Beware the Mediocre Robots!

It’s often thought that what we have to fear from automation and AI is super-robots. Acemoglu and Restrepo make the useful point that what we actually should fear is mediocre robots, robots only slightly better than humans. Think about robots replacing labor in various tasks. A super-robot replaces labor but has an immense productivity advantage which generates wealth and increases the demand for labor elsewhere. A mediocre-robot replaces the same labor but doesn’t have a huge productivity advantage. As a result, the mediocre robot is the true jobs killer because it replaces labor without greatly increasing wealth. Think about automated phone systems or chat bots.

In an empirical breakdown, Acemoglu and Restrepo suggest that what has happened in the 1990s and especially since 2000 is mediocre-robots. As a result, there has been a net decline in labor demand with no big wealth increase. Thus, Acemoglu is more negative than many economists on automation, at least as it has occurred recently.

More generally, Acemoglu and Restrepo create a new type of production function and use that to reformulate how we think about production and how we measure what is happening in the economy with automation and AI. This is one of the most important new pieces on automation and the economy.


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