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How technological innovation could amplify income inequality

Technological advancement often brings the promise of increased efficiency in the workplace. But it also means apprehension about humans potentially being replaced by automation and artificial intelligence. In a new series, "The Future of Work," Paul Solman explores the concept of "creative destruction" and how innovation is poised to affect jobs, income inequality, mental health and more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Some questions: Will robots take our jobs or work alongside us? Are we doing enough to educate the next generation of workers? How soon will technology radically change the work force?

    These are just some of the questions we'll be exploring next week in a series called The Future of Work.

    Tonight, economics correspondent Paul Solman starts us off by putting a few of those concerns into perspective.

    It's part of our weekly series Making Sense.

  • Paul Solman:

    First, the job scare story you have likely heard: millions of humans replaced by robots, 75 million of them within five years, says the World Economic Forum.

    But it then adds, 133 million new jobs may be created at the same time. That's what's called creative destruction. Here's Carl Frey of Oxford University:

  • Carl Benedikt Frey:

    This has — theme has been recurring from time to time for the past 200 years. If you go back to the Roman Empire, there were people expressing concerns over technological unemployment as well.

  • Paul Solman:

    Why? Well, for one thing, losing a job really hurts. Roman Emperor Vespasian built the Coliseum without the help of labor-saving technology to move heavy columns because it would displace manual labor, threaten civil unrest.

    Remember the Luddites, who broke the high-tech textile looms of the early 1800s to save their jobs, and were hanged for their efforts? The Washington Post employees who sabotaged automated presses in 1975?

    And it's not hard to understand why workers are so resistant to creative destruction. Here's MIT's Andrew McAfee:

  • Andrew McAfee:

    Change is scary. We humans have a bias for the status quo. We don't want the boat rocked really hard. And it's always easier to focus on the destruction part than the creation part, for a lot of obvious reasons.

    It's easy to see this job being automated away. It's not as immediately clear what kinds of jobs, what kinds of opportunities are being created by technology.

  • Paul Solman:

    Study after study has found significant physical and mental health effects of even one layoff, even when the person found another job. And Oxford's Carl Frey has estimated that almost half of U.S. jobs are at risk of elimination.

  • Carl Benedikt Frey:

    If economic history provides guidance, it suggests that we will continue to create a lot of new jobs as well.

    But, even if we do, there's no assurance that the people that lose out to automation in the short run are going to be the ones employed in the new jobs that emerge in the long run.

  • Paul Solman:

    Another problem with creative destruction, technological progress, automation, robots, they all threaten to amplify inequality, creating more high-paying jobs, possibly more low-paying jobs, but not nearly enough in between.

  • Andrew McAfee:

    We see technology creating really good jobs, very high-paying jobs, really great careers. User interface designer is a great job, data scientist, machine learning specialist, product manager at a high-tech company. These are really, really good jobs, upper-middle-class and above kinds of jobs.

    There's also a huge bulge of jobs being created down at the low end of the pay scale. And these are typically in-person jobs. They're typically service jobs. So, we are not creating this big group of great middle-class jobs.

  • Paul Solman:

    There's at least one more question worth exploring about the future of work: How fast are things going to change? Are the robots and driverless trucks just around the corner, or still miles and miles down the road?

    Again, MIT's McAfee.

  • Andrew McAfee:

    Lots of technology changes are going to happen quicker than we think. And I say that for two main reasons.

    The first one is that all the elements, all the building blocks of really powerful technology platforms and companies, all those building blocks are improving super quickly. They got networks, processors, storage, bandwidth.

    And innovators and entrepreneurs are combining those building blocks in really interesting ways, and they're doing it faster and cheaper than ever before.

  • Paul Solman:

    And so these are the questions we will explore in next week's Future of Work series.

    Can a small Kentucky community that once relied on jobs of the past be transformed into a hub of jobs of the future? Will technology and automation hurt minority populations the most? Are robots going to take our jobs, or will robot helpers, cobots, wind up working alongside us?

    Are truck drivers toast? And, if so, in what time frame? Finally, how much demand will there be for the humanities in a high-tech economy?

    We will try to answer those questions next week.

    For now, I'm economics correspondent Paul Solman.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, don't miss our entire series The Future of Work. That's next Monday through Friday on the "PBS NewsHour."

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