Can a Robot Do Your Job?

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If you've ever seen 'Terminator,' you know how frightening it can be for angry robots to take over the world. But how about friendly robots who can do your job quicker, cheaper, and more efficiently than you do? And these robots don't show up late or ask for overtime. 

It's already happened — and is happening — in plenty of industries. Take farming. Before the Industrial Revolution, thousands of laborers were threshers in the fields. Once the mechanized thresher hit the markets and eventually sold for fairly cheap prices, those jobs were lost to mechanization.

Displaced farmers managed to find employment in other burgeoning sectors, but that's becoming harder to do in the modern economy, according to Erik Brynjolfsson, professor at the M.I.T.'s Sloan School of Management. Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, a research scientist at M.I.T.'s Center for Digital Business, co-wrote “Race Against the Machine,” explaining that even as the economy recovers, the amount of jobs will not increase due to technological innovation and globalization. 

"Technology's always been creating jobs, and it's always been destroying jobs," Brynjolfsson says. "It's part of our economy." At one point, the professor estimates, around 90 percent of workers labored in the agriculture sector. Since the Industrial Revolution and other advancements, that figure has dropped to two percent. 

"This time, however, the pace of job destruction as digital technologies in particular automate routine tasks is happening a lot faster, and the job creation side of the equation isn't keeping up," Brynjolfsson says. Companies have begun to implement labor in a wide variety of fields, such as tech support, warehouse operations, and call centers. Even the legal profession may not be safe — there are  tools that do much of the discovery work that young associates do. 

Brynjolfsson points to Watson, IBM's supercomputer that beat out its human opponents on the show Jeopardy, including perennial champion Ken Jennings. Now off the game show circuit, Watson has excelled during stints in a tech support call center, and has even applied to and been given jobs on Wall Street and in medical centers. 

Technology's rapid advances are certainly impressive, but the implementation of those advances is already shouldering aside many workers who make up the middle class, making for serious structural changes in the economy. "There's been job polarization where those routine tasks that make up the bulk of middle class work," Brynjolfsson says. Think of a tax preparer that now has to compete with Turbo Tax or payroll clerks, or travel agents. All those types jobs have really been hit the hardest and have fallen tremendously."

These middle-class jobs face considerably more risk than either extreme. According to Brynjolfsson, the median wage for the middle class is lower than it was 15 years ago. People at the top of the income ladder have seen their incomes soar, but what the professor finds the most interesting is the resilience of low wage earners. "Gardeners, barbers, people who do physical work that's non-routine — they've actually done OK," the professor says. "They haven't been automated as quickly as those people in the middle of the income distribution. It's serious job polarization."