The Real Threat to Our Jobs Was Never Offshoring — It's Robotic Automation

We're better at teaching robots to reason than we are at getting them to perceive. That's good for human laborers in industries that value the latter.

James Manyika: The hardest things to do with technology — not that they’re impossible, but the hardest things to do with technology have to do with if you like motor-sensory-perception challenges. Those are actually the — now we’ve made progression on those by the way so, you know, humanoid robots have made huge progress, to sense environments, have made huge progress. But we’ve not made in anywhere near as much progress on that as we’ve made in the more reasoning, thinking tasks — the knowledge work. And the reason why those two differences are interesting is that so I’ll stay with what’s called the physical-sensory-perception end of that spectrum. You end up still needing to actually build machines that actually costs money that have arms and legs and whatever physical things that will move things around. It’s also the place where there will be an abundance of human labor available. And so the combination of the costs, not so much progress, and the availability of human labor will probably mean that we’ll see less automation happen there because there’s always going to be an alternative.

Whereas if you go to the other end of the spectrum where it’s mostly thinking work... the algorithm that does medical diagnosis or pattern recognition or image recognition is essentially an algorithm. There’s no moving parts so to speak. So the economics of that are very, very low. And, by the way, we’ve made more progress there in the last five years than we’ve made in the last 50 with machine learning and deep learning. And, by the way, that’s where the labor and the skills are in short supply.

So you put the technology and the labor economics that go with it — which is a shortage — you’re likely to see more of it actually being applied there. If you look at a sector like manufacturing, for example. You know, I’ll pick a period — 2000-2008; 2008 just because that was the start of the recession. In that period, much of the conversation we had about the 5.8 million jobs we lost in manufacturing was always a conversation about offshoring. Now when we look back and various economists have different estimates of this. We have our own. But for the most part, roughly about 20 percent of the jobs lost in that period were, in fact, due to offshoring. The rest was a combination of technology-driven automation as well as shortfalls in demand. At some level, when you’ve got economies like the United States where something like, you know, 60 percent of our GDP growth comes from household and consumer consumption and spending, it’s going to be important for people to be able to consume and spend to drive GDP. So if people aren’t earning anything because they’re not working or whatever the case may be, what happens to that?

So I think there’s a very complicated set of questions here, questions about transitions as we move towards a world in which there’s more automation. It’s a much longer conversation that we’ll have to have over a much longer period of time. So I think this question of automation is actually a bigger deal and I think we got distracted and looked at the offshoring question. Of course that’s real, but a bigger question is what happens to work?

As a member of the White House Global Development Council, Dr. James Manyika makes it his business to keep a keen eye on economic trends with big international implications. Here he tackles automation and the rise of robot workers. Manyika and his team of researchers at the McKinsey Global Institute have found that, so far, we've proven far better at teaching robots to reason than we are at getting them to perceive. It's the sort of industries that rely on sensory perception in which we're likely to see a slower rise of automated workers and thus more opportunities for qualified members of the human labor force.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

4 reasons Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for universal basic income

In his final years, Martin Luther King, Jr. become increasingly focused on the problem of poverty in America.

(Photo by J. Wilds/Keystone/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Despite being widely known for his leadership role in the American civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. also played a central role in organizing the Poor People's Campaign of 1968.
  • The campaign was one of the first to demand a guaranteed income for all poor families in America.
  • Today, the idea of a universal basic income is increasingly popular, and King's arguments in support of the policy still make a good case some 50 years later.
Keep reading Show less

Why avoiding logical fallacies is an everyday superpower

10 of the most sandbagging, red-herring, and effective logical fallacies.

Photo credit: Miguel Henriques on Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Many an otherwise-worthwhile argument has been derailed by logical fallacies.
  • Sometimes these fallacies are deliberate tricks, and sometimes just bad reasoning.
  • Avoiding these traps makes disgreeing so much better.
Keep reading Show less

Why I wear my life on my skin

For Damien Echols, tattoos are part of his existential armor.

Videos
  • In prison Damien Echols was known by his number SK931, not his name, and had his hair sheared off. Stripped of his identity, the only thing he had left was his skin.
  • This is why he began tattooing things that are meaningful to him — to carry a "suit of armor" made up the images of the people and objects that have significance to him, from his friends to talismans.
  • Echols believes that all places are imbued with divinity: "If you interact with New York City as if there's an intelligence behind... then it will behave towards you the same way."
Keep reading Show less