Episode 626: This Is The End : Planet Money Machines have been taking jobs forever. In the past, when jobs disappeared, new ones were created. But is this time different?
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Episode 626: This Is The End

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Episode 626: This Is The End

Episode 626: This Is The End

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DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: For the past couple weeks, we've been doing these stories about robots and computers and software taking jobs, and in the back of my mind, I've had this question. Are we making a huge mistake? Are we just playing into all this hype about a coming robot job apocalypse where robots and computers and machines do so many things that there are fewer and fewer jobs for people?

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: The truth is machines have been taking jobs from people for a long time. You know, we could have done stories like the ones we've been doing lately - we could have done them a hundred years ago. Today on the show, a new machine comes to the farm. They call it the tractor, and it could destroy millions of jobs.

KESTENBAUM: It did destroy millions of jobs, but millions more were created. It all worked out. There is a long list of people who have worried about this question, and every time, they have been wrong. Andrew McAfee is a professor at MIT.

ANDREW MCAFEE: The Luddites said that. Marx predicted it with great confidence. John Maynard Keynes, who's one of my intellectual heroes, talked about it in the 1930s. People have been talking about it forever and ever.

KESTENBAUM: So does it feel crazy for you to be saying, no, no, no - this time - this time I mean it, and I'm right?

GOLDSTEIN: (Laughter).

MCAFEE: Yeah, you know, you wonder if you're joining that long litany of voices who go down as having made the incorrect prediction one more time, but I think the facts are different this time.

GOLDSTEIN: Andrew McAfee - super smart guy, MIT professor - says this time is different. This time when machines take our jobs, there will just be fewer jobs.


KESTENBAUM: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm David Kestenbaum.

GOLDSTEIN: And I'm Jacob Goldstein. Today, we're just going to dig into that big question. Are we heading for a future with a lot fewer jobs, and if we are, what do we do about it?

KESTENBAUM: It's the final installment in our series on technology and jobs.


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KESTENBAUM: Today on the show, we're going to be talking to two people. The first is the guy you just heard from, Andrew McAfee. He's going to be making the case that this time is different. No, we were not crazy to be doing a series about robots stealing jobs. We started by asking him what his background was.

MCAFEE: I'm a mechanical engineer from MIT by training - did an MBA there, did my doctorate at Harvard Business School and taught there for about 10 years and came back to MIT in 2009.

GOLDSTEIN: You're a machine. (Laughter).

MCAFEE: Not unless I've been getting lied to for a long time.

KESTENBAUM: We always tell machines they're human.


KESTENBAUM: Makes them feel better.

MCAFEE: We appreciate that.

GOLDSTEIN: McAfee doesn't think that machines are going to be human-like in the near future. He doesn't think they're going to be sentient. He doesn't think they're going to have human intelligence. But he says if you just extrapolate from what's been happening in the past few decades, go a few more decades into the future, and you wind up with an economy with profoundly fewer jobs than we have today. I mean, he went through a whole list.

MCAFEE: We've got cars that can drive themselves on roads in traffic without mishap. The accidents that Google just reported that happened with their autonomous cars happened because other people rear-ended them and swerved into them. We have that right now. Our leading-edge factories are almost totally automated. That's going to be the norm. In addition, it turns out people like self-service a lot. I don't want to talk to somebody when I go check in at an airport. I just either download the boarding pass to my phone or walk up to a kiosk and get it. The person that checks my ID and lets me through to the boarding area - are they really doing that job because they're better than a piece of technology at sussing out if I am who I say I am and if I pose a security threat or not? I'm sorry, I don't believe they are.

GOLDSTEIN: We looked up a few numbers. Truck drivers alone make up almost 2 million jobs, and those other jobs - millions more. McAfee says when he looks at the math, it's clear where this is going.

MCAFEE: Twenty or 40 years from now, I believe we will not need the labor of a lot of the people alive in order to have a very, very productive economy. In terms of the amount of human labor that you need to get the stuff out of the ground and off the farms and through the factories and into our homes and tables - next to none.

GOLDSTEIN: So do you wake up every morning and think, like, the future is just going to be insane?


KESTENBAUM: In this world he imagines, there would be some jobs. There would be jobs for lucky people like him - professors at elite universities. What else did he mention? Therapists, managers, CEOs, and there would be jobs at the low end - the very low end - jobs that pay so little it just doesn't make sense to build or buy a robot to do them.

MCAFEE: Restaurant busboy is my exhibit A for a job that's not going anywhere. It's incredibly hard to build a robot that can walk through a crowded restaurant, clear a table without breaking everything, and do that all without terrifying all the patrons in the restaurant. That job is a ways off from being automated, but that job is also not terribly prestigious, not very well paid, not very secure.

GOLDSTEIN: There will also be some jobs that we'll just want people to do. He mentioned high school soccer coach, for example.

KESTENBAUM: You kind of want a person doing that.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, sure. It's like he's - you know, there's, like, the caring, human touch part. And there are some jobs there. But when you add up all the jobs he thinks are going to be left, there will not be nearly enough to make up for the vast number of jobs that machines are going to take over.

KESTENBAUM: McAfee says he thinks this is already starting to happen. There's a kind of jobs gap opening up. If you look at the data, you can see it happening at these very particular moments.

MCAFEE: What we're noticing is that as we're coming out of successive recessions - as we go deeper into the computer age and we come out of each successive recession, the recoveries are increasingly jobless. In other words, the growth comes back, output comes back, but the employment does not bounce back in as nearly a robust way. Firms, companies go, oh, wait a minute. I can grow without hiring as many people back as I thought I needed to do before the recession.

GOLDSTEIN: In a way, the big question at the center of the whole show today is this. Does the future look like science fiction, or does it look like history, but, you know, history with really good phones?

KESTENBAUM: McAfee says the future is not going to look like the past. It's not going to look like history. It's going to look like science fiction. In the past, he said, machines were doing basically mechanical things. This time around, they're doing things that are very, very human. Not just driving cars, but also writing music.

GOLDSTEIN: That music you heard earlier in the show - written by a computer.


KESTENBAUM: Good job, computer. So that, from Andrew McAfee, is the case that there will be far fewer jobs in the future. Now we're going to hear the other side - the chill out, there will be plenty of jobs, argument. It comes from another person who works basically right next to Andrew on the same campus at MIT.

GOLDSTEIN: Can you introduce yourself?

DAVID AUTOR: Sure. My name is David Autor. I'm a professor of economics and associate head of the MIT Department of Economics.

KESTENBAUM: David and Andrew disagree on a couple key things. One is the pace of technological improvement.

AUTOR: It's hard to know how fast things will change. I mean, that's a first point.

KESTENBAUM: Well, Andrew McAfee thinks technology is going to improve at an exponential rate. David Autor is not so sure.

GOLDSTEIN: Autor does agree that technology is going to keep destroying jobs. That part is clear. It's given. That's what's been happening for a long time. You know, 40 percent of jobs used to be on the farm. Now it's 2 percent of jobs are on farms. But that's not the whole story, right? The tractor comes along, destroys all these farming jobs, but it also means food gets a lot cheaper. So everybody has lots more money in their pocket 'cause they're not spending all their money on food anymore. They go out, they buy more stuff, new stuff. That creates new opportunities. That creates new jobs.

KESTENBAUM: Autor says there are tons of things that people - humans can do that computers and machines just cannot, and he thinks that's going to be the case for the foreseeable future. So he figures there will be plenty of opportunities for new jobs to take the place of the old ones. He was not sure what those jobs would be. That was not reassuring to me, but to be fair, he's an economist, not as psychic.

AUTOR: I could not - if we'd had this conversation a hundred years ago, I would not have predicted the software industry, the Internet or all the travel or all the experience goods. I just wouldn't come up with it. So I don't feel - I feel it would be rather arrogant of me to say, I looked at the future, and people won't come up with stuff. I now am confident that they lack that creativity - that the ideas are all used up, and so we can't do that again. I don't know. (Laughter) I'm humbled by the fact - at how bad I would have been at predicting the future.

KESTENBAUM: In other words, Autor says, this time probably is not different.

AUTOR: My thesis adviser and mentor and co-author, Larry Katz - he likes to say, you know, I like history, and I like science fiction, but I think history is a more reliable guide to the future.

KESTENBAUM: In a weird way, I think David Autor and Andrew McAfee are not actually that far apart. I mean, they like each other, they're friends, they appear on stage debating this kind of thing all the time. They really disagree about these two key things. One is, how good are computers going to get - how fast? And the second thing is they disagree about - you can think of it as the degree to which new machines are going to take jobs or just act as tools 'cause if you just think they're just going to act as tools, then there are plenty of opportunities for people to find new work. And depending on where you come down on these two things, the world you end up imagining 30 - 40 years into the future can look totally different.

GOLDSTEIN: Even if you agree with McAfee. Even if you think, in fact, in the future, there will be far fewer jobs, that's not necessarily a bad thing. That is not necessarily the robot apocalypse 'cause, you know, machines making all this stuff - that could be really good. The stuff could be good stuff. It could be really cheap. It could be a world of incredible abundance.

KESTENBAUM: Just a world without many jobs.

GOLDSTEIN: Right, so that's obviously the problem, right? You have some people with jobs. Some of those people are very rich, but there's not enough work to go around. There's just not enough stuff to do. And so when you put all this together, it's just like - it's hard to imagine. I mean, I asked McAfee, just, like, close your eyes and tell me how does this economy even work? What does it even look like?

MCAFEE: I don't exactly know. This makes my head hurt when I try to think in detail about that economy 40 years out. We're going to have a ridiculously abundant economy. We're going to be freed from want and from privation. I really believe that, and that's phenomenally good news. However, in that economy, do we have prices? Do we have money? If so, how do you get that money because you don't really have a job in that economy? There aren't very many of what we used to consider jobs, and that was the way we distributed the money so you could buy the things. And that system, overall - it's not perfect - it works really, really well.

GOLDSTEIN: One idea for solving the money problem - the inequality problem is something called a guaranteed minimum income. Basically, you just give every single person a pot of money every year.

KESTENBAUM: This would, of course, require a bunch of people - people with jobs - paying a lot of taxes. The idea obviously would go nowhere politically today, but some people in Silicon Valley are talking about it, and in a world where machines do more and more and there are fewer and fewer jobs, McAfee says it may make a lot more sense.


TAME IMPALA: (Singing) If only there could be another way to do...

KESTENBAUM: We'd love to know what you think. Is the future different this time? Send us email - planetmoney@npr.org. Our show today was produced by Frances Harlow. Thank you, Frances.

GOLDSTEIN: And if you're looking for something else to listen to, check out Alt.Latino. It's a Latino music show. There's everything from psychedelic, tropical music from Peru to Mexican folk rhythms and a lot more. You can find Alt.Latino on the NPR One app. I'm Jacob Goldstein.

KESTENBAUM: And I'm David Kestenbaum. Thanks for listening.


TAME IMPALA: (Singing) This is the very, very last time I'm ever going to.

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