DARON ACEMOGLU IS no ally of robotkind. The MIT economist is one of the most prominent advocates of the theory that automation depresses employment and wages, at least for low-skilled workers.
In a 2017 paper, Acemoglu and his Boston University colleague Pascual Restrepo produced a series of maps of "robot exposure" and its economic effects in the United States. The results look awfully similar to maps of the districts that tilted Republican in the last election, with a thick red band stretching through the Rust Belt and the Deep South. As Acemoglu later told The New York Times, "The swing to Republicans between 2008 and 2016 is quite a bit stronger in commuting zones most affected by industrial robots. You don't see much of the impact of robots in prior presidential elections."
In other words, the white, non-college-educated, disproportionately male Americans whose old jobs are now performed by machines were especially likely to embrace Donald Trump's form of economic populism and protectionism.
Acemoglu's methodology for investigating the causal relationship between robots and employment is controversial, but there's no denying that the places where robots abound--largely due to their adoption in the manufacturing and fabrication plants that dominate certain regions' economies--were also the sites of striking partisan shifts in the last presidential election.
Are these voters right to worry? And are they right to look to Trump to slow or stop the economic effects of automation?
Robot makers typically go out of their way to reassure the public that they are not lookin replace human beings. Consider flippy, a burger-cooking robot that started working the lunchtime shift at the Pasadena Caliburger restaurant in March. Its manufacturer has been talking out of both sides of his mouth about whether Flippy is a substitute for people or just a super fun A.I. buddy to hang out with near the griddle.
"The kitchen of the future will always have people in it, but we see that kitchen as having people and robots," Miso Robotics CEO David Zito told KTLA. "This technology is not about replacing jobs--we see Flippy as that third hand." But Zito also plays up the liabilities in having human beings do the "dull, dirty, and dangerous work around the grill, the fryer, and other prep work like chopping onions."
For now, Flippy works with a human partner, who places the cheese and condiments on the cooked patties and wraps the final...