What jobs can human beings do that robots cannot?

The idea of robots taking our jobs isn’t new, but as AI becomes more advanced, and more tasks can be automated, economists are asking if there are any jobs that robots cannot do, and if there is room for humans in the future workforce.

15 Jul 2020

Nobel Laureate Michael Spence says it’s important to recognize that “robots taking over our jobs” is a broad generalization. There are multiple categories, including robotics, automation, the internet, artificial intelligence — all of which have varied impacts. In Spence’s view, while all of these in some form will inevitably take over certain jobs, society needs to focus on changing the ways humans work with robots in parallel.

The question whether they’re going to take our jobs boils down to the question whether there are things that human beings can do better.

Christopher Pissarides

Christopher Pissarides, whose research focuses on the economics of labor and growth, says the takeover is inevitable. “There are estimates that 50 percent of jobs could be done by robots.” He adds, however, that “the question whether they’re going to take our jobs and we’re going to be left there not knowing what to do boils down to the question whether there are things that human beings can do better than robots.” He notes, for example, that human beings are still “best at reading body language and responses and needs of other people.”

Spence agrees that it comes down to how labor between human beings and robots is distributed, and it’s possible to make it complementary. For example, he posits that doctors could “have superhuman assistants who read the literature way faster than we can and find the things that the doctors really need to read.”

The difficulty lies in the transition, says Spence. “We’re in for a fairly complex transition that is going to challenge people and institutions and systems.” People will need to learn new processes that enable them to work more cooperatively with these machines.

We’re in for a fairly complex transition that is going to challenge people and institutions and systems.

Michael Spence

Economist Paul Romer says that human capital is at the core of economic success. “Most of the attention in a business should be on the human capital that you develop amongst your employees,” he notes. “When a surgeon figures out a better way to do the operation, she might write it down and send that message out to all of her colleagues, and then they can do better operations as well. So there’s this back and forth between turning ideas into human capital, turning human capital back into ideas.”

Regulation also has a large part to play in ensuring that the transition to a new type of robot-enabled economy is a smooth one. Economist Finn Kydland thinks that “it may take a while for the educational system to adapt to the new situation and make sure that the right skills are available.”

It may take a while for the educational system to adapt.

Finn Kydland

Pissarides is optimistic, and notes that the invention of the car also fundamentally changed the world economy. “We managed to bring in the combustion engine and destroy the entire horse breeding industry. I don’t think anyone wants to go back to horse breeding and blame the combustion engine for it.”

“The same thing is happening now with robots,” he adds. “The advantages of artificial intelligence is that there are many essentially boring jobs, data processing, that people used to do that now can be done by machines.“

And for those concerned that the robot revolution will destroy the job market? Calm down, says Pissarides. “There is job destruction on a daily basis and there is job creation on a daily basis,” he argues. “People move from one job to another. Companies come into the labor market; others leave. It’s a process that has taken place all the time.” A modern, flexible economy should be able to handle this transition, as long as workers can stay flexible. 

“The biggest and most important role is the versatility that human beings have that robots don’t have,” says Pissarides. As for the rest? “Almost everything mechanical that uses big data will eventually be moved onto machines and I can’t wait for that day.”

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