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PAGE ONE Economics

®

Will Robots Take Our Jobs?
Scott A. Wolla, Ph.D., Senior Economic Education Specialist

GLOSSARY
Automation: Automatically controlled operation of an apparatus, process, or system
by mechanical or electronic devices that
take the place of human labor.
Human capital: The knowledge and skills
that people obtain through education,
experience, and training.
Law of demand: As the price of a good or
service rises, the quantity demanded of
that good or service falls. Likewise, as the
price of a good or service falls, the quantity
demanded of that good or service rises.
Physical capital: Goods that have been
produced and are used to produce other
goods and services. They are used over
and over again in the production process;
also called capital goods and capital
resources.
Technological advance: An advance in
overall knowledge in a specific area; also
known as technological change.

“Robots will harvest, cook, and serve our food. They will work in our
factories, drive our cars, and walk our dogs. Like it or not, the age of
work is coming to an end.”
—Gray Scott, futurist philosopher

“Robot Apocalypse” is a modern expression that refers to a fear of
technological advance, but the anxiety goes back centuries.1 In 1589,
Queen Elizabeth refused to grant the inventor of a mechanical knitting
machine a patent for fear of putting manual knitters out of work.2 In the
early 19th century, textile artisans called Luddites attempted to prevent
or derail the mechanization of the textile industry. Even economists, such
as John Maynard Keynes, have worried about “technological unemployment.”3 The fear has not receded. A recent headline from Business Insider
suggests that “machines may replace half of human jobs.”4 Before your
anxiety rises to uncomfortable levels, consider economist David Autor’s
warning that journalists tend to overstate the extent to which machines
will substitute for human labor and ignore the positive aspects that benefit
workers and create jobs.5

Robots, Artificial Intelligence, and Automation
What exactly is a “robot”? We might envision a Star Wars-like robot in the
vein of R2-D2 or C-3PO, but a robot is any device or algorithm that does
what humans once did, from mechanical combines and thermostats to
dishwashers and airfare search sites.6 And, unlike other physical capital
or forms of technology, robots can be programmed to perform many tasks
and do not need a human operator.7 Robots are very good at doing routine
or repetitive tasks. The jobs that include many of these types of tasks are
most susceptible to automation, which means that once the technology
is in place and programmed, the production process happens automatically (without human assistance). As computer processing has become
faster and cheaper, it is cost-effective to have robots do more routine tasks
previously done by humans. These are tasks that can be divided into steps
and then into computer code for a computer to replicate. Some of these
tasks are mathematical calculations, information retrieval, and data sorting.
It is more difficult to automate tasks that require flexibility, judgment,
intuition, creativity, and common sense. 8
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Automation does not mean that jobs with routine or
repetitive tasks will simply disappear. When ATMs were
introduced during the 1970s, many worried that they
would replace bank branches and tellers and that employment would contract. Actually, because ATMs reduced
the cost of operation, the number of bank branches
increased. And while the number of tellers per branch
decreased, because there were more branches, there
were more employment opportunities for tellers. There
were more tellers employed in 2010 than in 1980, and
their duties have since expanded to include “relationship
banking”—something ATMs cannot do.9 A similar effect
has occurred in auto manufacturing: While much manual
human labor has been replaced by automation, cars
have become more complex, requiring more labor. As a
result, it takes more human labor to produce a car now
than in the past.10

Substitute or Complement?
The way technology impacts jobs has to do with the
way workers relate to the technology. It’s important to
differentiate between two similar terms here: physical
capital and technology. Physical capital is all the tools
and equipment used to produce other goods and services. Technology includes the knowledge, processes,
and techniques used to produce goods and services. In
other words, technology is all the intangible features
embodied in the physical capital. Think of an iPhone—
for a business, it is physical capital, but the difference
between the original iPhone and the iPhone 10 is a difference in technology.
Physical capital, in its current state of technology, often
substitutes for human labor. In fact, that is often the
reason it is developed. But technology also complements
labor; it raises the output in ways that lead to a higher
demand for labor. For example, think of the spreadsheet
software on your computer. It can be used to organize
information into columns, but it can also be used as a
high-powered calculator to process thousands of pieces
of data at one time. The development of spreadsheet
software during the early 1980s made repetitive calculations simpler and faster. In fact, the spreadsheet replaced
the work that bookkeepers used to do in ledgers with
simple adding machines and calculators—it substituted
for the labor of bookkeepers. But spreadsheets also created demand for people who could analyze numbers in
new and interesting ways, such as accountants and

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management consultants.11 Why? Remember the law
of demand: As the price of something decreases, the
quantity demanded of that good increases. Because the
spreadsheet reduced the price of calculations (a cost to
firms), it increased the quantity of calculations demanded. As more calculations were demanded, the demand
for data analysis performed by accountants and management consultants increased as well. So, the spreadsheet
was a substitute for bookkeepers but a complement to
the work of accountants and consultants—higher-skilled
jobs. And the growth in accounting and analytical jobs
since the 1980s has been much larger than the loss of
bookkeeping jobs.12
In fact, as some sectors contract due to technology
(substitution), other (complementary) sectors arise . In
1900, 41 percent of the U.S. workforce was employed in
agriculture; by 2000 that share had fallen to 2 percent,
mostly due to substituting capital for labor.13 While agricultural jobs became a smaller part of the labor force,
manufacturing, service, and repair of farm machinery
increased. As passenger cars displaced the horse and
buggy (and the jobs associated with them) during the
1920s, motel and fast-food industries rose up to serve
the “motoring public.”14
Changes in technology will likely change the types of
jobs available and what those jobs pay. As technology
substitutes for routine work, economists suggest that
polarization will likely result. This means that many jobs
in the “middle” will disappear through automation, but
the number of low-skill/low-income jobs and high-skill/
high-income jobs will see gains. In both cases, it is because
these types of jobs are difficult to automate. Low-skill
jobs often require skills such as adaptability, physical
mobility, and interpersonal interaction—food preparation and serving, cleaning and janitorial services, home
healthcare, hair styling—which are difficult to replicate
through automation. On the other side are “abstract”
jobs that require skills such as problem-solving, intuition,
creativity, and persuasion; in the job market these are
professional, technical, and managerial positions. These
workers generally have a lot of education, and the jobs
require inductive reasoning, communication, and specialized skills.15 Some economists worry that in addition
to jobs migrating to the two ends of the skills spectrum,
the gap between high-income workers and middle- and
low-income workers will grow even wider.16

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Preparing For Change
The transition from an agricultural economy in 1900 to
an industrial economy in later decades coincided with a
change in the education system. In 1900, the typical
American had only a common school education, equivalent to six or eight years of formal schooling. From
1910-1940, the United States engaged in the high school
movement and became the first nation in the world to
deliver universal high school education to its citizens. The
fraction of youths enrolled in U.S. high schools increased
from 18 percent to 71 percent.17 This constituted a dramatic increase in the human capital of the American
work force, which enabled the economy to make the
transition from agriculture to industry. Similarly, as the
economy employs more robots and automation, the
need for manual and repetitive labor will decrease, and
the demand for computer programmers, engineers, and
problem solvers will increase.
And, like the transition from agriculture to industry,
investments in human capital by parents, students, and
governments will play an important role in the preparation of workers. Andrew McAfee, an economist who has
researched the topic, suggests that students pursue a
double major, one in liberal arts (to develop problem-­
solving, creativity, and critical-thinking skills) and another
in the sciences (to develop quantitative and technological skills).18 This pairing reflects what many economists
suggest about the jobs of the future, where human skills
and judgment will be bundled with technological automation. For workers to be employable, they must acquire
the skills necessary to ensure that technology is a complement rather than a substitute for their human capital.
And education will not end with a high school or post-­
secondary education; employability will mean constantly
upgrading skills and education.

The Future: Intolerable Abundance or Continued Scarcity?
While humans have long feared technology and robots
automating all the jobs of society, one might wonder if
that is such a bad thing. Remember that while robots can
produce goods and services, they don’t consume in the
way humans do. We currently live in an economy where
most people exchange their labor resources for income,
and then they use their income to purchase goods and
services. And we live in a world where there are not
enough resources to fulfill everyone’s wants; in other

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words, we live in a condition of scarcity. But if we’re in a
world where robots do the work, then goods and services
are plentiful, and the demand for labor is greatly reduced
(a post-scarcity world).19 This futuristic, post-scarcity
world poses new problems, such as how will goods and
services be distributed among people? And who will pay
taxes? Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook)20 and Elon Musk
(Tesla)21 suggest that the benefits of automation be
used to fund continuous education and universal basic
income.22 Bill Gates suggests that the government should
tax the work done by robots to compensate the workers
they replace.23 Economist Larry Summers disagrees with
Bill Gates. He says that because robots provide society
with many benefits, taxing (and thereby reducing) them
is counterproductive.24 Summers, and others, suggest
that subsidizing education and training is a more effective means of supporting people who lose their jobs to
robots.

Conclusion
Considering a world where distribution (not scarcity) is
the central problem is interesting, but many economists
see this as needless worry. Productivity-enhancing technology has changed the economy in dramatic ways over
the past two centuries, and it has not made human labor
obsolete. Nor has it eliminated the problem of scarcity.
Herbert Simon, economist, computer scientist, and Nobel
laureate, wrote in the 1960s (another period of automation anxiety), “Insofar as they are economic problems at
all, the world’s problems in this generation and the next
are problems of scarcity, not of intolerable abundance.
The bogeyman of automation consumes worrying capacity that should be saved for real problems.”25 In short,
many economists see the current wave of new technology and automation as a trend that has been occurring
for most of human history, and one that will continue in
the future. The challenge is in equipping future workers
with the skills they need to be competitive and productive in a changing economy. n

NOTES
1

Ip, Greg. “Workers: Fear Not the Robot Apocalypse.” Wall Street Journal,
September 5, 2017; https://www.wsj.com/articles/workers-fear-not-the-robotapocalypse-1504631505.
2
3

Ip (2017; see footnote 1).

Hickins, Michael. “Why AI Isn’t the Robot Apocalypse for Jobs.” Forbes,
September 8, 2017; https://www.forbes.com/sites/oracle/2017/09/08/why-aiisnt-the-robot-apocalypse-for-jobs/#6442b611189b.

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4

Thompson, Cadie. “Machines May Replace Half of Human Jobs.” Business Insider,
February 16, 2016; http://www.businessinsider.com/machines-may-replace-halfof-human-jobs-2016-2.
5

Autor, David H. “Skills, Education, and the Rise of Earnings Inequality Among
the ‘Other 99 Percent.’” Science, 2014, 344(6186), pp. 843-51.
6

Ip, Greg. “Robots Aren’t Destroying Enough Jobs.” Wall Street Journal, May 10,
2017; https://www.wsj.com/articles/robots-arent-destroying-enoughjobs-1494434982.

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17

Goldin, Claudia and Katz, Lawrence F. “Mass Secondary Schooling and the
State: The Role of State Compulsion in the High School Movement,” in D.L. Costa
and N.R. Lamoreaux, eds, Understanding Long-Run Economic Growth: Geography,
Institutions, and the Knowledge Economy. University of Chicago Press, 2008,
pp. 275-310.
18

Regalado (2012; see footnote 16).

19

Autor (2015; see footnote 8).

20

7

Acemoglu, Daron and Restrepo, Pascual. “Robots and Jobs: Evidence from US
Labor Markets.” NBER Working Paper, No. 23285, March 2017.

Sodha, Sonia. “Mark Zuckerberg’s Got Some Cheek, Advocating a Universal
Basic Income.” Guardian, July 10, 2017; https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/10/mark-zuckerberg-universal-basic-income-facebook-tax.

8

21

Autor, David H. “Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? The History and Future of
Workplace Automation.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2015, 29(3), pp. 3-30.
9

Bessen, James. “Toil and Technology.” Finance and Development, 2015, 52(1).

10

Guo, Jeff. “We’re So Unprepared for the Robot Apocalypse.” Washington Post,
March 30, 2017; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/03/30/
were-so-unprepared-for-the-robot-apocalypse/?utm_term=.e71cce924065.
11

Ip, Greg. “What Econ 101 Can Teach Us About Artificial intelligence.” Wall Street
Journal, August 9, 2017; https://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2017/08/09/whatecon-101-can-teach-us-about-artificial-intelligence/.
12

Ip (2017; see footnote 11).

13

Autor (2014; see footnote 5).

Weller, Chris. “Elon Musk Doubles Down on Universal Basic Income: ‘It’s Going
To Be Necessary.’” Business Insider, February 13, 2017; http://www.businessinsider.
com/elon-musk-universal-basic-income-2017-2?r=UK&IR=T.
22

Sodha (2017; see footnote 20).

23

Delany, Kevin. “The Robot That Takes Your Job Should Pay Taxes, Says Bill
Gates.” Quartz, February 17, 2017; https://qz.com/911968/bill-gates-the-robotthat-takes-your-job-should-pay-taxes/.
24

Summers, Lawrence. “Robots Are Wealth Creators and Taxing them Is Illogical.”
Financial Times, March 5, 2017; https://www.ft.com/content/42ab292a-000d11e7-8d8e-a5e3738f9ae4.
25

Simon, Herbert A. “Automation (a letter in response to “Where Do We Go from
Here?” March 17, 1966 issue).” New York Review of Books, May 26, 1966.

14 Jackson, Kristin. “The World’s First Motel Rests Upon Its Memories.” Seattle Times,

April 25, 1993; http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19930425&slug=1697701.
15

Autor (2015; see footnote 8).

16

Regalado, Antonio. “When Machines Do Your Job.” MIT Technology Review,
July 11, 2012; https://www.technologyreview.com/s/428429/when-machinesdo-your-job/.

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PAGE ONE Economics®

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Name___________________________________ Period_______
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Page One Economics ®:

“Will Robots Take Our Jobs?”

After reading the article, complete the following:
1.	 What types of jobs are most likely to be automated? What types of tasks are difficult to automate?

2.	 Does automation mean fewer jobs in an industry? Why or why not? (Clue: Consider the impact of ATMs on
	 banking jobs.)

3.	 How can technology both complement and substitute for human labor? Provide an example.

4.	 How does education play a role in preparing workers for the changing needs of employers? How should students 	
	 prepare for the expected changes in the labor market?

5.	 Adjusting for the future:
	

a.	 What does Bill Gates propose?

	

b.	 What does economist Larry Summers propose?


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