Columnist says robots are not taking enough jobs

May 11, 2017

Robots are coming for our jobs, according to many observers, with the added insult that we might be expected to train our robot replacements. But Greg Ip in The Wall Street Journal contends that robots aren’t taking enough jobs.

“From Silicon Valley to Davos, pundits have been warning that millions of individuals will be thrown out of work by the rapid advance of automation and artificial intelligence,” he writes. “As economic forecasts go, this idea of a robot apocalypse is certainly chilling. It’s also baffling and misguided.”

He continues, “Too many sectors, such as health care or personal services, are so resistant to automation that they are holding back the entire country’s standard of living.”

He contends that job creation simply isn’t a problem in the United States, with nonfarm private employment in April having risen for the 86th straight month. Further, he writes, if automation were replacing workers, the productivity of the remaining workers should be growing, but isn’t.

He writes, “In a compelling study released this week, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation demonstrates that the supposed gale of technology-driven job destruction is a myth.” The study’s authors, Robert D. Atkinson and John Wu, write, “Contrary to popular perceptions, the labor market is not experiencing unprecedented technological disruption. In fact, occupational churn in the United States is at a historic low. It is time stop worrying and start accelerating productivity with more technological innovation.”

Ip quotes Dietrich Vollrath, an economist specializing in growth at the University of Houston, as saying, ““Robots can replace a lot fewer things that go into GDP than we think.” Ip adds, “Medical breakthroughs have mostly gone toward new and more expensive treatments, not to making existing treatments less expensive. Children may sit in front of better screens than they did in the 1950s, but working parents won’t leave their children in the care of a robot, so child-care workers doubled to almost 2 million between 1990 and 2010, according to the ITIF study.”

Ip adds that low-productivity healthcare, education, social assistance, and leisure and hospitality sectors have added nearly 7 million jobs since 2007 while sectors (such as information and finance) with high value per worker have cut or added few jobs.

“Instead of worrying about robots destroying jobs, business leaders need to figure out how to use them more, especially in low-productivity sectors,” he writes. The alternative would be rising wages leading to inflation and recession. “That is a more imminent threat than an army of androids,” he concludes.

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