In my 2012 Work’s New Age, I wrote extensively about the coming of machines and expected them soon to take over tens of millions of jobs. That hasn’t happened – yet. There has still been some of that, and continued sporadic public concerns over the past six months.
The first I can offer is “The Robots Are Coming for Phil in Accounting,” by Kevin Roose in the March 6th New York Times. Most here reads as if it were from around the time of my book above, including mentions of automation taking over positions much higher paying than the industrial production work where it started, that machines get more “disruptive potential” as they “become capable of complex decision-making,” that “A.I. optimists” have long expected the absurd outcome of an equal number of positions to be created after robots eliminate many, and that it is valuable to select careers “harder to automate.” What’s new is outcomes of studies which “compared the test of job listings with the wording of A.I.-related patents, looking for phrases like “make prediction” and “generate recommendation” that appeared in both,” endangering largely “better-paid, better-educated workers in technical and supervisory roles.”
Next, we have a National Bureau of Economic Research paper “Tasks, Automation, and the Rise in US Wage Inequality,” by Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo, issued in June. In the abstract, the authors said “that between 50% and 70% of changes in the US wage structure over the last four decades are accounted for by the relative wage declines of worker groups specialized in routine tasks in industries experiencing rapid automation.” That should be scary.
Low-level service workers are now enjoying higher demand and pay than they have had maybe ever, but that may turn out to be short-lived, per Ben Casselman’s July 3rd New York Times “Pandemic Wave of Automation May Be Bad News for Workers.” We have for years seen kiosks and phone apps allowing fast-food customers to order without involving anyone at a counter, and, as the cost of employees jumps, automated solutions get more cost-effective. As pay levels have shot up suddenly, and software and devices take time to develop, we can expect many more of those to reach management’s input streams within the next year or two. Whether companies are willing to pay people current market rates or not, they will have ever-better alternative options.
Three days later, also in the Times, “The pandemic has brought more automation, which could have long-term impacts for workers” provided a good summary and set of examples, including “an automated voice” taking Checkers drive-though orders and suggesting additional purchases, supermarket “robots to patrol aisles for spills and check inventory,” a Kroger’s warehouse with “more than 1,000 robots that bag groceries for delivery customers,” and even remote factory troubleshooting, allowing technicians to cover larger geographical territories. In all, “technological investments that were made in response to the crisis may contribute to a post-pandemic productivity boom, allowing for higher wages and faster growth” – at the expense of jobs bringing in relatively little revenue.
There are reasons why companies do not automate as much as they could, starting with maintaining good public relations. It could be that no great post-Covid spurt of technology eliminating workers will materialize. But there is plenty of justification for it, especially when management sees production-level compensation as an unpredictable budget-buster. Accordingly, permanent automation could, indeed, turn out to be the coronavirus’s most widespread and lasting legacy. Bet against that at your peril.