To the Jobless Economy

SUNNYVALE, CALIFORNIA – Nearly all economic forecasts agree that high unemployment in much of the developed world will most likely persist for years to come. But could even this dire projection underestimate future unemployment rates?

As improvements in computers, robotic technologies, and other forms of job automation continue to accelerate, more workers are certain to be displaced, and job creation will become even more challenging. Most economists dismiss concern that this might lead to long-term structural unemployment. Indeed, the idea often elicits outright derision. The conservative media in the United States recently mocked President Barack Obama for suggesting that automation might hurt employment growth. But Obama was right to raise the question.

A very large percentage of jobs are, on some level, essentially routine and repetitive. It seems likely that, as computer hardware and software continue to improve, many of these job types will become susceptible to automation, particularly to machine learning.

This is not far-fetched science-fiction technology, but rather a simple extrapolation of the expert systems and specialized algorithms that currently land jet airplanes, trade autonomously on Wall Street, or beat nearly any human being at chess. IBM’s Watson – the computer that prevailed on the television game show Jeopardy! – suggests that machine-learning algorithms could soon be able to take on a number of cognitive tasks.