Episode 3: Revenge of the Robots

Who, or what, is stealing American jobs? Contrary to popular belief, it’s not immigrants. In fact, robots are projected to steal even more jobs in the coming decade. A lot of the conversation about lost jobs revolves around fear. But, should it?

Episode 3: Revenge of the Robots

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Episode transcript

SAMANTHA LAINE PERFAS: I found this political cartoon of factory workers and a giant red robot. The boss is pointing at the robot and says, "Sorry guys, this thing is taking your jobs." Their response: "But he doesn't look Mexican." Yes, it's a cartoon, but it gets at this idea that we think immigrants are the ones taking American jobs. That's a perception gap. I'm Samantha Laine Perfas and this is Perception Gaps by The Christian Science Monitor. Pew Research Center found in 2016 that two thirds of Republicans say the growing number of immigrants working in this country hurts American workers and 30 percent of Democrats agree with this assessment. Side note: just 10 years ago it was 50 percent of Democrats. Independents are pretty much split down the middle. But the reality is that immigrants don't displace American workers. And we'll talk to a few experts about this today. So what about robots? It turns out, over the past two decades automation has replaced hundreds of thousands of industrial jobs in the US and more robots are coming. But most of us are in denial. Pew found in 2017 the 77 percent of Americans say it's realistic that robots and computers might one day be able to do many of the jobs currently done by humans. But what's interesting is that while people think these things will take jobs, they don't think they will take their job. Just 30 percent said it's somewhat likely they'll lose their job to automation. Immigration. Robots. Either way there's a lot of fear that someone or something is taking our jobs.

ALEX NOWRASTEH: My name is Alex Nowrasteh, I'm a senior immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington DC.

PERFAS: Alex has often been interviewed and quoted about immigration policy in the US. He's also done a lot of research on automation and how robots are impacting the economy. My first question in order to set the record straight: in spite of the fear of immigrants stealing Americans' jobs, what's the reality?

NOWRASTEH: The academic evidence on this is pretty clear, there's not much of a displacement effect at all whereby immigrants take the jobs of Americans. The vast majority of empirical research on this finds that immigrants to an area do work, but they also create a large number of jobs for American citizens. They are much more likely to compete or displace other Mexican immigrants who came before them from jobs than they are to affect the employment opportunities of native born Americans.

PERFAS: If that's the case, why do you think there is this perception that immigrants are stealing jobs?

NOWRASTEH: I think we, psychologically we evolved on the savannahs of Africa when there really was a fixed amount of resources. So like if you killed a bison that meant that, you know, I couldn't get that bison meat and there was only so much to go around. You know, that's sort of a fixed sum game, there is only a fixed number of resources. But in the modern world with a free market system, it's positive sum. People create more than they consume. So more people means more opportunities, means more job opportunities, means more economic opportunities. But unfortunately evolution has not caught up to the point where we can view the world in the way that it really is. Instead we're sort of stuck in this prehistoric mindset and it's probably impossible to change that.

PERFAS: Well, that doesn't give a lot of hope.  

NOWRASTEH: I mean just to put it this way, I have a background in economics. Economists have known about the benefits of trade since Adam Smith and the fact that we've known it for centuries but still can't convince people of it, tells me that there is something systematic that is in our human perception that limits our ability to understand how trade and mutual beneficial exchange works. That we don't live in a world of fixed resources anymore and that dynamically trade and exchange make us richer no matter where people are from. So this is something that seems to be innate in humans.

PERFAS: You know, now that we're kind of getting further into the future, how does automation play into all of this? Is it kind of a new storyline that robots are stealing jobs now?

NOWRASTEH: So it's not really a new story, right? I mean the famous term luddite comes from the 19th century from the Industrial Revolution when workers there were worried that machines were taking their skilled jobs and they were. They destroyed those occupations. But what they did was they replaced those occupations with new occupations, working in factories, more things were made for more people, the standard of living rose dramatically. We had scares about this in the 1930s and the 1960s. It happens again and again.

PERFAS: I'm trying to think of where this fear of automation may come from and do you think in some degree it's like, we have a lack of imagination for the type of jobs it might create? Or a fear that we're not going to evolve accordingly to have more jobs that make sense with automation we've developed?

NOWRASTEH: Yeah absolutely. It's it's very hard to think beyond the first order step of whatever it is you see, right? I mean just going back to you know, prior to the creation of the Internet. There was this famous government report written in 1990 that predicted in a lot of internet related occupations there'd be a few thousand employees total by the year 2000. And there are hundreds of thousands, millions of people who work now for the internet. So it's just, it's very difficult to predict these things so I don't think it's a lack of imagination but just the difficulty of the problem is extraordinary.

PERFAS: The difficulty of predicting how automation could impact our future is tough, like Alex said. And that uncertainty is one of the things that can create so much fear. Yes, when we look at automation there are many studies forecasting more job losses to robots including one that said there could be up to eight hundred million job losses worldwide. But that same study also forecasts nearly 900 million jobs created. Which means looking, at the numbers, yeah we'll lose jobs, but we'll create more than we lose. Still that kind of change can be scary for people. So I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at one industry that has already seen a lot of change due to automation and improved technology. The aerospace industry.

DAN LECLAIR: The drone industry is not subtractive to the job industry at all. If anything it's additive.  

PERFAS: This is Dan Leclair and he is the director of education and research for the UAS program or Unmanned Aircraft Systems at the University of Maine at Augusta. He is joined by Tom Abbott who helped found the program. Basically they teach people how to use drones. Let's be clear the aerospace industry doesn't exemplify all industries impacted by automation but it brings up the questions with drones doing jobs that people used to do, how is that affecting employment, and what types of jobs are they taking?

LECLAIR: People are using drones to do the things that were, well, we refer to them as the 3 "Ds": Dull, dangerous and dirty. And drones are doing those tasks for people. They're still, the people are still doing the tasks but instead of using, for instance, a ladder to climb up on a roof to inspect a roof, they'll send a drone up and have the drone inspect roof for them. So that reduces their risk.

TOM ABBOTT: And this is Tom. And the analogy I like to use is, back when we were just moving into computers and the Internet, everyone said, oh it's going to be paperless and secretaries and so forth are going to disappear, and ultimately it allowed us to do a thousand more things in the same period of time faster, and more get done, and also more people were required to manage all the resources and inputs that we had.

PERFAS: And what type of jobs do you see these students kind of going into in Maine once they take your course and kind of get their certification?

LECLAIR: So in the state of Maine, we have over, just a little bit over 300 commercial unmanned aircraft or drone pilots in the state. We've trained 165 of them. And what our students are doing are either adding unmanned aircraft to their existing businesses or starting new businesses. And our former students are really working the three Ds very well. So a lot of roofers, realtors, I don't know, there has been now a lot of folks doing a lot of different things with these aircraft.

TOM ABBOTT: I'm going to ask Dan to tell another story, but it was one of our first classes. An older gentleman, maybe mid-60s or so, ran a roofing business and he essentially said, he brought his daughter, who I don't know how old she was. She was probably...

LECLAIR: She was 18.

TOM ABBOTT: Oh she was OK. And tell the story because it's pretty cool.

LECLAIR: So he and his daughter came in, and his daughter was going to be the company pilot. So she was coming in for certification. And he's a roofer and he says, "I climbed my last roof. My daughter is going, now going to be doing all of the roof inspections and I'm going to concentrate on the other parts of the business. But I've climbed my last ladder to get up on a roof to inspect it." And now they're able to photograph the whole roof, stitch all those photos together into one large photo so that when they go speak to their customers, they can show them what their roof looks like from a bird's eye view. And you know, it has enhanced his business tremendously and it has reduced his risk.

ALFREDO SOSA: My name is Alfredo Sosa, I'm the director of photography for The Christian Science Monitor.

PERFAS: While we're on the topic of drones, I thought it would be fun to share how the Monitor's photo department recently purchased a drone and has been using it in Monitor coverage. Here's my conversation with Alfredo.

PERFAS: When did you start thinking about using drones?

SOSA: I guess my exposure to it was first as a bystander, you would see people playing with them and I would think it was really cool. But it was more like a flying toy. However, in the last couple of years you see people using drones all the time, in YouTube videos, commercials, TV shows, essentially like the perspective from above has become a mainstream view. And the way things look from above is so different that even the most mundane thing looks really cool.

PERFAS: So when was the first time you used it and where was it, what happened, what was the experience like?

SOSA: My first assignment that I shot with a drone was in Vermont. Sure enough it was snowing like crazy and I didn't know any better and I decided to fly it while it was snowing in the mountains. I basically got really lucky because you're not supposed to fly it when weather conditions are like that, just because the ice builds on the propellers and it crashes, you know, so I guess I was ignorant and lucky at the same time.

PERFAS: Disaster averted.

SOSA: So I flew it there, it was a lot of fun. It worked out...

PERFAS: And the footage was really beautiful. It was really great footage.

SOSA: I mean it was dramatic. Once you know, you're flying and the snowflakes are going all around the drone...

PERFAS: And then the mountains, and the view that you got? It was really cool

SOSA: Yeah. So when I went to Puerto Rico I decided to take it as well since it was a story about hurricane recovery and the damage and I figured the drone will be useful to get to places where it would give me more access to it, to the landscape. And that was very interesting because I ran into a lot of trouble with it. Puerto Rico was really windy, so I was dealing with kind of controlling the drone, and the GPS feature wasn't working really well there. So at some point I thought that the drone would come back to me automatically like it does sometimes or it's supposed to do, and it didn't.

SOSA: So I didn't know where it was. I could see what it was shooting on my, on my phone but I didn't know where it was.

PERFAS: You had to become like an investigative reporter.

SOSA: And then the thing that's landing and all I see is a bunch of trees. It could be anywhere in the next you know, surrounding five miles or whatever. And I was freaking out, so yeah, I basically was really scared that I was going to lose the drone. Luckily I managed to get it to go up really high and asked a bunch of people around, "Can you guys see a drone anywhere?" "Oh I see a little dot over there!" Okay.

PERFAS: Let me chase it down!

SOSA: We managed to bring it back before the battery ran out. So that's great. Oh no, you didn't hear that did you?

PERFAS: Morgan Anderson, one of our studio engineers and the person who helped purchase the drone, walked in during the interview. He was maybe not aware of the fact that Alfredo almost lost the drone. It was fine and it was a good thing he walked in because he reminded Alfredo of a really cool drone shot he was able to get in Puerto Rico.

SOSA: We were in a little town in Puerto Rico that was very damage by the, by the hurricane and people were isolated or many many weeks. And at some point they wrote down on the road SOS, please, food and water. Hoping that an airplane or somebody would see it.

PERFAS: Did they write it with rocks?

SOSA: They painted on the road. And so I'm there, wow, this is so symbolic of what people went through. So I'm taking photos standing there and and really from the ground it's hard to really appreciate the size of this sign and where it was located and all of that. So I decided to put the drone on the sign and fly up straight from where the sign once and it was great because you could see that the words come up and this as the shot gets wider as you go higher, you can see the homes and devastated areas. And so, it is something that you would have never gotten just standing there with a camera and now with the drone it opens up all those opportunities.

PERFAS: We sort of did a deep dive into automation. Some of the facts as well as one example of an industry where automation is really pushing the boundaries of what we can do. I want to switch gears back to immigration and the misperceptions surrounding it. It's interesting to look at how both automation and immigration evoke similar fears. The difference is that fear can be directed at entire groups of people. It's one thing to be scared of a robot. It's another to be scared of a person, especially when your perception may not be all that accurate. We're going to talk now with Dany Bahar a fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies how migrants spread technology and information all around the world. He found that this spread of information actually helps advanced economies in interesting ways.

PERFAS: In your research, what do you think are some of the biggest misperceptions around immigration in the US?

DANY BAHAR: Well, I think that the most basic misperception is that migrants are going to take our jobs and that comes from a perception that a job is like an apple and there's only one and so only one person can eat it and it's actually not like that. I mean most of the research, most economists would agree that migrants, they often create jobs for natives and the reason for this are that migrants are in essence very entrepreneurial. Only the act of migating is a very risk taking behavior and actually if you look at the numbers in the US, 15 percent of the population are migrants but 25 percent of all entrepreneurs in the US are migrants. Therefore they are overwhelmingly entrepreneurial in there, in their day to day.

PERFAS: Why do you think these misperceptions exist?

BAHAR: Well it's a good question because as opposed to things such as trade or capital for instance which are other ways in which the economy interchanges, a migrant is something you see. It's a person that you see and you feel and it has a different accent, and it's more pressing in our day to day lives. When you go to a supermarket, you don't really, you're not able to differentiate that easily if the product you're looking at it comes from China or it comes from Europe or it's made in the US. A migrant is pretty obvious. So I think that there is a psychological aspect to it. And secondly I think that some politicians unfortunately have also taken advantage of migrants to blame for some of the things in the economy that probably would have happened anyway. When we look at the US there was a huge drop in the amount of jobs in manufacturing which is not unique to the US. It has happened in all the advanced economies and often we take on migrants as somebody to blame. As an aside I also want to say that you know, it would be unfair to claim that you know, migration only brings benefit, it's perfect and there's nothing, there's no negative impact that could come out of migration. Any economic transaction will will create winners and losers. Migration might misplace some people from their jobs. It is true. I'm not I'm not trying to say that it's a key to all of our problems, but I think that the focus now that we're getting more into understanding migration, the focus should be on how do we create a proper safety net to help those people that may be hurt by more migration.

PERFAS: This was an interesting point. That, yes immigration will displace some jobs. It's true. But that doesn't mean we should avoid it, as it also creates many more jobs than it takes. So really the focus should be on creating better safety nets for the people who will be affected. Whether that's better job training or education. We can still help people adapt to a world in which migrants, or even robots, play a role. Now let's pick up with my conversation with Dany.

PERFAS: Immigration, like I mentioned earlier, is a pretty politicized conversation and people can be pretty polar in their views on it and what they think, how they think the US should deal with it. I'm curious what gives you hope for the future that we can continue to have a productive conversation in the US around immigration?

BAHAR: Well what gives me hope is that there are a lot of very very good people out there that are getting more involved in understanding the facts on migration. You see how this topic has really become central to conversations in universities but also in our day to day you know, talking to everybody. And I think that on one hand you are right. I think that there's there's a lot of misperceptions and there's more ideas that are perhaps wrong but there's also more thirst to understand really what's behind it. And we don't have all the answers, but I think that that's a little bit of the hope that there's a lot of people that are committed to understanding.

EVELINE BUCHATSKIY: Such a cool studio.

PERFAS: Yeah I spent a lot of my day in here now.

BUCHATSKIY: It's quiet, and the building is so beautiful.

PERFAS: That's Eveline Buchatskiy and she came into the studio one day with Semyon Dukach, who is a pretty big name in the tech industry. They started a venture capital firm in Boston called One Way Ventures and the company describes itself as "by immigrants for immigrants." Both Evelyn and Semyon immigrated to the US themselves, from Brazil and the Soviet Union. And now they spend their time investing in other immigrant entrepreneurs. If you remember from my conversation with Dany, Immigrants are highly entrepreneurial which is a narrative often missing from the conversation when we talk about immigration and jobs in the US. Here's their story.

BUCHATSKIY: So I immigrated to the US twice actually. The first time I was 19 and I came to school. I was always the A-plus student all my life. And then I entered university in Brazil and I was very disappointed because they were always on strike. So I decided to come to the US because I knew the best universities in the world would be here. I went to Europe afterwards, worked, did business school, worked and then the second time I immigrated to the US was due to the political situation in Ukraine. I was living in Ukraine, it was invaded by Russia, the political situation became a little bit unbearable so I had an opportunity to to work with Semyon in the US and I took it.

SEMYON DUKACH: So I left the Soviet Union as a kid with my family in 1979 and we were refugees and we were welcomed here. I grew up in Texas and went to school and then I've been here ever since.

PERFAS: And so what was it like for both, I mean you were 10 when you came you were 19 when you came the first time. What was your experience like being in a new country? What were some of the challenges that you faced?

BUCHATSKIY: For me it was completely transformational. I really became a different person altogether because I was pretty much in my comfort zone with my family, large family in Brazil with the support of having a large family. And 15 children, I was number 14, but the first one to go to college and my parents didn't speak a word of English so I was pretty much my idea too come to the US, which was perceived as being completely insane by everybody around me. But somehow I thought, just, university was so important to me. So I came. I was completely lost in the university. I had no idea about the American system. So it was a lot of struggling but a huge fast paced learning curve that I never regret. It was probably the best thing I've done in my life.

DUKACH: Our experience was that of refugees, in that when my parents left the Soviet Union, they had no idea what to expect in the outside world. I believe they could only bring around $100 with them in total and we had no papers of any sort, so we had to give up the passport of citizenship when we left and so we were completely stateless and paperless. And furthermore, no English right? No concept of the culture, of capitalism, of anything, right. So they were quite scared, I think and I could sense that as a kid as well, and in my own experience was also that of quite a bit of confusion right. I mean, you certainly learn the language a lot faster when you're ten years old but still it's not overnight. And you know I definitely got beat up in a rough school and things like that and we lived in the projects for a while in New Jersey. But eventually my dad did get a job and we had a middle class lifestyle for some time, and things worked out.

PERFAS: Semyon and Evelyn first met and worked together while Evelyn was in Ukraine and Semyon was working in the US. Semyon was asked to take over TechStars Boston, a prestigious startup accelerator. When he built his team, he recruited Evelyn who then left Ukraine and came back to the US to work with him. After working together for a while, they then branched out on their own to start One Way Ventures. I asked them why they decided to focus on investing in immigrant entrepreneurs.

DUKACH: It's a venture capital fund. Our goal is to make money for investors but we also really believe in the power of immigrant founders. We know that, all else being equal, immigrants are far more likely to build a really large disruptive business than people who haven't had that immigration experience. And so we've decided to focus our investing specifically on immigrants.

PERFAS: And why do you think immigrants are more likely to kind of be motivated by their experience? What exactly do you mean?

BUCHATSKIY: The people who actually leave there, in some case comfort zone, meaning their language, family, culture, place of birth, to come to another country to build a business, they're just by nature, entrepreneurs. And as they go through their process of overcoming all the ambiguity, obstacles, and adversities that are associated with the immigration process, it just builds upon that character that is naturally entrepreneurial.

DUKACH: The reality is the majority of all really large successes in starting new companies are done by immigrants. Over half of all unicorns have immigrant founders. That's the reality. So all else being equal, a company started by an immigrant is more likely to become large and successful. That's just a fact. We have a lot of theories about why that's the case but there's no disputing the actual fact.

PERFAS: Research shows that immigrants are entrepreneurial if you look at the data and you look at the facts and even when you shared, Semyon, that like they're more likely to be successful in that field. Which is amazing and is really cool especially when you think about all the challenges that they have to face just in the act of immigration. But when we, when we hear the stereotypes around immigration, we often hear about you know, like immigrants are just coming and they're just taking advantage of the US or they're draining the economy or stealing jobs. But that's, that's really not the reality. So I guess I'm curious like, do you have, do you know why the stereotypes might kind of continue to persist even though that's not the truth?

DUKACH: Well I think it's fear and scapegoating right. It's people who are looking for, to blame someone else for their troubles. And I think largely the stereotypes don't persist on their own. Stereotypes are actually driven by an intentional media campaign. You know, that run a front page story about how an immigrant murdered somebody and therefore of course immigrants are murderers. I think that's done intentionally, and that's very dangerous. But the reality about job creation and job taking is that immigrants are in fact creating the jobs. They're the biggest source of new jobs being created. It's human nature at some point to grow, to change, to move, and the people who have more recently come through that are preselected. They're stronger right, they are stronger, more proven, more driven, more hungry people who are more likely to create more value. People who bring energy and hunger and skills. They bring more than they take. W really are all immigrants. I mean Americans particularly are all immigrants, but all people in a sense are migrating. You know, they're migrating through time, they're migrating from the world of their parents to the world of their children. Which is actually as different as those two worlds have ever been historically. So you have to embrace the change because the change will come whether or not you embrace it. So I think it's just about moving beyond fear and towards joining each other into a common tribe to move forward into the unknown together.

PERFAS: I love this idea of a tribe and thinking about how we really are all immigrants. Unless you're a native American, if you live in the US you or your parents or your grandparents, someone in your lineage migrated here. Props to them for picking up and moving their entire world to someplace new. And Semyon said, we're even migrating through time, technology. It's all challenging and quickly changing, so let's figure out how to best adapt together. Before we wrap up, I want to return to Alex, the first guy we interviewed who seemed to think not much could change our perspective of fearing immigrants. That we're hard wired to fear outsiders. It's a primal instinct. I pushed him on that and I wanted to know if anything could help us move forward, what would it be?

NOWRASTEH: Right. So of course not everybody is sort of stuck in the mindset that immigrants are bad or that they're all taking our jobs. I mean we're having this conversation now, there are people who have done this research, there's a large number of Americans who agree with us. So I think part of it is, you know, do you see people who are immigrants as part of our tribe? You know, are they part of the American nation? So changing the conversation around that, sort of humanizing these folks in the same way that people might look at a factory worker in Ohio and say yeah, we need to protect this guy because he's part of our tribe. You know how do we convince people to look at the immigrant from Mexico or from China or somewhere. He's looking to get a job and say yes, this person is part of our tribe too, so we can't treat them any differently. And that I think, you know, humanizing these folks is probably one of the best ways to go about removing that fear of foreigners taking our jobs.

PERFAS: Who is part of your tribe? Whether you're listening from Mexico, Australia, Norway, a big city or a tiny rural town, you're part of something bigger. Maybe that idea can help challenge the way you see the world. Before we go, just a reminder to sign up for our newsletter. We're doing something pretty cool where each week there's a newsletter that accompanies the episode full of charts, graphs, and bonus content. Another great part about a newsletter: It's easy to share. We really hope that you'll share Perception Gaps with your friends and family, so we can grow our own little tribe. You can find it at csmonitor.com/perceptiongaps.

PERFAS: And finally a word of thanks for all the people who made this happen: producer Dave Scott. Our studio engineers Morgan Anderson, Ian Blaquiere, Tory Silver, and Tim Malone. Original sound design by Noel Flatt and Morgan Anderson. And a special thanks to all my volunteer editors: Mark Sappenfield, Mark Trumbull, Eoin O'Carroll, Erin McNeil, Matt Orlando, Jess Mendoza, Andy Bickerton, Ben Frederick, and Greg Fitzgerald. I'm Samantha Laine Perfas. Thanks for listening to Perception Gaps.

COPYRIGHT: This podcast was produced by The Christian Science Monitor. Copyright 2018.