A recent article in the NYT gave a pretty well-thought-out perspective on the consequences of the ever expanding capabilities of computers and robots on the labor force. (That is, it wasn’t on the extreme of ‘robots will make everything awesome!’ or ‘robots will kill ALL THE JOBS’ that I find pervades a lot of this conversation.

Some quotes:

"A starting point for discussion is the observation that although computers are ubiquitous, they cannot do everything."


"Logically, computerization has reduced the demand for these jobs, but it has boosted demand for workers who perform “nonroutine” tasks that complement the automated activities."


"Those tasks happen to lie on opposite ends of the occupational skill distribution… At one end are so-called abstract tasks that require problem-solving, intuition, persuasion and creativity. … On the other end are so-called manual tasks, which require situational adaptability, visual and language recognition, and in-person interaction."

The article didn’t really address what I think is the most interesting question – what will happen with these low end, but human-needing jobs.

My proposal is: explicitly accept what robots are good at and what people are good at.  Compensate people for doing people things better.

Compensation for jobs at the high end has already been implicitly tied to doing ‘human-y’ things – most high end work isn’t paid by the hour, but bonuses are given for creative and abstract accomplishments like filing patents and increasing efficiency.

Right now, the ‘human-unique’ qualities are clearly what makes someone in one of these low-end job better or worse at what they do, but there is no structure for reward beyond keeping their job and being more likely to be hired in the future.

 What we need is a new paradigm of compensation for jobs at the lower end of the spectrum.

The job description should explicitly identify the ‘human-unique’ qualities entailed (the heading of the paragraph could be 'this is why we hired you instead of a robot') and tie compensation directly to doing those well, rather than just hours worked. There would be resistance to this change, as with anything, but in the end, rewards tied more closely to the important parts of the job would benefit everybody except those who suck at the job in the first place.

 If you’re interested in the future of the balance of tasks between humans and computers, I would also recommend this EconTalk episode with Kevin Kelly.