Much of the current discussion on automation is of the “robots-killing-jobs” variety. This alarmism is unsurprising. After all, most research to this point has focused on the introduction of robots into manufacturing, or on computer algorithms that automate routine tasks. These are changes that have replaced, and will continue to replace, jobs that many workers, families and communities have historically depended on.
But if history is any guide, the technologies adopted in the workplace of the future may be quite different than those that were initially dominant. As Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo (2019) suggest, the future of work and the workforce will depend on the balance between labor replacing technologies – those that supplant human brawn or rote repetition – and, in their language, labor reinstating technologies, that generate new tasks at which humans have a comparative advantage.
Labor Replacing vs. Labor Reinstating Technologies
The canonical example of a labor replacing technology is robots in car factories. Assembly lines, once consisting of a series of stations where five or six workers were responsible for installing or attaching a specific car part to a frame before it went to the next station, often now feature a series of robotic appendages in place of humans. Today, this technology has largely supplanted direct human effort in constructing a car.