The Trump administration might not be worried about robots taking jobs. But the American public sure is.
“In terms of artificial intelligence taking over the jobs, I think we’re so far away from that that it’s not even on my radar screen,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told an audience in Washington in March. “I think it’s 50 or 100 more years.”
Despite such reassurances, 56 percent of Americans believe that automation destroys more jobs than it creates, according to a new study by Ipsos Public Affairs and the Center for Business Analytics at the University of Virginia. About one-third of respondents believe they are at risk of losing their job to automation.
Most respondents—63 percent—agree that automation has made life easier. But only 43 percent believe that automation has more benefits than drawbacks.
The survey helps corroborate recent polling by Pew Research, which published its own report on the public’s views of automation earlier this month. Together, the two reports paint a picture of a population skeptical about the future of automation even as it becomes more comfortable with existing technology.
Automation is a broad concept that can include everything from spell-checking software to physical robots. Pew asked about common workplace technologies such as word processing, spreadsheets, scheduling software, and industrial robots. The Ipsos study focused more on consumer technologies, such as online banking, self-driving cars, and self-checkout and check-in kiosks.
The Big Fear: Jobs
Economists are divided on automation’s impact on employment. A study by Daron Acemoglu of MIT and Pascual Restrepo of Boston University published earlier this year found that the number of jobs, and wages, fell in communities where manufacturers had adopted industrial robots. But Lawrence Mishel and Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute offered a critique in a paper of their own. Mishel and Bivens say there’s no evidence that automation is responsible for wage stagnation or inequality or that automation reduces overall employment, even if it affects particular sectors. They also note that investment in automation technologies has slowed in the past decade.
Mishel blames other factors, including offshoring, trade agreements, and the weakening of unions, for wage stagnation. “I’m not sure we should be worrying about the impact of technology 20 years from now on jobs as the crisis to focus on, as opposed to the crisis we are living through, which is wage stagnation, which has nothing to do with automation,” Mishel says.
It appears that the public is listening more to the Cassandras. Pew found that 75 percent of respondents believe automation will not create replacement jobs if technology allows many of today’s jobs to be done by robots and computers. Three-quarters believe that economic inequality will worsen if automation reaches such an advanced state.
Most people in both studies believe that their own jobs are safe from automation, but 30 percent of respondents in the Pew study worry that their job will be done by machines sometime in their lifetime, which hews close to Ipsos’s finding that one-third of respondents worry that they’ll eventually lose their job to automation. Ipsos found that healthcare and social-service workers are the least concerned, with only 15 percent worried they’ll lose their jobs to automation. Transportation and warehouse workers are the most concerned: 56 percent fear their job will be automated away.
More Harm Than Good
The polls found that as a technology becomes more familiar, people view it more favorably. For example, shopping technologies like self-checkout kiosks and online sites were the most commonly used and most-favored technologies in the Ipsos study. Drones, internet-connected medical devices, and self-driving cars lagged in familiarity and were viewed less favorably. Likewise, respondents to the Pew survey believe that spreadsheets and word processors have had a positive impact on their workplaces, but a majority say they would not ride in a self-driving car.
Automated-voice menus proved an exception: 56 percent of respondents were familiar with them, but as many people view them unfavorably as favorably.
One key finding: Americans want the government to pay attention to the potential of widespread economic disruption due to automation. The majority of respondents support a national-service program to employ displaced workers (58 percent in favor) or a guaranteed minimum income (61 percent in favor) if machines displace a large number of jobs. But there was a partisan split on these issues: Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents support such proposals, while a majority of Republicans oppose them. The idea of limiting the use of workplace automation to “dangerous or unhealthy” jobs had bipartisan appeal and is supported by 85 percent of respondents overall.
Mishel, who co-authored the Economic Policy Institute report downplaying the risks of automation, thinks the government should focus on ensuring there are good jobs for displaced workers, rather than trying to slow the spread of technology. But he thinks the Trump administration should pay attention to the issue of automation. “I don’t think we’re going to see high unemployment due to technology, but I do think we’ll see a lot of jobs lost due to automation,” he says. “I think it would be wrong to be dismissive.”