Smarter machines and niftier software will continue to replace more and more midpay jobs, making businesses more productive and swelling their profits.
The most highly skilled workers — those who can use machines to be more productive but can't be replaced by them — will continue to prosper. Many low-pay jobs are likely to remain sheltered from the technological offensive: Robots are too clumsy to tidy up hotel rooms or clear dirty dishes at busy restaurants.
"Computers can do calculus better than any human being," says Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at MIT's Center for Digital Business. But "restaurant bus boy is a very safe job for a long time to come."
Under this scenario, technology could continue to push economic growth — but only a few would enjoy the benefits. More people would be competing for midpay jobs, so pay would shrivel. Many midskill workers would be left unemployed or shunted into low-skill, low-pay jobs. The income gap between the rich and ordinary citizens, already at record levels in many developed countries, would continue to widen.
Most economists say that unequal societies don't prosper; it takes a large and confident middle class to produce the consumer spending that drives healthy economic growth. "In the long run, you could actually see growth stopping," says economist Maarten Goos at Belgium's University of Leuven. "If everyone is employed in low-wage service jobs, then, that's it."
—TECHNOLOGY LEADS TO MASS UNEMPLOYMENT
In a speech last year, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers declared that the biggest economic issue of the future would not be the federal debt or competition from China but "the dramatic transformations that technology is bringing about."
Summers imagined a machine called the "Doer" that could make anything or provide any service. Productivity would soar. Wonderful goods and services would emerge. Enormous wealth would go "to those who could design better Doers, to those who could think of better things for Doers to do." But everyone else would be worthless in the labor market.
Summers said the world is moving in that direction and has completed only 15 percent of the journey, but already we are "observing its consequences."
Consequences, indeed. ATMs dislodged bank tellers. Microsoft Outlook manages what secretaries used to do. Expedia is replacing travel agents. E-ZPass is doing away with toll-booth operators. And robots continue to supplant factory workers.
But surely some jobs are safe. Truck drivers, perhaps? A machine can't negotiate a left-hand turn against oncoming traffic without a human behind the wheel, can it? Or so economists Frank Levy of MIT and Richard Murnane of Harvard University reasoned in their book "The New Division of Labor," way back in 2004.
That was then.
Six years later, Google developed a car that could drive itself, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, circling Lake Tahoe and cruising down Hollywood Boulevard. The gee-whiz driverless car could soon claim victims in the job market.
"Twice a week, a truck comes near my house, and two guys get out and pick up the garbage," says Vardi, the Rice computer scientist. "This will disappear. There will still be a truck coming, but it will be driven autonomously, and the garbage will be picked up autonomously, and those jobs will be gone."
In the United States alone, 92,000 people are employed as sanitation workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Add all other driving occupations, from long-haul truckers to taxi cab drivers, and the total exceeds 4 million. All those jobs may be in danger.
And that's the future: Other occupations already are disappearing. Add up the jobs that technology can take across dozens of occupations and the result, Vardi and others warn, is unemployment on a scale we haven't begun to imagine.
"The vast majority of people do routine work. The human economy has always demanded routine work," says software entrepreneur Martin Ford. He worries that machines will take all those routine jobs, leaving few opportunities for ordinary workers.