America is finally approaching full employment. But a chorus of experts claims that this happy situation will be short-lived. Their warning is not the usual one about unemployment rising again when the next recession hits. Instead, the proposition is more ominous: that technology is finally able to replace people in most jobs.
The idea that we face a future without work for a widening swath of the citizenry is animated by the astonishing power of algorithms, artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, especially in the form of robots. At last count, more than a dozen expert studies, each sparking a flurry of media attention, have offered essentially the same conclusion: that the amazing power of emerging technologies today really is different from anything we’ve seen before; that is, the coming advances in labor productivity will be so effective as to eliminate most labor.
It has become fashionable in Silicon Valley to believe that, in the near future, those with jobs will comprise a minority of “knowledge workers.” This school of thought proposes carving off some of the wealth surplus generated by our digital overlords to support a Universal Basic Income for the inessential and unemployable, who can then engage in whatever pastime their heart desires, except working for a wage.
It is true that something unprecedented is happening. America is in the early days of a structural revolution in technology, one that will culminate in an entirely new kind of infrastructure, one that democratizes AI in all its forms. This essay focuses on the factual and deductive problems with the associated end-of-jobs claim. In it, we explore what recent history and the data reveal about the nature of AI and robots, and how those technologies might impact work in the 21st century.
But before mapping out the technological shift now underway and its future implications, let’s look for context at previous revolutions in labor productivity.