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The robots are winning

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Scott Eells When two MIT researchers started working on a book about technology and productivity, they didn’t go into the endeavor with a pessimistic outlook. Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business and Andrew McAfee, the center’s associate director, had originally planned to title the book The Digital Frontier, a nod to all the opportunities that grow out of new innovations. As they recount in an e-book published today, their research led them in a slightly different direction: namely, to a book titled Race Against the Machine .

“When discussing jobs and unemployment, there was a great deal of attention paid to issues like weak demand, outsourcing and labor mobility but relatively little attention given to technology’s role,” they write. “We wanted to correct that.”

I spent this morning reading through the new book, which highlights an interesting tension, between jobs and productivity, that has grown out of the rise of technology.

In a lot of ways, the rise of technology is good news: it’s correlated with big increases in our work force’s productivity. That’s hugely important since productivity is the best predictor economists know of when it comes to improving living standards. Even in the recession, our economy has continued to become increasingly productive:

But those productivity gains come with a price: namely the jobs of less-productive human counterparts. From the IBM supercomputer Watson making medical diagnoses to algorithms that can produce pretty decent sports journalism, rises in technology can leave some Americans looking for work. Surprisingly, the jobs that have proved most resilient to this, so far, are those that rely on fine motor skills: humanoid robots haven’t proven very successful at subtle movements and have an unfortunate “habit” of falling down stairs.

The health care industry is a great example of how this tension plays out in the real world. The industry has been notoriously slow to adopt new technologies; only 10 percent of doctors, for example, have completely digitized their medical records A New England Journal of Medicine study last month found it to be the only major business sector in our country that’s becoming less productive.

But, the health industry is also a great job creator: the health industry has added more than 300,000 jobs over the past year. Is lower productivity a worthwhile trade off for more job creation? Researchers are skeptical.

The authors don’t suggest we all crawl under rocks and become Luddites; quite the opposite, they extol how the quicker, faster transfer of information makes us smarter and assists in creating new ideas. “We are confident that most of these changes will be beneficial ones,” write Brynjolfsson and McAfee. But they’re also cognizant of the fact that technological advances does come with some losers, and some American workers are already finding themselves in that category.

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