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Is Technology Eroding Employment? 544

First time accepted submitter Idontpostmuch writes "The idea that technology cannot cause unemployment has long been taken as a simple fact of economics. Lately, some economists have been changing their tune. MIT research scientist Andrew Mcaffee writes, 'As computers and robots get more and more powerful while simultaneously getting cheaper and more widespread this phenomenon spreads, to the point where economically rational employers prefer buying more technology over hiring more workers. In other words, they prefer capital over labor. This preference affects both wages and job volumes. And the situation will only accelerate as robots and computers learn to do more and more, and to take over jobs that we currently think of not as "routine," but as requiring a lot of skill and/or education.'" Note: Certainly not all economists agree "that technology cannot cause unemployment," especially in the short term. From a certain perspective, displacing labor is a, if not the, central advantage of technology in general.
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Is Technology Eroding Employment?

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  • Modern Luddites (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Kergan ( 780543 ) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @04:39PM (#42279071)

    This debate occurred in the 19th century []. It's over. The answer is a resounding no. As in not at at all. Forget it. Give it up.

    The only rational questions in the foreseeable future are whether or not we should reduce the work week's duration and increase paid vacation time.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 13, 2012 @04:40PM (#42279109)

    ... sooner or later we're going to have to deal with the fact that humans are just machines made of meat that were designed for no specific purpose besides propagate genes/have kids. Whereas robots/AI can be specialized to a particular task and all the energy/resources dedicated to full specialization and be safely chucked/destroyed/replaced when new models come online. This will easily make huge swaths of humanity redundant/unemployable and everyone who believes that humans have an infinite employment landscape are idiots. We already have technological unemployment NOW we just haven't noticed it because we moved on to other "low hanging fruit" of work that only humans could perform, but that low hanging fruit is going to be gone sooner or later.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 13, 2012 @04:44PM (#42279167)

    What utter moron thinks that technology can't cause unemployment. Throughout history, technology has repeatedly caused unemployment. Fortunately, in the past, other positions opened and there was some balance. However, as this article is showing, the imbalance is growing as it is tipping towards more rapid technology growth and other positions not opening fast enough to compensate for the losses.

    What we are seeing today is technology creating permanent unemployment. Cue the experts stating how clueless I am.

  • by queazocotal ( 915608 ) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @04:45PM (#42279189)

    You're assuming a whole bunch of things in that.
    Primarily that the number of people needed to service the machine is equal to the number of staff replaced.
    This seems at best extremely questionable.

    Secondly - half of people are not as smart as the average.
    They are unlikely to be able to get employment designing robots, or ...

  • Re:Modern Luddites (Score:5, Insightful)

    by codepigeon ( 1202896 ) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @04:46PM (#42279203)
    "whether or not we should reduce the work week's duration and increase paid vacation time"

    That is such a ridiculous statement. Oh yes, my work week will be shortened; along with my paycheck.

    What fantasy land do you live in where corporations value the happiness of their employees? Or to be more blunt, openly willing to spend more on paid vacation time? It took unions to get fair pay for workers and look what is happening to them. Do you honestly think a company will waste profits on its employees without being forced to?
  • Re:Modern Luddites (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @04:51PM (#42279301) Journal

    Sure, it didn't happen with the first significant efficiency gain, but what of future gains? Yes, if the labor of one man can support the lives of 10 men, we can find something for the 9 other men to do. What happens when that ratio changes to 1 in 100? 1,000? Do you really think we can extrapolate from the industrial revolution to future where the vast majority of economic activity is automated?

  • by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @04:51PM (#42279319) Homepage

    We have an article still on the front page [] in which Eric Schmidt of Google is saying we're going to have to compete with robots for our jobs.

    Globalization is trying to move everything to the cheapest possible labor source, and robots and technology is next in line. Sure, your startup costs are high, but your robot won't need to take the day off because its kid is home sick.

  • by King_TJ ( 85913 ) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @04:54PM (#42279379) Journal

    I can't help but notice that as of late, MIT has a *load* of content coming out of the place revolving around the general concept of automation displacing humans. I think they're, perhaps, a little too fixated on it to look at the big picture clearly? (Don't get me wrong. I think MIT is doing a lot of excellent research work - and they're on the cutting edge month after month with interesting tech. developments. I just see how they'd get sucked into the "robots will displace us" idea in the midst of all of that.)

    The bottom line is, humans are social creatures. There's WAY too much that gets lost when you get close to full automation of any business. The workplace isn't only about the work that's done. You're still selling your services or products to other human beings on the opposite end of the chain, and they want to interact with other people. At best, artificial intelligence is still just that; "faking it". Maybe, *maybe* we'll eventually reach a point where a robot can think, reason and interact with humans to the point where it's effectively the same as another person. But it's far too early to suggest that will be the case in any of our lifetimes.

    What you do (and will continue) to see is automation replacing any workplace roles where humans act like "artificial robots", performing repetitive manual tasks that don't require any real thought. That still amounts to only a certain percentage of the work at hand in any given factory, and if it helps make production more profitable, it leads to more factories being built, who employ humans in all of the roles that aren't just assembly-related on the production floor. (And yes, it also creates a few more jobs for people who do repair, sales of and setup of those robots and machines.)

  • Re:Pay Us more! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by jdray ( 645332 ) * on Thursday December 13, 2012 @04:57PM (#42279429) Homepage Journal

    Frankly, technology is a much safer bet than human capital. Capital tends to have a fixed investment base with a relatively well-known maintenance schedule. Labor, on the other hand, is fraught with pitfalls: changing laws, rising insurance costs, performance variances. Not to mention, it's rare that machinery gets poached by your competition.

    Creativity is the area that machines will suck at for the foreseeable future. Anyone in manufacturing should start looking toward a career in process design instead.

    I may sound callous with this, but those with the money (certainly not me) only care about growing the money with as much guarantee as they can. The rest is annoying details. Given their position, it's unlikely you can say with certainty that you'd act any differently.

  • by jaweekes ( 938376 ) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @04:58PM (#42279447)

    The problem is that those people are only employed for a short time in respect to each machine.

    For example: 2 assembly line workera are employed for 40 hrs / 50 wks a year at $6/hr = $12,000 / yr * 2 = $24,000. A robot can be built for $48,000 with $6,000 / yr maintenance. Over 3 years the robot has paid for itself. It only employed a design engineer for 4 weeks to design it, a crew of 2 for 1 week to build it and on average one tech for at most 1 week to maintain it.

    The robot company needs to sell 50 robots to keep everyone working all the time, so that's 100 line workers it can replace while only employing 4 people plus a few support staff.

    I call that a net loss.

    I've been in manufacturing for years and have seen it happen too many times. It's not new but a fact of life. As an IT guy I've personally created systems that have replaced 10 people without spending anything other then 3 months of my time, simply by automating data entry. Doing that saved a company from going under, but that's 10 people that will not be rehired.

    Employment is down because of technology. Systems are getting better, more complex and more reliable, so the trend will only increase.

  • Re:Modern Luddites (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 13, 2012 @05:03PM (#42279551)

    What fantasy land do you live in where corporations value the happiness of their employees? Or to be more blunt, openly willing to spend more on paid vacation time?


  • by CosaNostra Pizza Inc ( 1299163 ) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @05:10PM (#42279653)

    The rulers of the future will be people who are good at manipulating machines, they will be programmers.

    No. It will still be the managers who manipulate the people who manipulate the machines.

  • Re:Modern Luddites (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dywolf ( 2673597 ) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @05:12PM (#42279689)

    A Resounding No?

    Depending on the machine you can replace between 1 and 20 (lets say) workers. So those 1 to 20 people at Company A are now without job. They now have to find new employment in some fashion, which means learning a new job, something that not everyone is able (age, competency) or willing to do (lazy, screw them). That new job could be the caretaker for the new machines. Either way, Company A now has fewer workers. Another option for the workers is to go work for Company B, the maker of the machines. They need salesmen, engineers, and factory workers, sure. And some of the workers can go there.

    But it's still generally a sloping plot trending to smaller numbers.

    If there are 20 displaced workers in one place from the new technology, not all 20 of them will find new work revolving around the new tech. And it's a viscious or self-enforcing cycle. Sometimes the tech is made because there arent enough workers or the workers are limited in capability (cant work 24 hours a day, etc). Sometimes the tech works in place with workers, symbiotically, sometimes it totally replaces them.

    It's not a given that technology has no effect on unemployment, but it's not a given that it does either.
    It depends on the industry, on the tech, and on the workers.

  • by rickb928 ( 945187 ) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @05:19PM (#42279819) Homepage Journal

    Exactly. In fact, having fewer people to manage may well make management skills even more valuable. It's one thing to annoy one out of 13,000 employees, and risk losing key skills or exprience. When the pool is smaller, then annoying one out of 3,000 makes the risk greater. And every one of those fewer employees may well be much more valuable than the math indicates.

  • by j. andrew rogers ( 774820 ) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @05:20PM (#42279831)

    Once upon a time, people generated most of their value with their muscles. When machines replaced muscles, people could still generate value with their brains because machines could not replace brains. So the original Luddite scenario never materialized.

    Now that machines are starting to replace brains, a growing portion of the population has a rapidly dwindling ability to generate significant economic value relative to the machines. As time passes, machines can effectively replace both the muscles and brains of more of the population.

    This is also why forcing people to work fewer hours will not help. The problem is not the number of jobs available; it is the number of people who can generate more positive value in that position relative to a machine. Eventually we will all be in the position of no longer being able to be a productive member of a modern economy; everyone believes their contribution to be indispensable until the technology catches up and it isn't.

  • by raymorris ( 2726007 ) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @05:24PM (#42279911) Journal
    It's not a fantasy or even a theory, it's historical fact for the last four hundred years. A guy who can run a combine harvesting tons of cotton per day makes more, and works fewer hours, than someone picking by hand. An accountant running a computer is more productive and higher paid than one with a quill pen. Assume a company was NOT willing to pay you more for programming robots than it did for assembling toasters. (Or equalivently, give you more time off.) You'd simply get a job at another company which will pay programmers operators of robots more than the assembly low workers the robots replace. The fact is, 98% of Slashdot readers earn more and get more time off than our grandparents precisely because we use the technology that replaced pur grandparents' jobs.
  • Re:Modern Luddites (Score:5, Insightful)

    by poity ( 465672 ) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @05:26PM (#42279945)

    I'll bet many of them would be happier simply because then they could get a 2nd job and make 40% more income by continuing to work 8-10 hours a day, since 1) they're used to working that much, and 2) enjoyment of free time is dependent on quality rather than quantity (would you mope around for an extra 4 hours a day, or spend the weekend on your new boat?).

  • Re:Modern Luddites (Score:5, Insightful)

    by reve_etrange ( 2377702 ) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @05:45PM (#42280205)

    The conclusion is probably going to be the detachment of income from labor.

    Progress is bad for us right now precisely because we allow workers who have been displaced by technology to starve (or nearly so). We should try and alter our economy so that increased efficiency actually benefits society.

  • by anubi ( 640541 ) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @06:13PM (#42280681) Journal
    I think you got it. Machines will end up with all the dreary drudgery repetitive mindless work which supports our infrastructure. This was done by the "proletariat" of old days, leaving the enjoyment of the efforts of their labor to the bourgeoisie.

    The machines become the proletariat, producing our food, making our things, cleaning up after us, getting rid of our trash. We just tell the men who design the machines anything we desire, and those of us proficient in machinery describe to CAD machines the instructions for making it.

    This opens up a whole new realm of leisure for us. We get to spend our days socializing and doing pleasant things, hopefully enjoying what few days our biological systems are designed to last.

    Being I just came off the flu ( a four-roll special, if measured in spools of toilet paper ), I for one was very thankful for the comforts of electric blankets, flush toilets, and machines which toiled through the night making cans of chicken soup and rolls of TP.

    I can guiltlessly assign work to a machine I would have a hard time justifying I ask a living, breathing, feeling human being to do. I would not even ask an animal to do it. I see all sorts of stuff in history books ( and the Bible ) of people being required to perform all sorts of unthinkable labors, of which they reaped no benefit. Being I am in technology myself - and deal regularly with embedded processing - it is my goal to make some device with the sole purpose of making life easier for us. I think everyone who designs this stuff has the same intention.

    But like anything else, technology, like fire, can be used to warm the house or destroy the building, but its not the fault of the fire.

    I do not fear technology, but I do fear the misuse of technology.

    We seem to be looking for something to blame the current economic malaise on. Its not technology causing this one folks... its Tax Law. In computer parlance, we have a bunch of legal short-circuits in the system. This system can work a helluva lot better than it is as soon as we patch the program to produce desired outputs rather than enriching a few by crony capitalism. Right now, the law incentivizes hoarding and greed. A few changes in tax law is all that is needed to fix this. There is nothing wrong with the hardware, but some of the software is poorly written, causing resource hogging..
  • by Feanorian ( 1664427 ) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @06:22PM (#42280837)

    Marx talks how capital's need to grow lead to technological innovation to make production more efficient. This in principle could allow for people to work much less and still maintain very high standards of living. However, our production is oriented toward maximizing profits, not human needs, therefore we work longer hours in spite of the mechanization of most of production.

    OTOH, the labor theory of value also shows that this mechanization also causes a decrease in the RATE of profit, which has lead to a decline of labor intensive industry in the US and a financialization of capital.

    So yea, mechanization not only displaces jobs, but I contend that it is more relevant than outsourcing to the loss of American manufacturing and tech jobs. In fact, there was a Slashdot post not too long ago talking about how rising wages in Asia is causing manufacturing to move back to the US but in the form of robot factories, so the jobs still don't come back.

    These effects don't make themselves readily apparent because capitalism shifting these problems in space and time so they show up as problems elsewhere in the economy. Markets also further obscure these problems as consumers arrive at the market place theoretically as "equals" making mutual exchanges while hiding inequalities in labor and production.

  • by ultranova ( 717540 ) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @06:30PM (#42280991)

    Can we displace THEM with technology too?

    No, because they're not doing anything, they're just owning stuff. Technology can only replace labour, it cannot help someone getting the fruits of someone else's work without doing anything.

  • by bjourne ( 1034822 ) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @06:36PM (#42281087) Homepage Journal
    That's the idea with more technology of course. But in reality, we seem to be experiencing the reverse. Collectively we spend more hours at work today than we did 50 years ago and many more than we did 200 years ago. It may be more cushier jobs sitting in front of a computer for 8-9 hours per day than digging ditches or cutting trees or whatever manual labour they did. Less risk of getting hurt in an accident, higher risk of getting fat and having a heart attack I guess.
  • by timeOday ( 582209 ) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @06:39PM (#42281129)
    The 400 year trend is not in dispute. It is the 30 year trend is more problematic: worker productivity and corporate profits have skyrocketed [], while wages have fallen [].

    I think there is a good reason why you referenced our grandfathers rather than our fathers. Even then your claim is dubious. My grandfather, on "just" a bachelor's degree, single-handedly supported a family, owned a home in Long Beach and a vacation cabin and a boat, and retired on an inflation-adjusted pension after only 25 years of work at a company, from which he drew for 25 years. He even owned real furniture, not this particle-board and plastic crap of today. Granted, he didn't have slashdot.

  • Re:Modern Luddites (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ultranova ( 717540 ) on Thursday December 13, 2012 @06:58PM (#42281395)

    Who is going to pay for the goods and services at the burger flipping place?

    No one, so it will close down. After all, it provided services to a class that's now useless. In the end, only the factories that provide luxury goods for the rich will be left operating; the rest of us will starve to death or, in the absolute best case, be treated as cattle and provided the basic necessities as charity by whatever echoes of conscience might remain in the necrotic souls of some of the owning class.

    It doesn't have to go this way, of course, but having it go another way requires changing our economic system. It's not even capitalism that's the problem, but the very idea that you should work for a living - it simply doesn't work when paired off with increasing automation. Already we have persistent unemployment because we simply don't require as much human labour as can be supplied by everyone doing full work week.

    I suggest we start reducing working hours per week, while keeping the hourly wage intact and compensating by paying a monthly "citizenship pay". This is to give various businesses an incentive to further automate their functions, thus cutting the need for human labour ever more. At the same time, our schools should shift their focus to philosophy, art, history, all the so-called "soft" subjects necessary for people who'll be spending most of their time without any pressing external needs. But of course they shouldn't forget the "hard" sciences either, and indeed since we'll be having a very large pool of otherwise idle people, it should be easy to recruit far more teachers per class, increasing the quality of education in all subjects.

  • Re:Modern Luddites (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Evtim ( 1022085 ) on Friday December 14, 2012 @02:25AM (#42284581)

    Bull! (resident of NL here)

    The Netherlands is sliding at an ever accelerating rate towards inhuman capitalism a la USA. In the last 5 years the average salary increase for 85% of all employees was less than the official inflation which is, as usual, significantly lower than the real inflation.

    Vast portion of the employers used the crisis to get rid of people and keep wages down even if the crisis did not affect their businesses. The national pride of the NL - the "polder model" is declared dead because it cannot generate enough profit. does generate huge profit but it is hidden in the form of content workers, decent relations at the working place, calm and polite society, general happiness and wealth. But it does not generate profits for the 1% comparable to those in inhuman capitalist societies, only the governments of lately are listening with the two ears to the 1% only.

    The Medical system has become utter crap, they made me an invalid due to negligence which was due to the doctors being pressured to give the cheapest treatment. 5 years later I am forced to go private and pay handsomely while at the same time I am forced to keep paying the insurance system.

    The trains have become crap after the company was privatized. They are now "profitable" by no delivering millions of people on time to work every day. So they cost billions to the country in order to make millions of profits. What is the government doing - they craft financial mechanisms to force people to move close to their work, so that we do not have to rely so heavily on the railroads.

    The list goes forever.....I came from a former communist state to witness the self-destruction of the so-called free world. Check when the west started sliding to good old "shot the strikers" days of capitalism. Yhea, when the wall collapsed. NO need to pretend anymore that the little person matters. No fear from workers revolution - this is "red" and it failed , right? The last straw - the feudal masters managed to convince the people that it is again those former red countries that are guilty for it all (took our jobs, fucking immigrants). Whereas the workers in the west instead of believing this shit should thank us for living in hell so that their fathers and grandfathers could have decent life......

Things equal to nothing else are equal to each other.