Humans, Machines and the Future of Work

ConferenceHumans, Machines, and the Future of Work

Automation, driven by technological progress, has been increasing inexorably for the past several decades. Two schools of economic thinking have been engaging in a debate about the potential effects of automation on jobs, employment and human activity: will new technology spawn mass unemployment, as the robots take jobs away from humans? Or will the jobs robots take over release or unveil – or even create – demand for new human jobs?

The debate has flared up again recently because of technological achievements that recently enabled a Google software program called AlphaGo to beat Go world champion Lee Sedol, a task considered even harder than beating the world’s chess champions.

Ultimately the question boils down to this: are today’s modern technological innovations like those of the past, which made obsolete the job of buggy maker, but created the job of automobile manufacturer? Or is there something about today that is markedly different? This is not a new concern. Dating back at least as far as the Luddites of early 19th-century Britain, new technologies caused fear about the inevitable changes they bring.

There is considerable evidence that this concern may be justified. Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT recently wrote:

For several decades after World War II the economic statistics we care most about all rose together here in America as if they were tightly coupled. GDP grew, and so did productivity — our ability to get more output from each worker. At the same time, we created millions of jobs, and many of these were the kinds of jobs that allowed the average American worker, who didn’t (and still doesn’t) have a college degree, to enjoy a high and rising standard of living. But … productivity growth and employment growth started to become decoupled from each other.

As the decoupling data show, the U.S. economy has been performing quite poorly for the bottom 90 percent of Americans for the past 40 years. Technology is driving productivity improvements, which grow the economy, but most people are not seeing any benefit from this growth. While the U.S. economy is still creating jobs, it is not creating enough of them. The labor force participation rate, which measures the active portion of the labor force, has been dropping since the late 1990s.

An in-depth discussion of these issues will take place at a conference on Humans, Machines, and the Future of Work, Dec. 5-6, 2016.

About the author

Moshe Vardi

Moshe Vardi is a Professor of Computer Science at Rice University. He is the Karen Ostrum George Professor in Computational Engineering, Distinguished Service Professor, and Director of the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology. His interests focus on applications of logic to computer science, including database theory, finite-model theory, knowledge in multi-agent systems, computer-aided verification and reasoning, and teaching logic across the curriculum. He current serves as editor-in-chief of Communications of the ACM.

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