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Will robots kill our jobs? A professor answers questions on the MIT report on automation and America’s future

An Airbus technician watches robots working on the fuselage of a jet at the company's Finkenwerder plant in Hamburg, Germany. Christian Charisius/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

A major task force at MIT issued a thought-provoking report last month that said Americans have valid concerns about whether robots will take their jobs, but technology itself is not to blame — and concluded by offering a number of pro-worker policy recommendations to the help the country cope as change continues.

Driven by automation and artificial intelligence, “the world now stands on the cusp of a technological revolution” that will “boost the wealth of nations,” The Task Force on the Work of the Future, which included more than 20 faculty drawn from 12 departments, said in its draft report.


“Will these developments enable people to attain higher living standards, better working conditions, greater economic security, and improved health and longevity? The answers to these questions are not predetermined. They depend upon the institutions, investments, and policies that we deploy to harness the opportunities and confront the challenges posed by this new era,” the report said.

The warning signals keep flashing. In the past week alone, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, issued a report saying that automation has “contributed substantially” to reducing the portion of national income that goes to US workers over the past two decades, Bloomberg News reported.

Technological efficiencies will result in an estimated 200,000 job cuts in the US banking industry in the next decade, according to a Wells Fargo & Co. report, Bloomberg also reported.

The challenge is being highlighted by, among others, long-shot Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who has warned of the economic impacts of automation and artificial intelligence and called for “human-centered capitalism” and giving Americans a universal basic income.

Major corporate leaders on the Business Roundtable have also stepped forward to say that corporations should no longer advance just the interests of shareholders but should, among other things, invest in employees, including “supporting them through training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world.”

We asked Professor David Autor, Ford professor of economics and co-chair of the task force, some questions about the rise of the robots and their potential impact.


What is the worst-case, nightmare scenario if technological change continues apace and policy changes aren’t made?

Ongoing rises in inequality, diminishing opportunities for workers without strong post-secondary education, declining economic mobility, and rising popular frustration that will (further) polarize politics and potentially contribute to short- sighted policymaking and social unrest.

What do you think of Andrew Yang’s position on automation?

Andrew Yang's heart is in the right place, but he's vastly overstating the case. We are in the midst of the tightest labor market in decades. What is the evidence that we are on the verge of a robotic apocalypse? Given slowing labor market growth (due to low fertility and restrictive immigration policies), we are more likely to face the Japan scenario of persistent labor shortages and strong automation pressure than the surplus labor scenario that candidate Yang envisions.

And on Yang's UBI proposal: it's intellectually challenging — to say the least — to evaluate the “benefits" of giving each American $12,000 a year in Universal Basic Income each year without simultaneously considering the "cost" of taxing the public an average of $12,000 per year per American to pay for that UBI distribution.

Bottom line: that money has to come from somewhere. And unless we’re borrowing it from abroad, taxes will have to rise (on average) by exactly the amount of the benefit. And that's a whole lot of taxes. In the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future’s interim report that we released last month, we recommend policies that will broaden career opportunities and rebalance fiscal policies in favor of workers rather than solely focusing on paying out a basic income.


Atlas, a humanoid robot produced by Boston Dynamics, has become increasingly athletic in recent years.Courtesy of Boston Dynamics

What do you think of the Business Roundtable’s Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation?

These are worthwhile sentiments, and we’re delighted that these groups are expressing them. However, without a change in incentives — through tax policy, worker representation, or business-financed mandatory worker safety net programs — it’s not clear that for-profit companies will change their behavior and deviate from their current shareholder value-maximizing policies.

On the plus side, this recognition on the part of business leaders may signal we have a political and policy opportunity to change incentives. Without those changes, however, there’s only so much that good intentions can accomplish in a competitive marketplace.

What lessons can we learn from the Industrial Revolution, which turned out pretty well for America?

During the Second Industrial Revolution in the US around 1900, the US made a huge public investment in boosting its citizens’ skills, including states mandating that children remain in school until at least the age of sixteen. This big push was crucial to the nation’s successful adaptation to the changing skill needs (and job opportunities) of the industrial economy -- which were quite different from those of the agrarian economy.

We are not making similarly bold forward-looking investments today. And indeed, we’ve been lagging for decades, even as the skill requirements of contemporary jobs have been changing significantly. I don’t think the technological changes we are experiencing today are nearly as fast-paced as those that we faced during the Industrial Revolution. But our policy and public investment response has been comparatively minuscule. And therein lies the challenge.

A man checks on robotic arms at a factory making industrial robots in eastern China's Jiangsu province.Chinatopix via AP

Why should we listen to a science school’s prescriptions for public policy?

Of course, people should read our prescriptions skeptically, as you would any other piece of policy analysis. Everyone knows what they’d “expect” MIT to say: don’t fear the robots, STEM for everyone, the future is bright — don’t be a Luddite — and how about growing that R&D budget?, etc.


But for the most part, that’s not what we are saying and we don’t assume the future will be bright for everyone without some concrete actions. The report reflects the best insights of top scholars drawn not just from the physical sciences and engineering but also from economics and other social sciences. You may not agree with those scholars – they don’t always agree with each other – but the report does not present any kind of institutional party line.

The point of the Task Force has been to bring all of these different parts of MIT together to weigh in on this critical topic for society - the roboticists, computer scientists, engineers, and data geeks as well as the political scientists, anthropologists, historians and economists.

MIT, as an inventor of technology, has a responsibility to help equip the leaders of tomorrow with an understanding of how we can shape technology as well as institutions toward creating greater shared prosperity.

Robotic arms working on cars at a BMW Mini car production plant in Oxford, England.Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images