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Communications of the ACM


Researching the Robot Revolution

automated production line

An employee monitors an automated production line at an Argos goods distribution center in the U.K.

Credit: Simon Dawson / Bloomberg via Getty Images

In 1960, scientists established that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 were rising. Despite this advance in knowledge, the understanding of global warming later remained quite muddled even a decade later. Historian of science Spencer Weart summarizes the situation. "In the early 1970s, the rise of environmentalism raised public doubts about the benefits of human activity for the planet. Curiosity about climate turned into anxious concern. Alongside the greenhouse effect, some scientists pointed out that human activity was putting dust and smog particles into the atmosphere, where they could block sunlight and cool the world. Moreover, analysis of Northern Hemisphere weather statistics showed that a cooling trend had begun in the 1940s. The mass media (to the limited extent they covered the issue) were confused, sometimes predicting a balmy globe with coastal areas flooded as the ice caps melted, sometimes warning of the prospect of a catastrophic new ice age."a

Our current understanding of the Robot Revolution is equivalent to the understanding of global warming circa the 1970s. We know some things with certainty. Computers are eliminating jobs involving structured tasks in manufacturing, clerical work, and some other "mid-skill" occupations. Computers are creating jobs in some occupations, particularly for the technically skilled. Computerized work, unlike global warming, should increase GDP. Beyond these facts lies a broad landscape of speculation and spin. We do not know much about the Robot Revolution's net effect on employment and wages just as we do not know much about the speed at which the revolution is proceeding. As Weart might say, the mass media (and the rest of us) are confused.


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