Basically, there’s growing evidence that the reason we’re not seeing huge productivity growth is that the robots companies are using to replace human workers these days are kind of shitty.
What I mean by “shitty” isn’t that the robots don’t work correctly, or that they’re not capable of replacing human workers. (They do! They are!) It’s that they’re the kind of machines that don’t actually save us much time or energy, or make the companies who use them insanely more productive. They just do a worse version of what a human used to do, at a slightly lower cost. Think of a grocery store self-checkout machine, or an automated customer service line – do you experience these things and think, “wow, technology is amazing!” or “wow, this sucks, I’d rather deal with a human”?
I love the work of Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo, two economists who turned me on to this idea
. They use the term “so-so automation” to describe the mediocre kind of robots that don’t make the economy more productive, but do displace workers. And their hypothesis, which I find pretty persuasive, is that the reason we don’t see massive productivity gains, even as corporate automation accelerates, is that we’re not getting the right kind of robots.
Most old-line companies aren’t using AI to radically transform their businesses, develop new products, or make themselves massively more productive, because that’s hard and expensive and probably requires more engineering talent than they have. Instead, they’re spending $100,000 on an off-the-shelf R.P.A. package that can replace a dozen people in Accounts Payable, and congratulating themselves on a successful “digital transformation.”
If you believe Acemoglu and Restrepo, then the problem isn’t too much automation. It’s mediocre automation. And the solution isn’t fewer robots, it’s more capable ones that could generate new jobs and lead to massive productivity gains and economic growth, rather than just getting rid of back-office workers by the millions. We need more stuff from Elysium, and less stuff from Up in the Air.