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How Technology Is Eliminating Higher-Skill Jobs

Nov 3, 2011
Originally published on November 3, 2011 11:43 am

The U.S. economy hit an important milestone last week: Gross domestic product, the sum of all goods and services produced in the country, returned to pre-recession levels. But the gains were made with millions fewer workers. Part of the reason is technology, as computers and machines continue to replace humans.

We used to think about machines taking over mundane jobs, like twisting a screw into a toaster on an assembly line over and over again. But more recently, technology is eliminating higher-skill jobs.

To talk about this, some of the nation's top technologists and economists came to Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this week for a jobs conference called Race Against the Machine. There was a very impressive machine on hand: Watson, the powerful Jeopardy-playing computer built by IBM that recently beat the all-time human Jeopardy game show champion.

This week Watson took on two teams from MIT and Harvard. The auditorium was packed with students. Although Harvard managed to do well, its team was no match for the powerful computer.

Only tepid applause greeted Watson after it correctly answered questions about things like a truncated icosahedron (soccer ball-shaped). Maybe the reason human beings don't tend to clap for Watson is that we can instinctively sense that it might steal our jobs.

"We see already that the work of legal discovery — in other words, sitting around and reading huge volumes of documents at the early stage of a lawsuit ... is being very quickly and very heavily automated," says Andrew McAfee, an MIT researcher who helped organize the conference and is co-author of Race Against the Machine. "And by one estimate, it lets one lawyer do the work of 500."

The world will still need brilliant human courtroom litigators, but not as many junior lawyers and paralegals. McAfee also says we won't need as many tax preparers. More complex manufacturing is being done by machines, which means even fewer auto workers. So where is all this headed?

"There's been a long-running debate about does technology eliminate jobs," says David Autor, an MIT economist who spoke at the conference.

He says it's not like every job a machine takes over leaves one person permanently out of work.

"Back at the turn of the 20th century, about 38 percent of all American workers were working on farms. At present, it's 2 percent," Autor says.

Machines took over a lot of farm work, but new industries and new jobs were created. Overall, Autor says technology improved people's quality of life, including advantages like better health care and rising incomes over the past 100 years.

But Autor also has his worries. He says machines used to take over work that was physically hard or dangerous or just monotonous. But now, he says, we're losing higher-skill, better-paying jobs to machines — like bank tellers, airline check-in agents, accountants and whole floors of actuaries in insurance companies.

Meanwhile, computers still aren't very good at many menial labor jobs like cleaning bathrooms and other janitorial work; we still need humans for that. So it turns out that for many very low-skill jobs, there's still demand. For high-skill and high-touch jobs like being a good manager at a company, a doctor or a nurse, we need humans. But many middle-skill, middle-class jobs are where we're seeing the squeeze.

"That's the irony, right?" Autor says. "That basically the things that proved easier to automate are not the lowest-skill activities. It's easier to have a computer play chess than it is to have a computer wash dishes."

So going forward, the worry is there's going to be a greater need for people to do minimum-wage restaurant busboy-type work and less need for $30-an-hour office workers.

Other economists say innovation will save the day: New industries and new technologies will spring up with new kinds of jobs for people that we can't yet anticipate.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's talk about a shift in the U.S. economy. The Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, has risen to an all-time high, which means we are making as much stuff as we were before the Great Recession, but doing it with fewer workers. Unemployment is still around nine percent. Part of the reason is technology, as NPR's Chris Arnold reports from Boston.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: We used to think about machines taking over very mundane jobs - twisting a screw into a toaster, run an assembly line over and over again. But, more recently, technology is eliminating higher skill jobs. To talk about this, some of the nation's top technologists and economists were at Harvard and MIT this week. They came for a jobs conference called Race Against the Machine. And there was a very impressive machine on hand named Watson.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFERENCE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Watson.

WATSON: What is Napa Valley?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Napa Valley is the answer. Good job, Watson. Go ahead.

ARNOLD: IBM has built this powerful Jeopardy-playing computer which recently beat the all-time human Jeopardy game show champion, and this week it took on two teams from MIT and Harvard. The auditorium was packed with students. And Harvard actually managed to do pretty well playing against the computer.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFERENCE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Harvard, we turn to you. You had $26,800. What did you write down as your response?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What is Mount Rushmore?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's right.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

ARNOLD: But in the end, even three very smart Harvard kids were no match for IBM's Watson.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFERENCE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Basically, this sports ball is a truncated icosahedron - it's just a little rounder. Watson.

WATSON: What is soccer?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Soccer ball, that's exactly right. Good job. No one claps for Watson? Really? None of you?

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There you go.

ARNOLD: Maybe the reason that human beings don't tend to clap for Watson is that we can instinctively sense that he just might steal our jobs. Andrew McAfee is a researcher at MIT. He helped to organize the conference and he's co-authored a book with the same title, "Race Against the Machine."

ANDREW MCAFEE: We see already that the work of legal discovery - in other words, sitting around and reading huge volumes of documents at the early stage of a lawsuit - that work of discovery is being very quickly and very heavily automated. And by one estimate, it lets one lawyer do the work of 500.

ARNOLD: So the world will still need brilliant human courtroom litigators, but not as many junior lawyers and paralegals. And McAfee says we won't need as many tax preparers, also more complex manufacturing is being done by machines, which means even fewer auto workers. So where is all this headed?

DAVID AUTOR: There's been a long-running debate about, you know, does technology eliminate jobs.

ARNOLD: David Autor is an MIT economist who spoke at the conference. He says it's not like every job a machine takes over leaves one person permanently out of work.

AUTOR: Back at the turn of the 20th century, about 38 percent of all American workers were working on farms. At present, that's under two percent.

ARNOLD: Machines took over a lot of farm work, but new industries and new jobs were created, and overall, Autor says, technology improved people's quality of life. There's better health care, incomes have risen over the past 100 years. But Autor has his worries. He says machines used to take over work that was physically hard, or dangerous, or just monotonous. But now we're losing higher-skill, better-paying jobs to machines.

AUTOR: Bank tellers, airline check-in people, accountants, whole, you know, floors of actuaries and insurance companies.

ARNOLD: Meanwhile, computers still aren't very good at many menial labor jobs like cleaning bathrooms and other janitorial work. We still need humans for that. So it turns out for many very low-skill jobs, there's still demand. And for very high-skill and high-touch jobs, like being a good manager at a company, or a doctor, or a nurse, we need humans for that too. But many middle-skill, middle class jobs, that's where we're seeing the squeeze.

AUTOR: That's the irony, right, that basically the things that proved easier to automate are not the lowest-skill activities. It's easier to play, have a computer play chess than it is to have a computer wash dishes.

ARNOLD: So going forward, the worry is that there's going to be a greater need for people to do minimum-wage restaurant busboy-type work and less of a need for $30-an-hour office workers. Other economists, though, they look at all this and they say that innovation is going to come in and save the day. New industries and new technologies, they say, will spring up with new kinds of jobs that we just can't yet anticipate. Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.