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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

The last year has seen vigorous pushback against forecasts of a robot nightmare — that machines, over the coming decades, will vaporize whole swaths of employment, leaving tens of millions of people jobless.

But if the dystopian forecasts were alarmist, the backlash against them is veering too sharply in the other direction.

The backdrop: In 2015, futurist Martin Ford captured the nightmare vision in "Rise of the Robots," a book that attracted wide attention with a picture of massive job losses rendered by the speed and breadth of the new age of automation.

Over the last year or so, other futurists have dissented.

  • Instead of this dystopia, a flurry of reports say the U.S. and global economy will produce more than a sufficient number of jobs to employ everyone displaced by robots — just as has happened in every technological cycle over the last 2 centuries.
  • Last December, the McKinsey Global Institute quoted a 1966 report in the Johnson administration: "Technology destroys jobs, but not work.”
  • And in a report this month, the Economist said worries about the new gig economy — about job instability, low pay and a lack of benefits — "are mostly overblown."

All in all, society is being whipsawed into agitated anxiety, followed by lulling calm.

What they're saying: I checked with a few people in the future field as to what is going on with the forecasts. The main answer — we are in a real fix, but it is barely yet visible. And, though jobs may be created for everyone once automation digs deep into businesses across the economy, no one knows how long it will take to create them, nor what they will pay.

Meanwhile, the first signs are already with us:

  • "When you look around, you don't see a robot apocalypse," says Andrew McAfee, co-author of "Machine, Platform, Crowd." "We are not living in a time of massive technological unemployment. But I can't see a middle class as strong, healthy, confident and prosperous as it was 40 years ago."
  • "I think that nobody is noticing, in the reading and writing public, the fact that automation is hitting jobs right now — because it isn't yet hitting their jobs," says Roy Bahat, head of Bloomberg Beta, a venture capital firm.

History says that technological change — though it can seem sudden — actually moves slowly. The hit from automation will be another 10–20 years, says Azeem Azhar, a senior adviser on artificial intelligence at Accenture. "Look at how long it took the internet (established 1969) to evolve a company that could destroy mattress vendors," he tells Axios. "And yet when it hit those vendors, it smashed them only one year after a major merger."

Azhar adds: "It has taken cloud computing 12 years to go from Amazon's first offering to something which the bulk of industry will rely on — and that is a much easier shift with more easily understood benefits than these societal ones we expect to see." 

The bottom line: I receive almost weekly pitches from analysts and futurists dismissing the dire forecasts. So why the wave of optimistic projections?

Bahat says, "I think it is all about staying credible. Warn too far out and soon people will start crying foul when they don't see it. Until it hits the reading and writing public, then staying credible is all about how 'close' to the current conventional wisdom you are."

Azhar says, "We're all forecasters now, and it is in the interests of the pundits, tech vendors and the founders to promote the future. A faster future = more $$$." 

Go deeper

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Congressman criminally charged with lying to feds

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) has been indicted on charges he falsified records and lied to federal investigators probing an illegal foreign donation scheme, the Justice Department announced on Tuesday.

Driving the news: DOJ says a Fortenberry associate, who later cooperated with investigators, informed him he'd likely received illegal donations from an intermediary for a foreign national, but that Fortenberry denied any knowledge of such a scheme when contacted by the FBI.

"Assassin's Creed," but for schools

"Viking Age: Discovery Tour." Image via Ubisoft

For the third time since 2018, Ubisoft is releasing a nonviolent version of its latest “Assassin’s Creed” game as part of a unique effort to turn one of the medium’s most popular series into an educational tool.

Driving the news:Viking Age: Discovery Tour” transforms last year’s “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” from a bloody 150-hour game about Viking conquest in 9th century England into a peaceful four-hour game about merchants and monks.

School enrollment fell by almost 3 million from 2019 to 2020

Kindergarten student Natalia Bayoumi holds the hand of her father Amir Bayoumi as he walks to the front door of Normont Elementary School in Harbor City, CA. Photo: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The number of individuals enrolled in the U.S. education system dropped by 2.9 million from 2019 to 2020, according to new data released Tuesday by the Census Bureau.

Why it matters: This marks the lowest level of school enrollment for those under 35 years-old in over 20 years, per the Census Bureau.