• Chart of the Week
  • November 28, 2018

Man vs machine

Hey robot, need a hand?

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Sci-Fi writers, pundits, and business leaders worry that robots are taking our jobs, and soon there won’t be any left for humans.

A paper in the June issue of the American Economic Review suggests those fears may be overblown, or at least very uncertain.

Authors Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo point out that economists are still sorting out the subtle interactions between the jobs that automation makes obsolete and the new tasks that it makes possible for humans.

The researchers note that previous fears of widespread unemployment have failed to come true. ATMs have taken over tasks from bank tellers, but created new tasks as well. So why should these fears come true now?

With recent history as their guide, they look at past trends in job growth and new job titles to gain an insight into how technology might change work.


Figure 1 from Acemoglu et al. (2018)


Figure 1 of their paper shows that occupations with more new job titles tended to see more employment growth from 1980 to 2015. Each red dot in the chart is an occupational category, which may contain many job titles. For example, at the far right of the chart, the occupation “management analyst” had nine different job titles in 1980, six of which were new. It then saw roughly 5 percent employment growth from 1980 to 2015.

Using this fact as motivation, the researchers built a model to understand the tension between technology and task creation — what they call “the race between man and machine.”

They found that it’s possible for automation to co-exist with growth in new tasks for humans, but also possible that human labor becomes obsolete.

For the time being, the future of human work is unclear to economists.