BioPharm Executive: Attack Of The Job-Stealing Robots

Published: Aug 27, 2014

BioPharm Executive: Attack Of The Job-Stealing Robots
BioPharm Executive: Attack Of The Job-Stealing Robots
The real reason some biotech jobs are not coming back.

August 27, 2014
By Karl Thiel for
These have been good times for the biotech industry. According to Ernst & Young, industry revenue jumped 10 percent last year to almost $100 billion while R&D spending climbed 14 percent (and a very strong 20 percent in the U.S.)—a trend that looks likely to continue into this year.

While nearly 300,000 pharma jobs lost since 2000 aren't coming back, many new biotech positions are being created by an influx of venture capital, an IPO market that keeps chugging along, and some pretty impressive productivity on the part of the best innovators. And it's not just the life sciences—the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate has continued the steady decline we've seen since 2009 (although the figure fails to account for the underemployed).

So it was a little surprising to see fears over an invasion of job-stealing robots suddenly command so much attention in the past month.

A sobering video from filmmaker C.G.P. Grey suggests that our jobs are not coming back—that, in fact, no matter what happens in the very short term, the pace of job loss will accelerate as increasing numbers of human occupations are permanently displaced by machines. The ideas in the film aren't necessarily original, but the presentation is, and it's a compelling watch.

A number of pundits have been out in the last couple weeks with responses, if not to this specific video then at least to the notion that robots are now threatening white collar workers in much the same way they did manual laborers of years past—but potentially with much greater impact.

Attack Of The Job-Stealing Robots A Pew Research poll published earlier this month found that 1,896 experts (many quoted by name in the report) were almost evenly divided on the question of whether artificial intelligence and automation will create more jobs that it displaces. The reason this time may be different, say many, is that while displaced manual labor jobs have almost always given way to new, more plentiful, and typically better jobs, rapid advances in artificial intelligence may displace knowledge workers faster than we can come up with alternative employment. (On the other hand, every time someone says "this time is different," you should be highly skeptical.)

MIT professor David Autor also discussed this topic at the August 21 Economic Policy Symposium of the Kansas City Federal Reserve Board in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He presented what he calls "Polyani's Paradox," named for philosopher Michael Polyani, who said in 1966 that "We can know more than we can tell." By that he meant that we have a tacit understanding of the world that far exceeds our explicit knowledge—so that (to use Polyani's example) we can learn to drive a car without ever learning in great detail how a car works.

As an example of how machines are far from being able to tackle this sort of tacit comprehension of the world, this is an unfortunate example—Google's self-driving cars have proven to be far safer than human drivers. Nor am I sure that Autor's other points about how machines currently fail tests of reasoning and common sense will continue to hold in the future.

But whether AI ultimately means more jobs, fewer jobs, or simply different jobs, I remain optimistic about the future and our ability to cope with the inevitable disruptions.

For one thing, while it's been tempting to blame sluggish job growth and wage stagnation on automation, it's far from clear that's been the case so far. For the past couple of decades, for instance, there's been a massive effort to automate virtually every part of drug discovery, from tedious labwork to complex analyses. But the impact of automation on productivity in the life sciences has been questionable at best. And R&D jobs didn't really suffer until patent expirations started hurting company revenues.

Even if machines really reshape the workplace, then we'll reshape society to match. At the end of July, Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim raised eyebrows by suggesting that we all move to a three-day work week, while remaining in our jobs until the age of 70 or 75. And it wasn't just a thought experiment—he has given retirees at Telmex the option to stay on at work at full pay but with a four-day work week. That kind of experimentation is relatively easy for companies looking to make the most of their business.

After all, it's in everyone's best interest. In 1954, when Henry Ford II showed union leader Walter Reuther the new robots on his assembly line, he supposedly quipped "Walter, how are you going to get those robots to pay your union dues?" Reuther answered, "Henry, how are you going to get them to buy your cars?" That balance is a challenge we all share.

-Karl Thiel

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