Photo: Ariel Waldman
The Future of Work

Robots won’t take our jobs, say workers — they’ll take yours instead

As you look around your professional world, your calendar of meetings, your carefully calibrated instincts, and your strong performance reviews, the robot revolution is probably not your primary worry. You probably think: “I’d like to see a robot try to do all this.

Larry Summers agrees. The former Treasury secretary and current Harvard professor wrote an intriguing opinion piece in the Washington Post which had a simple message: Sure, you may lose your job, but don’t blame the robots for it.

Citing positive innovations like word processing and mobile banking, Summers pleaded, “why pick on robots?”

The target of Summers’ displeasure: Bill Gates. The philanthropist and former Microsoft CEO told Quartz that he wants to tax our future techno-overlords.

Summers isn’t so sure that will work: “Does Gates think anyone, let alone Congress, the Trump administration or a commission comprised of his fellow technocrats, can distinguish labor-saving activities from labor-enhancing ones? Surely even if experts could draw such distinctions, the ability of the IRS to administer them is in doubt.”

Americans are okay with robots taking someone else’s job

Automation is a real economic trend, not a hype-driven panic. Around 47% of US jobs are “at risk” because of automation, according to research published by the University of Oxford in 2013.

But those numbers don’t fully reflect how people feel about the subject.

Indeed, most Americans have very little hostility toward their future robot overlords. That’s because not all Americans mind the bots replacing people in certain positions; they just can’t imagine themselves getting fired to make way for one.

Some 66% of people said they “agree” or “strongly agree” that their jobs aren’t going anywhere, but that others’ will, according to a LivePerson survey.

Blue-collar robots versus white-collar robots

That survey of 2,000 Americans by customer service firm LivePerson last month asked people to pick which jobs they would trust a robots or automated intelligence to do — if they could do them as well or better than a person.

A lot of respondents decided to throw blue-collar jobs under the robot wheels: 55% said “cashier” and 52% said “factory worker,” while 28% said “customer service representative,” 22% said “taxi driver,” 4% said “doctor/nurse,” and 3% chose robot lawyers over human ones.

There were holdouts: 18.5% said they wouldn’t trust automation in place of any jobs. (Those people will surely be the first to go when the technological revolution comes.)

But robots are getting smarter every day. Yes, they’ve replaced cashiers and other blue-collar jobs, but white-collar jobs are not far behind. This month, robots could be doing your taxes, in H&R Block’s partnership with IBM’s Watson.

Even some investment bankers — richly paid advisers on mergers and acquisitions —had their bonuses taken away last year by their employer, Goldman Sachs. This year, perhaps not coincidentally, Goldman decided to “support” its mergers team with 75 programmers whose job is to create algorithms to better judge which mergers will work and which ones won’t. That sounds great, until you remember that’s the exact job investment bankers are supposed to do. No wonder young bankers are nervous.

Using technology to do your taxes

In fact, robots have widely made headway into the financial services industry, where humans long believed that personal judgment was superior. Think of your stockbroker or your financial adviser, or your accountant or lawyer. Robots can do many aspects of those jobs now.

Tax services company H&R Block is partnering with IBM Watson to do your taxes this season, for the first time. H&R Block employees will be using the technology to find credits and deductions available to customers.

It’s stunning to see how adaptable Watson is. The companies have trained the human-like technology in the federal tax code, and H&R Block said the technology uses cognitive computing: “You can think of Watson as being a translator in a sense…Typically, you go in to get your taxes done, and bring your paper work and then you sit there on your side of the desk … it’s not easy to see what they’re doing and what’s going on,” IBM spokeswoman Katy Rosati told Bloomberg Law.

Technology has already replaced many other financial functions, including investing advice: so-called “robo-advisers” including Betterment and WealthFront are gaining in popularity.

Another way robots and algorithms are beating humans: your 401(k). Studies consistently show that your investments perform better if you just dump your money in a “passive” vehicle, like an index fund or exchange-traded fund, rather than letting an “active” human manager  pick stocks.

Why Bill Gates wants to tax robots

Bill Gates thinks that if robots are taking your place at work, they should also be required to pay taxes, like you do.

Since human work is subject to an income tax, robots replacing those people in those places should be taxed “at a similar level,” he said in an interview with Quartz.

But Harvard University President Emeritus Lawrence Summers argued against Gates’s proposal in a Washington Post opinion piece today. Robots are hugely productive, he argued — and because their numbers are potentially limitless, they can create economic growth and we shouldn’t hold them back for slow-working humans.

“Imagine that 50 people can produce robots who will do the work of 100,” Summers wrote in the Washington Post. “A sufficiently high tax on robots would prevent them from being produced. Surely it would be better for society to enjoy the extra output and establish suitable taxes and transfers to protect displaced workers. It is hard to see why shrinking the pie, rather than enlarging it as much as possible and then redistributing, is the right way forward.”

Of course, this discussion is still highly theoretical. While automation and even drones proliferate to make our work easier, there are jobs that are too dangerous for both robots and humans: the robots sent to examine the Fukushima nuclear accident site in Japan keep dying.