In the midst of an international freakout about what is to become of us as robots learn to do for free the things humans do to make a living, it’s easy to feel lost in the flurry of papers and panels and general pontification on how terrified we ought to feel about it.

We at Wonkblog have created a repository of evidence on all sides of the debate, and will maintain it as a public service as long as automation anxiety continues to be a thing. To that end, please send worthy contributions to lydia.depillis@washpost.com.


A newly installed solar powered Robtocop looks down over road users in Kinshasa, Congo DR, 08 March 2015. The five arm-waving robots equipped with cameras and lights have been set up to watch over the roads. The robots have cameras on their bodies to record the traffic and traffic lights in the end of their arms. It is is hoped that they will control traffic better and lower the death toll on the congested roads. (EPA/ANDREAS HAJDU)

Robots are taking our jobs, and the future looks grim!

  • According to a widely-cited study by economist Carl Benedikt Frey and engineer Michael Osborne, 47 percent of jobs in the United States are at high risk of disappearance due to improving technology.
  • Forget the future. Economists Georg Graetz and Guy Michaels find that technology has already led to loss of low-wage jobs, and even some middle-wage jobs as well. An Associated Press analysis holds that it was one of the main drivers of the “jobless recession,” and will continue to depress employment in the future.
  • Paul Krugman says that robots concentrate earnings in the hands of those who already hold assets, and doubts we can fix the problem with education, so we’re in a pickle.
  • We’re hurtling towards a future in which the owners of machines control all the wealth,writes former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, which means that those who have that wealth will have to subsidize those who don’t.
  • Economist Nouriel Roubini also doubts that education will be enough to spread the gains from automation around, which could mean that policymakers will need to create a greater degree of income support for those whose jobs are rendered obsolete.
  • Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak thinks that the future of artificial intelligence is "very scary and bad for people," because robots might get better at running companies than humans are.
  • In his book "Average is Over," economist Tyler Cowen predicts that comprehensive rating systems will produce a hyper-meritocracy in which the super-talented work with machines to get ahead, while those without the education or smarts to do so will fall far behind. In the absence of a much more robust social safety net, that means inequality will only get worse.

Robots are taking our jobs, but everything might be fine!

  • Walter Isaacson says ignore the worrywarts, technological advancements have long generated new forms of employment that have more than replaced those that are innovated away.
  • paper commissioned by the think tank Third Way from scholars Richard Murname and Frank Levy talks about the kinds of jobs that won’t be automated anytime soon, and concludes that more thoroughgoing education is necessary to make sure more people can get them.
  • According to researchers at the Federal Reserve Board of San Francisco, productivity growth associated with information technology is slowing, which may mean that more humans will be needed going forward than sometimes thought.
  • Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee are perhaps the most influential thinkers on this question, having laid out the ways in which technology is impacting labor markets in their 2014 book, "The Second Machine Age." They are essentially optimists, recognizing the painful disruption that technology is likely to cause, but recommending a suite of educational reforms that allow humans to use robots to their advantage.
  • Richard Freeman of Harvard and the National Bureau of Economic Research notes that capital is replacing labor at an alarming rate, and argues that the only way for workers to keep up is to own the robots that are replacing them.
  • Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia and Guillermo LaGarda and Seth Benzell of Boston University find that automation will lower the welfare of young workers, which will require redistributing the wealth of older workers.

Robots are not the main problem!

  • Larry Mishel at the Economic Policy Institute finds that the skill-based technological change explanation for wage stagnation and high unemployment doesn’t track with trends like the declining wage premium for college, and so can’t be a driving force behind income inequality.
  • David Autor of MIT thinks that humans have historically overestimated the degree to which robots will replace jobs, rather than replace tasks, and that humans and robots can really be complimentary.
  • Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers has recently opined that lackluster wage growth has more to do with weak aggregate demand, and that therefore education isn’t the universal solution that many make it out to be.
  • James Bessen of Boston University School of Law argues that just because computers can do jobs that people now hold, that doesn’t mean that all those people will be replaced by robots — ATMs didn’t eliminate bank tellers, for example.
  • The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation argues that high productivity is correlated with low unemployment, and says that the gains from automation will eventually be reinvested into other sectors as the owners of robots consume more services.

Who knows, really!

  • At the Financial Times, Cardiff Garcia argues that history is not so great a guide on this subject after all, given the small sample size of technological revolutions and the different circumstances under which this one is taking place.
  • The editors of Scientific American agree that there’s just not enough good data to figure out what jobs are being destroyed by which forces and whether there’s anything we can do about it.
  • In a Pew survey of 1,896 technology experts, about half believed that technology would destroy more jobs than it creates, creating mass unemployment, and half disagreed.