When Robots Begin to Care

This past week, in an article titled “Be Calm, Robots Aren’t About to Take Your Job, MIT Economist Says,” the Wall Street Journal spoke with my colleague, economist David Autor, on the subject of robotics and the labor force. Autor provided a number of compelling reasons not to worry about robots stealing jobs from humans, chiefly:

• There’s a serious skill gap between robots and people when it comes to jobs that require a human touch.
• Automation increases the productivity of the entire economy, allowing society as a whole to produce more wealth, which is a good thing.

He’s right on both counts–for now–and as I’ll explain, even if robots do achieve human skills and take over some jobs sooner than expected, it might be exactly what our aging society needs.

Expanding on Autor’s first point, another recent Wall Street Journal piece, titled “Why Robots Still Can’t Fold Your Laundry,” makes the case that machines, though adept at repetitive tasks such as, say, multiplying numbers and affixing caps to bottles, still lack the many subtle decision-making skills that we humans take for granted when completing highly tactile tasks. That finding might seem reassuring to folks who fold laundry for a living–except for the fact that, as tech author Martin Ford pointed out on Twitter, there now is a robot that can fold laundry. And it’s not the only one capable of increasingly sensitive jobs. For instance, Rethink Robotics’ Baxter is able to perform complex actions in close proximity to people, in part because it’s equipped with sensors designed to prevent it from harming humans who come into contact with its moving limbs.

But even if robots do take on jobs once thought to belong solely to the realm of Homo sapiens, alarm bells may still be —> Read More