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When the Machines Take Our Jobs, Will We Be Freed?

March 06, 2017


Q&A With Erik Brynjolfsson

This article first appeared in CityLab on 

Automation is a new mass economic problem, one that arguably affected the outcome of the presidential election. Thousands of Americans have already been displaced by a force of much more efficient workers—machines. As the full impact of digital technologies is felt, jobs of all kinds, from real-estate agent to pilot to truck driver, will be upended.

Erik Brynjolfsson is the director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, a professor at the university’s Sloan School of Management, and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He was one of the first researchers to study IT productivity and quantify the value of the variety of products online (aka the “long tail”). Brynjolfsson’s 2014 book The Second Machine Age (co-written with Andrew McAfee) looked at how digital technology is transforming our jobs and our lives. The authors argued that automation is advancing to the detriment of today’s economy, yet for the potential good of the environment.

CityLab recently spoke to Brynjolfsson about artificial intelligence, the robotic future, and the possibility of a “leisure society”—one so efficient at production that citizens don’t need to work.

Machines are replacing manufacturing workers. The old factory jobs are gone, and most economists say that they are never coming back. What does this mean for the way we organize society?

Most manufacturing jobs are never coming back. America manufacturing output has never been higher, and the decline in jobs does not represent the work going overseas, but rather the increased automation and productivity of American factories. Just as agriculture accounted for 42 percent of the workforce in 1900 and less than 2 percent today, manufacturing labor is becoming more productive, and so fewer factory workers are needed.

If we want to put people to work, the answer is not to try to restore the jobs of the 20th century, but to invest in creating the new jobs of the 21st century, which are increasingly in the service sector, healthcare, education, and creative fields. We shouldn’t try to protect the past from the future by protecting incumbent companies from new technologies and new entrants. Instead, we should be investing for a rapidly emerging future with confidence and high ambition.