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Debate on automation heats up

March 7, 2011 |  9:51 am

Watson As we reported last week, automation is coming to jobs of last resort, such as those in retail, replacing checkout clerks with machines and gas station attendants with vending machines. Now some economists worry that it might replace high-skilled jobs too -- which could be very serious, depending on how you look at it.

After a New York Times article reported that automation is coming to law firms, replacing teams of lawyers with skilled machines, economist Paul Krugman wondered what will happen to society if even highly trained workers can't command a middle-class income. The pay gap between those with college degrees and those without has been shrinking, he pointed out.

Similarly, economist Brad DeLong said he doesn't worry jobs will disappear -- but does worry that wages may take a hit. He said that the onetime college wage premium that existed has shrunk because of supply, not demand: As more workers got college degrees, their skills weren't as hard to find. The next jobs that will have premium wages, he said, are those that have barriers to entry, so that not just anyone can do them. When employers have a hard time hiring people to fill the jobs, wages for those jobs will rise -- especially if not even a robot can fill them.

Automation expert Martin Ford takes this one step further. In responding to Krugman and DeLong, he says that automation of highly skilled jobs will not only threaten jobs, it will destroy the American dream. He wrote:

If there's anything left of the American Dream, it is the idea that if you work hard to educate yourself, you'll have a better shot at prosperity. If that promise comes up short, it may ultimately destroy the incentive for broad-based pursuit of education.

People that would pursue high-skill jobs will compete for jobs as plumbers instead of going to college, he predicted. Then people that would normally be plumbers, if there wasn't so much competition, will have no savings, no money and no prospects.

That, in turn, could have long-term effects on consumption in America -- as fewer people have employment, they buy fewer things. Because consumption makes up 70% of the U.S. economy, that could spiral pretty quickly, he says.

"When a worker is replaced by a machine, that machine does not go out and consume," Ford said, so we should be very worried -- not just amused -- that robots are replacing lawyers, and that Watson can beat us at "Jeopardy!"

What do you think? Is automation a threat to your job?


Retail jobs are disappearing as shoppers adjust to self-service

-- Alana Semuels

Photo: Watson the computer in a "Jeopardy!" test match. Credit: charliecurve via Flickr