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Economists Are Revising Their Views on Robots and Jobs


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Two years into the pandemic, the evidence for automation-induced unemployment is scant, even as global investment spending surges.

Credit: Otto Dettner

When the pandemic first struck, unemployment soared. Not since the Depression had American joblessness surpassed 14%, as it did in April 2020. But fears of a prolonged period of high unemployment did not come to pass. According to the latest available data, for November, the unemployment rate for the OECD club of mostly rich countries was only marginally higher than it was before the pandemic. By now it may even have drawn level. The rich world's labour-market bounceback is the latest phenomenon provoking economists to look again at a foundational question in the discipline: whether robots help or harm workers.

The gloomy narrative, which says that an invasion of job-killing robots is just around the corner, has for decades had an extraordinary hold on the popular imagination. Warning people of a jobless future has, ironically enough, created plenty of employment for ambitious public intellectuals looking for a book deal or a speaking opportunity. Shortly before the pandemic, though, other researchers were starting to question the received wisdom. The world was supposedly in the middle of an artificial-intelligence and machine-learning revolution, but by 2019 employment rates across advanced economies had risen to all-time highs. Japan and South Korea, where robot use was among the highest of all, happened to have the lowest rates of unemployment.

From The Economist
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