Who is winning the race for jobs between robots and humans? Last year, two leading economists described a future in which humans come out ahead. But now they've declared a different winner: the robots.
The industry most affected by automation is manufacturing. For every robot per thousand workers, up to six workers lost their jobs and wages fell by as much as three-fourths of a percent, according to a new paper by the economists, Daron Acemoglu of M.I.T. and Pascual Restrepo of Boston University. It appears to be the first study to quantify large, direct, negative effects of robots.
The paper is all the more significant because the researchers, whose work is highly regarded in their field, had been more sanguine about the effect of technology on jobs. In a paper last year, they said it was likely that increased automation would create new, better jobs, so employment and wages would eventually return to their previous levels. Just as cranes replaced dockworkers but created related jobs for engineers and financiers, the theory goes, new technology has created new jobs for software developers and data analysts.
But that paper was a conceptual exercise. The new one uses real-world data — and suggests a more pessimistic future. The researchers said they were surprised to see very little employment increase in other occupations to offset the job losses in manufacturing. That increase could still happen, they said, but for now there are large numbers of people out of work, with no clear path forward — especially blue-collar men without college degrees.
"The conclusion is that even if overall employment and wages recover, there will be losers in the process, and it's going to take a very long time for these communities to recover," Mr. Acemoglu said.
"If you've worked in Detroit for 10 years, you don't have the skills to go into health care," he said. "The market economy is not going to create the jobs by itself for these workers who are bearing the brunt of the change."
The paper's evidence of job displacement from technology contrasts with a comment from the Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, who said at an Axios event last week that artificial intelligence's displacement of human jobs was "not even on our radar screen," and "50 to 100 more years" away. (Not all robots use artificial intelligence, but a panel of experts — polled by the M.I.T. Initiative on the Digital Economy in reaction to Mr. Mnuchin's comments — expressed the same broad concern of major job displacement.)