Does technology help or hurt employment? , MIT News

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This is part 2 of two MIT News Feature examining new job creation in America since 1940, based on new research by David Autor, Ford Professor of Economics. Part 1 is available here.

Ever since the Luddites were destroying machine looms, it has been clear that new technologies can eliminate jobs. But technological innovations also create new jobs: consider a computer programmer, or someone installing solar panels on a rooftop.

Overall, does technology replace more jobs than it creates? What is the net balance between these two things? Its measurement has not been done yet. But a new research project led by MIT economist David Autor has developed an answer for American history since at least 1940.

The study uses new methods to examine how many jobs have been lost due to machine automation, and how many have been created through “augmentation”, in which technology creates new tasks. Studies show that on the Net, and especially since 1980, technology has replaced more American jobs than it has created.

“Over the past four decades, from 1980 to the present, there appears to be a faster rate of automation and a slower rate of growth than in the previous four decades,” says Autor, co-author of a newly published paper. Description of results.

However, this conclusion is only one of the studies in progress. The researchers also developed an entirely new method for studying this issue, based on an analysis of thousands of US census job categories in connection with a comprehensive look at the text of US patents over the last century. This allowed them to measure for the first time the effects of technology on both job losses and job creation.

Previously, scholars were able to quantify job losses from new technologies on a large scale, not job gains.

“I feel like a paleontologist who was looking for dinosaur bones that we thought might have existed, but couldn’t find them until now,” Autor says. “I think this research is based on things we suspected were true, but we didn’t have direct evidence of before this study.”

paper, “New Frontiers: The Origins and Content of New Work, 1940-2018,” appears in Quarterly Journal of Economics, Co-authors are Autor, Ford Professor of Economics; Caroline Chin, a PhD student in economics at MIT; Anna Salomons, Professor at the School of Economics at Utrecht University; and Brian Seegmiller SM ’20, PhD ’22, assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Northwestern University.

Automation vs Augmentation

The study shows that overall, about 60 percent of the jobs in America represent new types of work that have been created since 1940. A century ago, that computer programmer might have been working on a farm.

To determine this, Autor and his colleagues examined nearly 35,000 job categories listed in U.S. Census Bureau reports, and tracked how they evolved over time. They also used natural language processing tools to analyze the text of every US patent filed since 1920. The research examined how words were “embedded” in census and patent documents to locate corresponding fragments of text. This allowed them to determine the relationship between new technologies and their effects on employment.

“You can think of automation as a machine that takes job inputs and does the work for the employee,” explains Autor. “We think of augmentation as a technology that increases the variety of things that people can do, the quality of things that people can do, or their productivity.”

For example, from 1940 to 1980, jobs such as elevator operators and typesetters became automated. But at the same time, more workers filled roles such as shipping and receiving clerks, buyers and department heads, and civil and aeronautical engineers, where technology created the need for more employees.

From 1980 to 2018, the ranks of cabinet makers and machinists, among others, have shrunk due to automation, while, for example, industrial engineers, and operations and systems researchers and analysts have enjoyed growth.

Ultimately, the research shows that the negative impact of automation on employment was more than double in the period 1980–2018 compared to the period 1940–1980. There was a more modest and positive change in the impact of growth on employment in 1980–2018 compared to 1940–1980.

“There’s no law that says these things are balanced one-for-one, although there’s never been a time where we haven’t created new work,” Autor believes.

What will AI do?

However, the research also highlights many nuances in this process, as automation and enhancements often occur within the same industry. It is not that technology reduces the number of farmers when building air traffic controllers. For example, the same large manufacturing company may have fewer machinists but more systems analysts.

Relatedly, over the past 40 years, technological trends have widened the wage gap in the US, with highly educated professionals more likely to work in new fields, which are themselves divided between higher-paying and lower-income jobs. .

“New work is divided,” says Autor. “As old work has been eroded away in the middle, new work has grown up on either side.”

As the research also shows, technology isn’t the only thing that drives new work. Demographic changes are also behind the growth in many areas of service industries. Interestingly, new research also shows that massive consumer demand also drives technological innovation. Inventions are not only made by talented people thinking outside the box, but also in response to clear social needs.

80 years of data also shows that future pathways for innovation and employment implications are difficult to predict. Consider the potential use of AI in workplaces.

“AI is really different,” Autor says. “It may replace some high-skilled expertise but may complement decision-making functions. I think we’re in an era where we have this new device and we don’t know what it’s good for. New technologies have strengths and weaknesses and it takes some time to understand them. GPS was invented for military purposes, and it took decades to make its way into smartphones.

He adds: “We’re hoping that our research approach will give us the ability to say more about this going forward.”

As Autor acknowledges, there is room to further refine the research team’s methods. At the moment, he believes the research opens new ground for study.

“The missing link was documenting and quantifying how much technology enhances people’s jobs,” Autor says. “All prior measures only showed automation and its impact on displacement of workers. We were amazed that we could identify, classify and quantify growth. So, for me, that in itself is quite fundamental.”

Support for the research was provided, in part, by The Carnegie Corporation; Google; Institut GAC; MIT’s work on the future task force; Schmidt Futures; Smith Richardson Foundation; and the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

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