Here's Why Robots Might Not Take Our Jobs

Robots have been taking jobs from humans for decades now, replacing bank tellers with ATMs, cashiers with self-checkout machines, and factory workers with mechanized assembly lines. The fear, of course, is that the bots will grow so intelligent -- and low-maintenance from a management perspective -- that they'll replace us altogether. In a recent New York Times column, Neil Irwin explains why that might not be as likely as some naysayers predict. Why? For one thing, robots don't have a lot of common sense.

robot 

(Photo Credit: JD Hancock/Flickr)

Irwin quotes MIT professor David Autor's recent paper the future of robotics in the labor market.

"Both a toilet and a traffic cone look somewhat like a chair, but a bit of reasoning about their shapes vis-à-vis the human anatomy suggests that a traffic cone is unlikely to make a comfortable seat," Autor writes. "Drawing this inference, however, requires reasoning about what an object is 'for,' not simply what it looks like."

Computers aren't good at doing that yet, because they lack something that humans have in abundance: the ability to make inferences without explicit and complete knowledge. (Irwin's examples are our ability to drive a car, without understanding everything that goes into making a car work, or to identify species of birds without being an ornithologist.)

Furthermore, there's the fact that loss of one type of job doesn't necessarily portend loss of employment as a whole. Autor reminds us that 41 percent of the US labor force worked in agriculture at the beginning of the 20th century; today, only 2 percent does. The descendants of those farmers now toil in other, less literal, fields.

So will robots steal our jobs someday? Some of them, certainly: automation is friendly to the bottom line, and thus persuasive to decision makers who are always looking for chances to save money. But before we panic, we should remember that technology has always evolved to take some jobs and create others. A perfect outcome would involve robots doing the dangerous, boring, dirty work, and humans acting as common-sense translators, picking out the chairs from the traffic cones.

In the end, only time will tell.

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