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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

More than outright destroying jobs, automation is changing employment in ways that will weigh on workers.

The big picture: Right now, we should be less worried about robots taking human jobs than people in low-skilled positions being forced to work like robots.

What's happening: In a report released late last week about the post-COVID-19 labor force, McKinsey predicted 45 million U.S. workers would be displaced by automation by the end of the decade, up from 37 million projected before the pandemic.

  • That increase is a function both of permanent changes in the economy because of the pandemic — less business travel and more remote work — as well as an acceleration in investment in automation and AI.

Yes, but: McKinsey notes that despite the displacements, the total number of jobs is projected to increase.

  • "We often first think of the substitution argument, but throughout history, complementation or augmentation [with automation] has been much more important, and I think that's going to be true for the next decade," says Erik Brynjolfsson, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI.

The catch: McKinsey finds that while the total number of jobs will increase, “nearly all net job growth over the next decade is projected to be in high-wage occupations" — which is not good news for workers with low job skills.

  • And there are a lot of them — a 2016 OECD report found 14% of the U.S. working-age population had low literacy skills, 23% had low numeracy skills and 62% had low digital problem-solving skills.

Zoom in: To better understand the effect of automation on employees in low-skilled jobs, Brynjolfsson and Matt Beane of the University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB) have been carrying out detailed studies of one field that has experienced tremendous employment growth recently: e-commerce warehouses.

  • Beane and Brynjolfsson are working with eight companies commercializing AI-enabled robotics in pick-and-pack facilities to determine how e-commerce warehouses are instituting automation, and how the front-line workers are adapting to it.

Details: Some of their early findings underscore why simply introducing robots — especially in jobs that involve a lot of unpredictable, fine manual work — doesn't instantly lead to wholesale job destruction.

  • "Our research has shown that it takes a lot longer than you expect after automation is introduced for companies to figure out how to get value from it," says Beane.
  • Economic productivity after the introduction of automation and AI tends to follow a J-curve — remaining static or even dipping as companies spend time and money to adapt to technology, before rising rapidly once the implementation phase is completed.

Between the lines: But what Beane and Brynjolfsson have discovered during detailed interviews with e-commerce employees and visits to warehouses is that humans themselves are already working in more automated ways.

  • "Warehouses" — which have very narrow profit margins — "have engineered the environment to make the human ability to cope with uncertainty as close as possible to automation," says Beane. "They want fewer skilled touches over time to make money."
  • That in of itself isn't new, but for e-commerce warehouse workers — often in geographically isolated locations, working long shifts, and unable to effectively unionize — that means there is "no energy or time to learn the new skills" that would help them get ahead of automation.
  • "You are essentially a robot while doing this job," says Beane. But what might be worse is the way that human workers "become institutionalized to that robotic job by the constraints of the environment."
"I would be hard-pressed to think of an industry in human history where we created jobs that require so little of people."
— Matt Beane, UCSB

What to watch: How quickly industrial robots are developed that can handle the uncertainty and fine manual work of e-commerce warehouses as well as human laborers.

  • "The minute you can crack the problem of uncertainty, millions of jobs will be automated if the political climate allows it," says Beane.

The bottom line: Without better government support, U.S. employees with low job skills increasingly face a future of working like a robot — if at all.

Go deeper: The robo-job apocalypse is being delayed

Go deeper

15 mins ago - Health

Chart: Less than 0.1% of vaccinated Americans infected with COVID-19

Expand chart
Data: CDC; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Of the 164 million vaccinated Americans, less than 0.1% have been infected with the coronavirus, and 0.001% have died, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Why it matters: While "breakthrough cases" have been getting some media attention, the low numbers show that the pandemic is mostly a threat for the unvaccinated population.

Poll: Women of color highly motivated to vote

Voting rights activists, led by Congressional Black Caucus chair Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), protest recent passage of voter restriction laws at Hart Senate Office Building on July 15, 2021. Photo: Alex Wong via Getty Images

Women of color turned out to vote at record rates in the 2020 election, with almost nine in 10 agreeing that the stakes were too high not to vote, according to a new poll.

Why it matters: The findings in the poll, conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of a group of reproductive rights organizations, appear to confirm the highly-motivated voting bloc's emerging power.

Updated 4 hours ago - Sports

Olympics dashboard

Katie Ledecky in Tokyo. Photo: Ding Xu/Xinhua via Getty Images

🚨: Simone Biles won't compete in individual vault or uneven bars

🏊‍♀️: Katie Ledecky wins gold in women's 800m freestyle

🏊: Caeleb Dressel breaks world record in men's 100m butterfly, 3rd gold

🇬🇧: Britain wins gold in first-ever Olympic mixed 4x100m medley relay

💻: Japan tests teleporting games and "remote cheering"

🏳️‍⚧️: Axios at the Olympics: Games grapple with trans athletesTrans athletes see the Tokyo Games as a watershed moment

Go deeper: Full Axios coverage