Automation and Human Substitution

MIT economist David Autor is one of the leader experts on our rapidly changing world of automation and potential for human labor substitution. In a wonderful article for the MIT Sloan Review entitled, "The Shifts – Great and Small– in Workplace Automation," he unpacks the reality that middle skill, highly-repeatable jobs (both cognitive and manual) are at risk of machine automation. But he also states that this overlooks the other reality; that when machines automate certain sub-sets of jobs, namely tasks, they complement other more human capabilities. When these human capabilities that we know more tacitly, such as abstract thinking, complex problem solving, empathy in dealing with others, managing human relationships, etc. are complemented, they amplify the comparative advantage of these more "fuzzy" abilities. The value of these abilities goes up as machines substitute away the routine, codifiable, machine-readable tasks. There are very real needs to be concerned over shrinking middle-skill jobs such as clerical or service work in retail, hospitality, or food services, for example, and we need to be thinking about how this affects income distribution and opportunity. Autor points out that middle-skill occupations such as admin office work, sales, and machine operative work has shrunk from 60% of jobs to 46% between 1979 and 2012. Meanwhile service occupations that are higher-touch human facing, management, and professional technician jobs have grown. The highly cited example of ATMs is another. While between 1995 and 2010 the US went from having 100,000 to 400,000 ATMs, heralded to eliminate the bank teller, but bank tellers over the same period grew from 500,000 to 550,000. While ATMs increased by 300%, bank tellers also grew by 10%. The human skills became higher-level importance, and banking became more relationship-based.

How are our schools and education system helping these individuals up-skill (and also low-ego into trying new things). We can't build a wall to keep the robots out, so how do we consider how these automations will enhance the human condition? How can we align our skills with their gaps, so we complement one another? We need people to be technically literate, but we also need to co-invest in our creativity, breadth of thinking, and problem solving. We need to develop the capacity for becoming both more fuzzy, and more techie.