these problems — centered on the Federal government’s debt and liability for retirement care — are operationally easy to fix. Embarrassingly so, like pouring water from a boot with the instructions on the heel. Especially when compared to the problems of our peer nations (e.g., unifying the nations of Europe, or Japan’s government avoiding financial collapse from its mind-blowingly large debt).

Experts label these issues “politically difficult” to avoid asking if we have become too incompetent to govern ourselves.

Meanwhile a far greater challenge has already begun, although still invisible to our experts: the next wave of automation. We can as yet only guess how many jobs this will extinguish, as it does to the service sector what previous waves of automation did to farming and manufacturing. Both skilled and unskilled jobs will go away in unguessably large numbers. Previous posts (see below) discussed some of the first effects. Here’s another…

Applebees Tables Get Tech Treatment

100,000 Applebee’s Tables Get Tech Treatment; DineEquity Announces Rollout of E la Carte Tablets“, Restaurant News, 3 December 2013 — Excerpt:

Today, Applebee’s steps into the future to redefine and enhance the guest experience through the installation of 100,000 E la Carte Presto tablets, powered by Intel, on every table and multiple bar positions at more than 1,800 Applebee’s® restaurants in the United States by the end of next year.

DineEquity, franchisor of Applebee’s and IHOP® restaurants, announced the relationship with an aggressive schedule for 2014 installation throughout the Applebee’s system. The tablets, which enable guests to add to their orders, pay and play games from their seats…

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Must our population grow to ensure prosperity?

Summary: Economists are often criticized for excessive focus on monetary measures for a nation’s prosperity, and too narrow and backwards-looking vision of trends in society. Today we look at example of both: recommendations that Japan increase immigration. These matters affect not just Japan, but much of the world.

Now everything’s a little upside down, as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped
What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good, you’ll find out when you reach the top
You’re on the bottom

— From Bob Dylan’s “Idiot Wind” (1974)

Stand by for a boom!


  1. Japan leads us to the future
  2. Japan faces the robot revolution
  3. Why recommend more immigration?
  4. For More Information

(1)  Japan leads us to the future

Fewer people is good news for Japan! (source)

Japan's population

Many economists look at this data and conclude that Japan needs more immigration, otherwise their national income (GDP) will fall along with their population.

Economists prescriptions for Japan show the limits of economics as a guide to public policy. GDP is not the only measure of a nation’s well-being, or even the best. Worse, economists sometimes see only linear trends of the past, blind to future developments visible even today.

(2)  A crowded Japan faces the robot revolution

Japan has been crowded for over a century. Japan’s government has worried about its overpopulation since the Meiji Restoration (population ~3 million) in 1868 (their attempted solution was encouraging emigration to Korea). They had 50 million in 1910; 100 million in 1967, and 127 million today.

Excerpt during periods of great productivity improvement (e.g., during an industrial revolution), growth in total GDP requires a growing population. More housing, more public infrastructure, more consumption. A shrinking population not only requires less of these things, but also a rising dependency ratio (i.e., the labor force falls as a share of the population). All bad things. Hence economists’ advice to maintain or even grow Japan’s population.

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Two proposals for dealing with the robot revolution (the next wave of automation)

Summary: Slowly people see the robot revolution coming, when automation does to jobs in services what it did to farming and manufacturing. We’re in the first phase, delusional confidence about the effects — so we see not need to prepare. So we idly dream away the time available to prepare. Here we review two new reports with proposals — what we can do manage these inevitable changes.

Welcome to the Future


(1) Some rare good sense about automation

The Rise of the Machines“, Gavin Mueller, Jacobin, #10 — “Automation isn’t freeing us from work; it’s keeping us under capitalist control.”  Excerpt:

I applied to America’s employer of last resort: McDonald’s. I was hired within the week. I’d worked kitchens before, so I figured this would be pretty easy stuff. It was and it wasn’t, and it wasn’t because it was.

… McDonald’s was different from other restaurants, where I had had to learn at least a few cooking basics. At McDonald’s, each station was highly mechanized to minimize the need for employees to know anything. That included counting: the cash register automatically spat out the correct change for me with every transaction. The food prep areas had huge specialized machines to standardize the cooking process. I didn’t even have to pay attention when filling up soft drinks — just hit the button for the appropriate size. Practically every machine was connected to some kind of timer. During busy times, the kitchen became a buzzing, beeping confusion, adding a layer of sonic chaos to an already hectic job.

This is the automated kitchen. At McDonald’s, food preparation is designed to require absolutely no thought or technique at all, deskilled as completely as possible by half a century of industrial management. This standardizes the food, so your McNuggets are the same no matter which McDonald’s fries them. More importantly, it entails minimal training for employees, a good idea since turnover is high (I did a bit over two months before quitting). A deskilled workforce is a precarious workforce.

As it was a generation ago, automation has become a political issue; one Peter Frase, my colleague at Jacobin, has been discussing for some time. Frase has developed a “post-work” argument for understanding the politics of automation. In the short term, the new machines benefit capitalists, who can lay off their expensive, unnecessary workers to fend for themselves in the labor market. But, in the longer view, automation also raises the specter of a world without work, or one with a lot less of it, where there isn’t much for human workers to do. If we didn’t have capitalists sucking up surplus value as profit, we could use that surplus on social welfare to meet people’s needs. Meanwhile, whatever work remains could be split up, so we’d have shorter working days and more time for the things that really matter to us.

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The next step of computer evolution: becoming bloggers

Summary:  Yesterday we examined the job prospects for journalists when computers do much of their job as well as people. But it might not end there. Computers will become bloggers, either in collaboration with people, or software run by people as a hobby. Here we speculate about what kinds of blogs will be automated first. It’s a window into the coming new world shaped by the next wave of automation.

Evolution of bloggers

Evolution of bloggers


  1. Four Kinds of Blogs
  2. A different perspective on blogging
  3. A deeper significance of robot bloggers
  4. Leave a comment
  5. More Info about the Robot Revolution
  6. Soon a computer will scan all this information and write a post better than I can

(1)  Four Kinds of Blogs

Many blogs provide information. This includes reporting on people and events, delivery of facts (broadly defined), and how-to advice. Much of the value of these posts comes from framing the issue and selecting what key data to include. Soon computers will be able to do this for many subjects, and can do so today for simple stories in clearly defined subjects (eg, baseball games, financial reports).

A second kind of post provides affirmations of group identity. The other group is bad-ugly-wrong. We are good-pretty-correct. For example, much blogging about climate science consists of this with a thin technical gloss. A computer probably could easily churn out such content. Including the insults and snark. Perhaps eventually even with some humor.

A third kind of post provides insights.  I wonder when a computer will be able to do this.

A fourth kind evokes or shares emotions and feelings. I wonder how soon a computer will be able to fake this enough to fool readers (a limited sort of Turing Test).

(2)  A different perspective on blogging

Let’s look at the ability of computers to automate blogging in terms of the different types of authors:  “7 Different Blogger Types Explained“, Eva Percic, Zemanta, 26 December 2012

  • Preachers are about studying content, presenting key viewpoints and opening a platform for further discussion.
  • Techies enjoy spreading their word, sharing knowledge and educating.
  • Professionals present  facts, ideas, and accomplishments, and seek feedback from their followers.
  • Beauty hunters create or promote beautiful things, educate others and exchange opinions.
  • Life improvers share know-how, give support and instruct people how to improve their life.
  • Life stagers search for help, or share their experience and make someone else’s life easier.
  • Hedonists promote different lifestyles to enrich people’s daily routines.

The below graph sorts these types in two dimensions. Which of these will computers replace early and well? As a guess, they’ll do those on the bottom half more easily. Or, perhaps they’ll quickly learn to fake the 3 types on the upper half.

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