Will robots replace workers? Paul Krugman's answer to that question is yes and no:
At the level of the economy as a whole, the verdict is clear: So far, machines haven’t done away with the need for workers. U.S. workers are almost five times as productive as they were in the early postwar years, but there has been no long-term upward trend in unemployment.
That said, technology can eliminate particular kinds of jobs. In 1948 half a million Americans were employed mining coal; the great bulk of those jobs had disappeared by the early 21st century not because we stopped mining coal — the big decline in coal production, in favor first of natural gas and then of renewable energy, started only around 15 years ago — but because strip mining and mountaintop removal made it possible to extract an increasing amount of coal with many fewer workers.
But that doesn't mean that the change has been easy:
Individual workers may not find it easy to change jobs, especially if the new jobs are in different places. They may find their skills devalued; in some cases, as with coal, technological change can uproot communities and their way of life.
However, something different is happening now:
In the past, the jobs replaced by technology tended to involve manual labor. Machines replaced muscles. On the one hand, industrial robots replaced routine assembly-line work. On the other hand, there has been ever-growing demand for knowledge workers, a term coined by the management consultant Peter Drucker in 1959 for people engaged in nonrepetitive problem solving. Many people, myself included, have said that we’re increasingly becoming a knowledge economy.
But what if machines can take over a large chunk of what we have historically thought of as knowledge work?
Last week the research company OpenAI released — to enormous buzz from tech circles — a program called ChatGPT, which can carry out what look like natural-language conversations. You can ask questions or make requests and get responses that are startlingly clear and even seem well-informed. You can also do fun things — one colleague recently asked for and received an analysis of secular stagnation in sonnet form — but let’s stick with things that might be economically useful.
ChatGPT is only the latest example of technology that seems to be able to carry out tasks that not long ago seemed to require the services not just of human beings but of humans with substantial formal education.
So what happens now?
It is difficult to predict exactly how A.I. will impact the demand for knowledge workers, as it will likely vary, depending on the industry and specific job tasks. However, it is possible that in some cases, A.I. and automation may be able to perform certain knowledge-based tasks more efficiently than humans, potentially reducing the need for some knowledge workers. This could include tasks such as data analysis, research and report writing. However, it is also worth noting that A.I. and automation may also create new job opportunities for knowledge workers, particularly in fields related to A.I. development and implementation.
What will happen in the long run? Krugman repeats John Maynard Keynes answer to that question: "In the long run we'll all be dead."
Image: Business Insider