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The fear of robots displacing workers has returned

2 Mins read

But do not expect tech-induced lay-offs just yet

Covid-19 presented employers with a simple choice: find ways for workers to do their jobs safely, or shut down. At least some have chosen a third option, of dispensing with humans altogether. Among the many breathless headlines prompted by the pandemic are those warning of a new wave of job-destroying automation. The pace of automation in some parts of the economy, like factory floors and warehouses, is almost certain to accelerate. Yet on the whole, robot-induced mass unemployment should remain near the bottom of workers’ lists of worries.

The world has only recently recovered from a bout of robophobia. In the early 2010s advances in robotics and artificial intelligence (ai), described ominously in countless papers and books, seemed to portend a wave of job destruction. High unemployment after the global financial crisis of 2007-09 added to fears of a job scarcity. Fretting about robots in a downturn is not entirely irrational: firms appear to do most of their job-slashing during slumps. Nir Jaimovich of the University of Zurich and Henry Siu of the University of British Columbia argue that labour-market recoveries have grown weaker in recent decades as a result. Worries can be overdone, though. By the end of the decade unemployment had dropped like a stone and driverless vehicles were struggling to turn left. The earlier panic seemed a touch hysterical.

High rates of joblessness and eye-catching technological advances are again contributing to a new round of fears. In recent weeks, for instance, mind-boggling examples of the capabilities of gpt3—an ai-based language-processing model developed by Openai, a research organisation—have zoomed around the internet. Another cause for anxiety has been businesses’ strategies for coping with the pandemic. Anecdotes of covid-motivated automation are easy to find. Many organisations have turned to software to automate paper-processing tasks that cannot be done by homebound workers. Those facing a deluge of customer enquiries, such as hospitals, are supplementing human assistants with chatbots. Employers’ interest in automating tasks in high-risk environments, such as slaughterhouses, is reportedly on the rise.

Any effect of these on unemployment has almost certainly been swamped by stronger economic forces, such as social-distancing measures and collapsing aggregate demand. And the pace of automation is likely to be gradual rather than disruptively speedy. Many jobs, even those commonly classified as “low-skilled”, require manual and social dexterity that machines cannot yet match. Workers in face-to-face industries—in bars or restaurants, say, or hair and nail salons—are especially vulnerable to covid-19. But there is little scope for, or interest in, replacing them with robots. In New York thousands of public-transport workers caught the virus, and dozens died. Despite billions of dollars of investment in driverless vehicles, though, computers cannot yet pilot buses through chaotic city streets.

Furthermore, automation is only one of the technological solutions available to firms as they weather the crisis. The pandemic’s most profound labour-market legacy will probably be a rise in remote work. About half of all Americans who were working before the arrival of covid-19 were doing their jobs remotely by May, according to one estimate. Surveys of firms indicate that some of the shift will not be reversed. If remote work slashes overheads and enables people to move to cheaper cities, it could preserve jobs, by alleviating cost pressures on struggling firms.

Telework may have…

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