Page 1


Boescu, Caviglia, Gentili, Picone, Reale - Apr 2017

Technological Progress... ■ Is widely considered the main source of economic progress ■ Has been described as: alien, incomprehensible, increasingly powerful and threatening and possibly uncontrollable The Myth of Prometheus and Fire: The uncontrollable effects of technology advances

Prometheus with the firebrand, 16111612 Artist: Pieter Paul Rubens

Can understanding history provide a perspective on whether this time around will be different?

Anxiety over Technology from the Industrial Revolution to the Great Depression ■

Anxieties over Technology can take different forms:

Analysis of the role of these three forms of anxiety during two major periods of Technological Progress:  –

Industrial Revolution, 9th century

Great Depression, early 20th century

Short-Term Disruption, Long-Term Benefits From the late 18th and early 19th century: the beginning of the Industrial Revolution… ■

Short run: Displacement of Labor “substitution of machinery for human labour is often very injurious to the interests of the class of labourers . . . [It] may render the population redundant" (Ricardo, 1821)

Long run: Increased productivity and prosperity Technological improvements as part of a social and political process that would lead eventually to widespread prosperity. (Marx)

What did really happen? ■

The technological progress also took the form of product innovation and it created entirely new sectors for the economy which required new job categories.

Early 20th century: The Great Depression…

Similar theories reappeared during the Great Depression over the effects of labor-saving changes, (particularly in agricultural sector)

“We are suffering, not from the rheumatics of old age, but from the growing-pains of over-rapid changes” (Keynes, 1930)

Technology and the Alienation of Labor ■

Technological innovations bring worries about the nature of work and alienation of labour –

Performing the same simple operations bring the human being to degradation (Smith, 1776)

and the capitalist system alienates individuals from others and themselves (Marx, 1844)

Physical separation of the place-of-work from place-of-leisure

The disappearance of “moral economy”, making room for “market economy”

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Historical Perspectives on a Horizon for Technological Progress ■

The idea of progress as an enabler of moral and economic life improvement is not new

During the Enlightenment: Progress included material progress, or what we would think of today as economic growth

Mill’s stationary state of development

… Have we already picked all the low-hanging fruit?

Technology and the End of Work? ■

During the Industrial Revolution, technology acted as a substitute for human/animal strength

Nowadays, machine are becoming capable of carrying tasks which require higher capabilities; they can compute, compare, reason, make decisions (Artificial Intelligence)

Recurrent concerns ■

Large sections of the labor market to be hollowed out (Katz and Margo, 2013)

The robotic productivity as a complete substitute for labor (Sachs, Benzell, and LaGarda, 2015)

How to occupy leisure time (Keynes, 1930) Thinkstock

Tech and the Characteristics of Work Changes in the job market


Greater flexibility in when and where work takes place

More fragile separation between work and home life

More and more non-employer businesses

A growing sharing economy (Uber, AirBnb, …)

A mixed blessing ■

Greater gender equality (Goldin, 2014)

Penalty for part-time work

Employees are expected to be always accessible

The Technological Horizon Making predictions about the future of technology or the economy is difficult ■

New problems as an outgrowth of previous technological advances (clean energy, new antibiotics, …)

And competition between firms/nations will stimulate technological efforts

Huge cross-fertilization of ideas

Economic principles will continue to operate ■

Scarcity of resources, comparative advantages

Path of transition may be disruptive and painful

Public policies will be required to ameliorate the harshest effects of dislocation


Words of Wisdom “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” (Roy Amara) “Meanwhile there will be no harm in making mild preparations for our destiny, in encouraging, and experimenting in, the arts of life as well as the activities of purpose.” (Keynes, 1930)

The technological progress is an engine of development

World average GDP per capita 1500 to 2003. Data from Angus Maddison's "World Population, GDP and Per Capita GDP, 1-2003 AD"

Today: a new Technological Revolution ■

New industrial revolution: the revolution of the Artificial Intelligence (A.I. / machine learning) ■

In the First Industrial Revolution -> the power of the human had been substituted with the machines

In the Modern technological revolution -> the Artificial Intelligence is catching up and possibly replacing human cognitive skills

Technology as the next job killer? Will robots steal our jobs? (PwC UK, 2017) ■

Impact of robots on the US job market in next 50 years (PwC, 2017)

Amazon Go, fast-food restaurants, autonomous driving, etc.

Employment shares, estimated proportion and total number of employees at potential high risk of automation for all UK industry sectors -  PwC estimates for last two columns using PIAAC data

Is this time different? Robots and Jobs: Evidence from US Labor Markets -  (D. Acemoglu, P. Restrepo – MIT and BU, March 2017) ■

Between 1990 and 2007, each robot per thousand workers: • Decreased employment by 6.2 workers  • Decreased wages by 0.7% 

Loss of work places concentrated on: • Routine manual workers, Assemblers, Bluecollars etc. • Education level ≤ college

We are facing the same short run effect we suffered during the first Industrial Revolution Countermeasures suggested by tech entrepreneurs: ■

“Robot taxation” (Bill Gates, 2017)

Universal Basic Income (Elon Musk, 2017)

How to make it possible? ■ International Collaborations ■ Role of the Governments EU: Rejected proposal to regulate the rise of robots (February, 2017) US: Steven Mnuchin, the US Secretary of Treasury, stated [On A.I. supplanting human jobs] "It is not even on our radar screen […] 50-100 more years" away. "I'm not worried at all [about] robots displacing humans in the near future” (24th March 2017)

Profile for Roberto Reale

The History of Technological Anxiety and the Future of Economic Growth: Is This Time Different?  

On anxieties over technology and the future of labor. Credits to DOI: 10.1257/jep.29.3.31.

The History of Technological Anxiety and the Future of Economic Growth: Is This Time Different?  

On anxieties over technology and the future of labor. Credits to DOI: 10.1257/jep.29.3.31.