January 23, 2013
Will Automation Cause Mass Unemployment?

Georgia Tech robotics prof Henrik I. Christensen says robots will create more jobs rather than leave masses unemployed.

During his talk, Dr. Christensen said that the evidence indicated that the opposite was true. While automation may transform the work force and eliminate certain jobs, it also creates new kinds of jobs that are generally better paying and that require higher-skilled workers.

Sound good? Not so fast. The key is at the end of the sentence: that require higher-skilled workers. What about the people who aren't smart enough to do this higher skilled work? Once robots take over their dishwashing job or their janitorial job what low skilled work are they going to do?

Some people aren't smart enough to even drive a fork lift. They can't hold a 3-D model of what's going on around them well enough to avoid running over people and knocking over shelves. But even the fork lift jobs aren't going to last. Already Kiva Systems is automating lots of warehouse jobs out of existence. More powerful robots will eliminate more indoor manual labor to the point where we'll have lights-out no-human-involvement warehouses for a wide range of product categories.

I buy the argument that robots will reduce the amount of manufacturing shipped to low wage countries such as China. But since the least skilled jobs seem like they are easier to automate I see robots as causing a shortage of work for the least skilled workers.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2013 January 23 09:55 PM 

David Yerle said at January 23, 2013 11:03 PM:

The "technology creates more jobs than it destroys" saying is a fallacy. Just think about how many teachers may be replaced by Khan Academy, which is run by 30 people, or how many bookshops have closed because of Amazon. Even the "high paying jobs" for skilled people will end up disappearing once machines become smart enough to do them.
We need a new way of distributing wealth which uses technology for the benefit of humankind. We have made silicon servants that feel no pain: let's use them for our benefit, instead of against us.

johnbr said at January 24, 2013 5:29 AM:

I have a job as a software engineer. Please don't tell me that technology doesn't create new jobs.

Parker Bohn said at January 24, 2013 5:47 AM:

Nancy Kress's Beggars books posit a future where super intelligent gene-mod people run the world and hold all the real jobs. All the routine tasks are automated and the majority of the population is basically on the government dole.

Its not entirely far-fetched, and it makes me wonder what happens when we reach a point where 20%+ of the population has little or no economic value.

dscott said at January 24, 2013 7:15 AM:

Interesting conundrum. But one assumes that the reason for automation is to produce a cheaper product or service? Correct? If this is true then the cost of living should decline to support a constant level in the standard of living. Meaning that things that are currently too expensive to do would become economically feasible thus creating more jobs to do those formerly uneconomical tasks, products or services. In other words, life is not a zero sum game where one is mutually exclusive of the other, every change begets new possibilities that were unheard of or impossible before.

In fact, I submit the only reason automation hasn't progressed further is because of off shoring manufacturing for cheaper labor. Had that alternative not been available, those jobs would have been automated creating more work opportunities for building those robots, etc. here in the US.

I believe it is a fallacy to think that automation requires only skilled workers, the point of automation is to not only to make things cheaper by replacing expensive labor but to simplify the tasks to use cheaper labor. One doesn't need a PhD to push a button, just to create the device. Any semi-skilled person can push a button.

Russ said at January 24, 2013 8:09 AM:


That's only true in a world where you have sound currency. Currently we have a system designed to manipulate money in order to create inflation (aka, "manage it" at ~2%), which gradually impoverishes the middle class and crushes low-end workers. In a return to sound currency, what you're describing would occur.

libfree said at January 24, 2013 8:15 AM:

This is probably one of the oldest themes in the history of economics. Every new wave of innovation has people wondering where the new jobs will come from and how the low skilled workers being replaced will be able to cope. Every time they have managed to make the transition. I don't know where the new jobs will come from and I don't know how low skill workers will get educated but my guess is that they will. Humans have an amazingly strong survival instinct and the ability to adapt to new conditions. I would see the most likely way for us to mess that up would be to put people on the public dole in mass numbers. If you give a person a reason to not adapt, they won't.

Anonymous said at January 24, 2013 9:08 AM:

Most humans desire luxury products to show off to the opposite sex that they are loaded with $, and thus make it a better partner. Therefore, if robots make cheaper products, these products won't be luxury products, people will buy them for the day to day stuff, but they will still look for the expensive stuff which will be something that can only be done by humans (because they'll be more expensive). E.G. Life risking stunts like boxing, cirque du soleil, racing, and so on, since the death of a machine would be boring for a human.

DdR said at January 24, 2013 9:12 AM:


I presume you're a libertarian. I also followed that mindset for quite some time.

I do believe, however, that a given population needs to possess the mental aptitude to take on the higher-skilled jobs. Do you believe black males will become excellent engineers, machinists, programmers, doctors, etc.? Or will the 20 years of rigorous education be too much?

Do you subscribe to the fact that black males have increasing unemployment on account of minimum-wage laws? Or because a machine, woman or Mexican can do the job better with less headache to the employer?

This is not the transition of a rural to industrial economy, where you take repetitive manual labor from outdoors and move it into a factory. This new paradigm is taking manual laborers and trying to boost their skill set by means of significant education, which requires, inter alia, discipline and future-time orientation. In my humble opinion many segments of the population will never be able to make that transition on account of inherent disabilities.

What percentage of the population is on the dole? Will it go up when robots start automating everything?

philw1776 said at January 24, 2013 10:01 AM:

Look at what's happened with smart phones. Many "jobs" created for those who wrote Apps for the phones. I can see a cottage industry of bot Apps once there's an installed base of programmable devices. In the short term those skilled in technology will have plenty of jobs. STEM for the next decades. Beyond that...

IF we ever get real AI, AI capable of designing the next gen AIs and bots from scratch, then we really will need a new economic system. I hope that the AIs design it and not people as the last so-called scientific economic system was designed by Karl Marx.

libfree said at January 24, 2013 11:32 AM:


I am a Libertarian but I try to not let that influence my economic views too much. I don't believe that my statement would cause much disagreement among economists (90+%)

I think that the bottom end of our workforce will figure out how to remain at the bottom end of our workforce. I don't think that these people have a genetic intelligence problem that will prevent them from learning the skills in any of the segments you mention.

I don't believe that black males have a high unemployment rate because of machines. I believe that our economy as a whole has a massive AD problem since fall of '08 that have contributed to high unemployment in many demographic groups. We also have our share of AS problems: Minimum Wage laws, unemployment insurance, tax structure, professional licensing, welfare to name a few. We also have a black market economy in illegal drugs that isn't counted as employment along with the associated crime.

I think that the number of people on the public dole is a direct result of how beneficial it is to be on the dole. Not saying it should be eliminated, but it should be kept in check

Lono said at January 24, 2013 12:03 PM:

Parker - indeed - that's the plan!

As for those who are not genetically predisposed to be useful to society - well... they will be either benevolently uplifted - or compassionately cared for - by the Alpha caste.

I am sure in the future the super intelligent overlords will recognize that reasonable levels of genetic diversity serve to increase the survivability of our species - at least until our primitive physical bodies are fully outmoded.

Vektor said at January 24, 2013 1:30 PM:

Companies seek automation to increase profit...period. This is the same reason that manufacturing jobs moved to China. This is the same reason many jobs are done by illegal immigrants. This is the same reason knowledge jobs are outsourced to India and other places. Companies don't care about the cumulative effects of their actions to the domestic economy and politicians have done nothing to stop it.

AI and advanced robotics is the holy grail. Companies will get to replace all of the previously mentioned workers with robots and AI/VI software. The business owners will get to own both the means of production and the labor...because now they are one and the same.

Who will be left to buy the products? Not their problem...only profit matters.

Majority of the population in unemployable and on the dole, tax revenues collapse, unsustainable government debts finally cannot be ignored any longer.

Vektor said at January 24, 2013 1:51 PM:

I am not suggesting that robotics, automation, AI, etc. are 'evil'. Technological progress is a good thing. However, society has to figure out how to resolve the issues that come with it...how to manage the transition, etc.

hairybroness said at January 24, 2013 2:16 PM:

A snapshot of nearly any period of any culture in all of human history shows one of might makes right, violence, subjugation, and slavery. This innate human trait leaves me very less that confident that our current *aberrant* period of opportunity and justice will last once the status quo is seriously challenged by robotics.

vilsha said at January 24, 2013 3:19 PM:

1. Robots are not free to build and use.
2. Robots will be used to automate the jobs which are cheaper to do using robots than using humans.
3. That will be done with the purpose and the result of making the resulting products cheaper to make - and, if competition exists, cheaper
for the consumer to buy.
4. That, in turn, will make it possible for the workers to live on less income as comfortably.
5. That will allow them to compete with robots on price (not necessarily in the same business from which they were squeezed by robots).
6!. Unless, of course, we are stupid enough to keep minimum pay laws in place.
7!. But it is not a problem of technological progress - people can always regulate the economy into ruin. And they did it many times.

Food said at January 24, 2013 7:35 PM:

I do software and systems automation for a living. I know I put people out of work; that is the point. Nobody would pay me what they pay me if I didn't. We use nice language like "efficiency" and "productivity", but denying reality doesn't get us anywhere.

It would be very good to start thinking about systemic methods of encouraging employment. I know libertarians like to think of things as sink or swim, and I'm generally sympathetic to that view, but revolutions, of a few different favors, are not that far in the past, and thinking it can't happen here is silly. Bread or circuses? It will be one or the other.

Randall Parker said at January 24, 2013 8:51 PM:


It used to be that automation increased the demand for manual labor when factories amplified the productive potential of low skilled workers. But we are way way past that phase in manufacturing. Tasks were simplified into lots of simple steps with machines to help. Now the tasks are increasingly done by machines with no human involvement. Lights out factories.

The benefit of the automation no longer flows to the population as a whole. In 2012 employment grew for the college educated but dropped for high school grads and drop-outs. The median US household income is now back to the level it was at in 1995. In 2011 only the top fifth saw income gains.

I think I see a long term trend developing: the top slice will own the factory robots and the natural resources. They'll trade with each other and have no need for the bottom half.


I also address you as an ex-libertarian and I'm even an ex-Objectivist. Read thru it all and learned my way right back out again. I'm left with no faith, supernatural or secular.

The vast majority of those on the dole would not earn a lot if they worked full time. They have low earning power. The vast majority of people who can make $100k per year feel little incentive to go on the dole unless they can make a disability pay that is a large fraction of their working salary.

A substantial fraction of the population just doesn't have enough innate talent to develop highly valuable job skills. If you do not believe me you should study psychometrics.

I've worked in software development for many years. It is a pretty high IQ occupation. Even someone at 120 IQ isn't that good at it because the hardest problem areas require people who are at 2 or more standard deviations away from 100 IQ. I've worked in different groups with different average IQs and the differences in productivity I've seen have been huge. Back before there were computers and less scientific and technical knowledge and tools the advantages of a high IQ were much less. Our technological advances have boosted the benefits of high intelligence while cutting demand for those who have lower levels of intelligence. You can see how this has played out by looking at wage trends by decile over the last few decades.

I expect governments to require that a fraction of service robots serve the unemployable.

James Bowery said at January 25, 2013 11:21 AM:

And don't forget to move to California where the tech jobs are! Go ahead. Uproot yourself. Spend tens of thousands of dollars getting settled in again in the Golden State. You can rest assured you can rake in that cash to protect you from having to uproot yourself again and spend tens of thousands of dollars moving out of the Golden State because of the remote possibility that your "California Or Bust" strategy didn't "pan out" for some unthinkable reason:

dcblogs writes:
"A bipartisan group of Senators is planning to introduce a bill that allows the H-1B visa cap to rise automatically with demand to a maximum of 300,000 visas annually. This 20-page bill, called the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013 or the 'I-Squared Act of 2013,' is being developed by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Chris Coons (D-Del.). It may be introduced next week. Presently, the U.S. has an H-1B visa cap of 65,000. There are another 20,000 H-1B visas set aside for advanced degree gradates of U.S. universities, for 85,000 in total. Under the new bill, the base H-1B cap would increase from 65,000 to 115,000. But the cap would be allowed to rise automatically with demand, according to a draft of the legislation."

Truly outstanding! Only immigration politics could come up with a concept like a "cap" that "would be allowed to automatically rise with demand" during a jobless recovery.

Oh, and when you move back to the boonies to work at 7/11 in competition with immigrants to the rural midwest, don't go gettin' all xenophobic on us now. That might put you in a DSM category or something that could get you Constitutional rights taken away.

Engineer Dad said at January 25, 2013 11:50 AM:

Randall said:
I've worked in software development for many years. It is a pretty high IQ occupation. Even someone at 120 IQ isn't that good at it because the hardest problem areas require people who are at 2 or more standard deviations away from 100 IQ.

New technologies in IT now allow software developers to acquire the roles occupied by software and hardware quality assurance workers (i.e. Robotframework, et all) and this makes it increasingly difficult for those in the 110-119 IQ range to compete. Couple this with government allowing 10,000s of foreign nationals work in the US (at artificially low wages) and foreign outsourcing, and you have employment flowing to the talented tenth (>120 IQ). Razib Khan spoke of this recently in Gene Expression.

Yet the gainfully employed shouldn't feel too complacent since corporate secret agreements not to poach workers in similar industries should keep wages low.

Of course, by the early 2020s Artificial Intelligence (AI) will automate the jobs of those in the 120-130 IQ range and at last the Googlarian dream of CEOs designing, manufacturing, and marketing products only to other CEOs will finally be realised.

Engineer Dad said at January 25, 2013 12:45 PM:

James Bowery said:
And don't forget to move to California where the tech jobs are!

But many positions here aren't designed necessarily for US citizens and at many locations, if you don't speak Hindi, you may be at a disadvantage.

I was on Cisco Systems campus in San Jose, California twice last week and noted entire floors made up of south Asian H-1B visa holders and former visa holders. (Disclosure: I didn't get the job.) We obviously won't see ABC\CBS\CNN\Fox\NBC\Local News reporters on the Cisco Campus filming worker bees since both corporate managements are on the same team.

Phillep Harding said at January 25, 2013 2:29 PM:

@DdR, the Black population is handicapped by Black culture for now, IMO. Lots of false negatives, too many to get a good read on how many can handle those higher skilled jobs. I know they exist because I've run into them, people convinced they cannot who I think could.

Mike M said at January 25, 2013 2:42 PM:

And in the beginning, God created the universe.......and there was man, indeed many men and all had jobs, but essentially the same job, one that required no formal education...man's job was hunter-gatherer. His sole job was to find food and shelter on a daily basis. Every advancement could - according to the "technology-takes-jobs" naysayers - take someone's job, but that's not what has happened over thousands of years. Instead, all of these improvements have freed up men's time so that instead of consuming all of his hours seeking food and shelter for himself, he can make goods and services that make his and others' lives better.

As for the "high-skilled" conundrum noted by Randall, I think this really needs to be broken down into components. First, I think the vast majority of able bodied humans have the POTENTIAL to obtain the education and skills needed for these "high skilled" jobs. The problem is NOT that these jobs will be unavailable to some because they CAN'T reach a certain level of skill, it's because the CHOSE not to reach that level of skill. Of course, some of this may be blamed on parents and voters who were complacent in allowing our public schools to continue to operate as they have, but there are too many examples of those who have educated themselves, even overcoming the burden of public "education", to use that as a permanent excuse. The problem is that too many want these high pay, high level jobs to be handed to them without making the sacrifices needed to obtain the high skills needed to justify high pay.

Abelard Lindsey said at January 25, 2013 6:04 PM:

I disagree about automation eliminating lots of jobs. Automation work is my profession (PLC-based control systems, SCADA/HMI, and robotics). I can tell you that for every degreed engineering job, there are 3-4 tech and service support jobs created. A person straight from high school can learn and do this work proficiently, and it pays quite well for non-college educated work. I can also tell you that there are lots of trades-jobs available as well. There is a serious need for real trades people right now in manufacturing (even more than engineers). This is the case for automation in manufacturing and process industries (which is where I work).

It is true that automation in other industries (medical, education, services) may, indeed, have a different impact than in manufacturing. However, these are the industries that are currently bloating and need to be downsized no matter what.

Abelard Lindsey said at January 25, 2013 6:09 PM:

The median US household income is now back to the level it was at in 1995.

Of course!

The period from 1995 to 2008 was the bubble. It was nothing but fluff. Even I could see that as early as, say, 2002. Even 10 years ago I expected that things would return to pre-1995 standards and levels.

In 2011 only the top fifth saw income gains.

Yes, but this will not last long. Middle-class people went through the stagnation (like blue collar people in 1972) starting in 1999. The same will happen to the upper-class in the near future. Also much of this gain is due to investment income, mostly from investments in developing countries.

Randall Parker said at January 26, 2013 10:36 AM:

Engineer Dad,

Among the books I read on job-related topics I have recently added to the mix a couple of books on big data: data mining, machine learning. One can't count on maintaining one's living standard. One has to go up into the top tenth.

I repeatedly tell people do not be complacent. But optimism bias blinds people to the risks they face in their careers. Plus, people do not want to add, say, the need to study machine learning books, to the list of things they have to do every week. They want recreational time. I think this is a big mistake.

I keep skills-related books on my Kindle and Nexus 10 and cycle thru reading parts of each while also reading some lighter fare mixed in.

I am open to suggestion on books to read for engineering skills.

DdR said at January 29, 2013 8:44 AM:


You're saying that there is a serious need for real-trade jobs (that probably go unfulfilled), but don't subscribe to the fact that automation won't eliminate those positions? I presume that companies will need to begin automating all of the support positions because they can't find qualified people for the jobs.

This is going back to my point that a big chunk of the population, especially the NAMs, will be left behind. You'll have to occupy them some how. Enormous public-work projects will become the norm.

My question is how the government will convince the haves to support the have nots with increasing theft (I mean redistribution)? The haves will eventually move to a Singapore to escape the onerous taxes.

Next step to finance the have nots: introduction of the VAT on a nationwide basis. Harder to tax dodge that.

@ Phillep: I guess this phenomenon is global, because blacks who settle in any other part of the world outside Africa perform more poorly vis a vis their new countrymen.

Phillep Harding said at January 29, 2013 11:40 AM:

Just pointing out that figures for the US are not going to mean much. Built in bias.

Sort of funny that the more pure strain of Homo sapiens does not do as well as us with caveman ancestry. Wasn't the Neanderthal supposed to be a crude and ignorant beast?

Side note, and speaking of, an article written by a Paleontologist said that male and female Neanderthals had the same muscle attachment points and the same distro of broken bones. To me that implies a lack of sex roles. Male chauvinists are sometimes called "cavemen" (Neanderthals). Somehow I sort of doubt anyone is going to get to impolite with someone who not only has her own spear and club, but knows how to use it, and is willing to get in there where the bones break and blood flows. Looks to me like sexual dimorphism is a trait of H sap. only.

Randall Parker said at January 30, 2013 9:19 PM:

Abelard Lindsey,

A lot of degreed engineers create support jobs (and manufacturing jobs) in other countries. But some companies so automate their processes that they have very small tech support staffs. I expect that trend to continue as companies increasingly use the cloud and automate customer support.

infidel said at February 6, 2013 10:45 AM:

Engineer Dad,

Do you happen to have a link to that Razib post please? Thank you.

It's probably too late to ask and nobody is reading this but what the hell...

AnonCoward said at February 17, 2013 6:33 PM:

David Yerle said
We need a new way of distributing wealth which uses technology for the benefit of humankind.

Not that simple. Why give a damn about the unfortunate? Do they give a damn for you? You cannot take empathy or sympathy out of its natural contexts.
For eg. there are scores of smart guys who dont get pussy, while dumb jocks do.
You want the smart guys (who are either ugly or not socially entertaining etc etc) who aren't getting their share of pussy to make life easier for others whos life is already more fulfilling than theirs?

Ankit Kumar Parsurampuria said at May 18, 2013 12:06 PM:

There will come a time when a handful of people would create the machines which would in turn create their children machines that would do any and every work presently done by humans – be it cooking, driving, transporting, labor intensive manufacturing, etc. Robots would have perfected the art of doing all of these to an extent where human knowledge would become redundant. And all the controls would be at our fingertips thus eliminating the dependence on any other human being for any work or service. Only some genres of services would be spared of robot presence. In a fully automated world would people even work when a robot is there for everything?

The existence of human beings would become questionable. It is then that the bubble of technological advancement would burst. ‘Luddite fallacy’ would then be proved wrong. That’s a double negative.

The Gifted said at July 12, 2013 3:35 PM:

I like how Ddr generalized the entire black population. Got to engineering universities today, you will see a large group of black students pursuing and gaining engineering, computer science, and PhD's to become Dr's. Don't forget to NOT stereotype an entire group of people next time, it makes you look stupid.

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