Will Robots Take My Job?

BU economist finds job loss to machines, but sees long-term hope

Group of vintage toy robots holding a sign that says Need Work symbolizing robots taking jobs from humans

Are we bumping up against the “Robocalypse,” where automation sweeps industry and replaces human workers with machines? BU economist Pascual Restrepo says that interpretation is too gloomy, although his recent research, posted online by the National Bureau of Economic Research, reveals that the adoption of just one industrial robot eliminates nearly six jobs in a community.

The study, examining job losses between 1990 and 2007, modified earlier research by Restrepo, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of economics, and coauthor Daron Acemoglu of MIT. That previous work, says Restrepo, was a “conceptual exercise” that looked at history and argued that over the long run, automation transforms rather than eliminates human jobs.

He still believes that. But he realized that regaining jobs is a longer slog after he and Acemoglu looked at actual data from 19 industries—among them car manufacturing, electronics, pharmaceuticals, plastics, chemicals, and food processing—that introduced industrial robots. Those are multipurpose, reprogrammable machines, as opposed to artificial intelligence technology and single-purpose machines (coffee machines qualify, as one mundane-minded analyst remarked).

Robot repair service concept symbolizing robots taking jobs from humans. Retro style robot handyman with screwdriver and lamp bulb. Robot is a fun toy character with a plastic head, colored green red eyes, electric wire hands, and gears cog on an orange background

That real-world data showed the one-for-six robot-for-humans swap in communities most exposed to automation in industry.

Those job losses and the potential for others (software has been developed that can take over middle-management work) has some Silicon Valley wonks predicting a workless future where Americans will need a government-provided income to replace wages.

But Restrepo says interpretations of his research as foretelling the demise of human work are premature. “The process of machines replacing human labor is not something that is new,” he says. “It’s been going on for 200 years. Why is it the case that we still have so many jobs?

robot1 “We went, for instance, from having like 60 percent of the population working in agriculture to having 3 percent working in agriculture,” but that led to the rise of industrial jobs, he says. And as manufacturing petered out, workers shifted into the service sector: “Who would have imagined 30 years ago that we would have people designing apps, working as software engineers?…Who knows what our kids are going to be doing 30 years from now?”

Still, the transition to jobs of the future is “actually quite painful,” as workers automated out of their jobs don’t have an easy time migrating into new employment.

“Communities that have been more exposed to automation,” Restrepo says, “do not tend to be doing well in terms of employment and wages.” He and Acemoglu found that many workers dropped out of the workforce and “just stopped looking for a job, because they got discouraged.

Robot repair service concept symbolizing robots taking jobs from humans. Retro style robot handyman with wrench and pliers. Robot is a fun toy character with a metal head, plastic eyes, electric wire arm and hands, on a blue background

“These places do not seem to be developing new jobs or new industries to absorb these workers, and that’s our concern,” Restrepo says. “That’s not saying that it’s not going to happen, maybe in 10 years…but the thing is that so far we’re not seeing it.” That’s noteworthy he adds, because the study included the booming 1990s.

There has often been a decades-long lag between past waves of automation and workers moving to newly created jobs with good wages, he says. “These adjustments were never easy. There was a lot of turmoil in between, there was a lot of political unrest in between.”

Opposition to automation won’t fix the problem. “At the end of the day, technology is the reason why we have such a high standard of living,” he says. While the duo’s study doesn’t address solutions to workers’ plight, Restrepo says humans can choose to use tech for more than we are using it for currently.
“It seems to me that we’re emphasizing the use of technology to automate existing uses of labor,” replacing blue-collar and clerical workers. “We can also use technology to augment workers, to create new types of jobs” to soak up the workers who’ve dropped out of job-seeking.

Another prudent choice, he says, would be improving government assistance to workers, such as expanding the earned income tax credit, which gives subsidies to the working poor, to help those individuals who’ve stopped working because the available jobs don’t pay as well as their old ones. Better retraining programs, and college-business partnerships helping colleges prepare workers for new jobs with businesses, also would be a good idea, he argues.

“Opinion is moving between sort of polar extremes. On the one extreme is people that are claiming the Robocalpyse is coming,” he says. On the other hand, “many economists view this like, oh, we’ve been here before” and new jobs will come.

Since publication of his study, Restrepo has turned his focus to Germany and Japan, leaders in adopting industrial robots. But they need to do that because their workforces are aging and they face a labor shortage, so automation is a reasonable choice, he says.

A version of this article was originally published in BU Today.


  1. In my previous position, right before I started graduate school at BU, I had the privilege of speaking with Governor Howard Dean before I left. I asked him what he thought were the two greatest challenges Americans would face in the years to come and he mentioned (1) unequal distribution of opportunity and income, a known social justice problem, and (2) technology automation of our jobs.

    While this change has already has already affected many in ways — services that used to require manual labor can be performed with technological equipment. But in our arrogance, we fail to recognize work like research (e.g. looking up cases to reference for policy or law work) can be automated too. We already see the rise of programs that can write tv and movie scripts, product copy, and event news articles from machine learning by looking at previous articles.

    We must not let people get left behind in the digital revolution. The next generation should be trained on meta skills — technology. Not enough is being done to prepare the current generation of students in school for this change, and soon they will be caught off guard by robots taking their jobs too.

  2. It is certainly realistic to claim that AI will enable hundreds, if not thousands, of new jobs. The robotic cloud will not only allow robots, as individual identities, to access all realms of information, but its application will also enable the human capital working by its side. Forecasting technology is like driving while only seeing through your back mirrors – you can only predict by intuitively looking back. One must not forget that increase machine power eliminates same task co-work between human and machine. Just as with the new machines that came with the industrial revolution, the human capital has always developed from a managerial position. If we extrapolate to the invention of the sewing machine in 1790 by the Englishman Thomas Saint, which posteriorly lead to the automatization of sewing machines, completely shifted the work description of manual sewing work to managerial supervision in clothing companies. Few new managers did become more skilled, which raised production per capita, which drove down demand for employment as of a few top percent learned and managed new technologies to great production and wealth. Nevertheless, the big majority sees average income decrease while the cost of living is in a historical long-term rise. I believe it all comes down to the access and the quality of educational systems. I consider utopian to believe that the average citizen will be able to elevate his skills to compete with the machines of tomorrow given the educational systems that are in place currently around the globe – emphatically noting the USA.
    Let’s not forget Moore’s law, which states that we double the power that we can fit in a micro-chip, every two years. In the long run, it is by no means sustainable to price education at the access of such few stretching income inequality to historical rates in many regions of the world. The clock speed of change increases at an astonishing rate. Now, if we additionally consider the envisioned exponential wave of utility that AI will add to machines/robots, there are small reasons to believe that mid and low citizens will be protected and relevant in tomorrow’s economy. Yet, to close on a positive note, I’d like to reemphasize the importance of education as the basic factor for social mobility, and comment that I look forward to discover the horizons of the near-future applications that combine AI, mobile technology, VR, and potential others for mass global education.

  3. Here’s a fundamental question & issue for our time: What becomes of the workers when there’s no more work?

    The authors cited here think that, despite their own 1-for-6 evidence, more or similar numbers of jobs will continue to be available even with expanding automation. But not all jobs are created equal; service-sector jobs typically offer less pay & benefits than manufacturing. The article doesn’t really address the rise of part-time, contracted, & other non-benefited work, which are also jobs but not equally good ones.

    Looking closer to home here at BU (& other universities), robots are only one threat to living-wage employment. For years BU’s employment policy has reduced the number of full-time benefited jobs to cut budget costs. We’ve seen little in the way of mobile robots, but software, work study students & self-service machines effectively produce the same results. BU is merely one among countless employers no longer committed to human employment. In higher ed this pernicious development is inevitably linked to the Business Model of running nonprofit schools like for-profit corporations. The result? Administrative bloat, vanity construction, & other efforts to “compete” for “customers” (I hate that term — they’re STUDENTS if you please!) degrade the entire college experience.

    Returning to the opening question & the world as a whole, history tells us that technological changes bring massive dislocations, & too often the workers suffer & die in droves. While the authors seem to know this, the question of political will demands closer attention. A genuinely just society will protect its citizens & other workers from misery. But America is increasingly becoming more unjust. Can we & the world summon the necessary political will?

    Answers are most welcome.

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