Since the industrial revolution, technology has been seen as a threat to workers, especially those in manual labour replaceable by machine, robot or computerised device. The process of robots replacing labour is not new, and as robot skills and productivity ratios increase and expand, humans will keep being replaced on labour markets. However, does this mean that automation is reconstructing modern economies into a productive system where human labour is obsolete?

The automation of work and introduction of new technologies have raised several questions for modern societies regarding the future of jobs, the accumulation of capital and the role of the government in the protection of labour. The latest report of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) by Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo has brought back the discussion, proposing that new technologies are reducing employment and wages in industrial markets and that as automation increases there is “a very limited set of offsetting employment increases in other industries and occupations”.

According to Acemoglu and Restrepo, the use of industrial robots in the US from 1993 to 2007 caused significant job losses in major industries like manufacturing, food processing, pharmaceutics and autos, where “each robot reduces employment by 6.5 jobs” and “one robot per thousand workers reduces wages by 1.2%”. The authors make a call to explore different policy responses and prepare for the inevitable change whereby instead of complementing labour – as was thought after the first industrial revolution – technology is replacing it.