Robots may be getting smarter, but they’re still no replacement for humans, says MIT professor and economist David Autor in a new paper presented recently at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s annual conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Although machines have gotten better at performing routine tasks, they still lack common sense and flexibility. Autor refers to “Polanyi’s Paradox,” in which Hungarian philosopher Michael Polanyi posits that humans “know more than we can tell”—that is, humans are capable of performing complicated tasks such as driving, without fully understanding all of the technical details about cars.

As an example, Autor describes the task of visually identifying a chair, something most school-age children can easily do. To machines, “both a toilet and a traffic cone look somewhat like a chair, but a bit of reasoning about their shapes vis-à-vis the human anatomy suggests that a traffic cone is unlikely to make a comfortable seat. Drawing this inference, however, requires reasoning about what an object is ‘for,’ not simply what it looks like. Contemporary object recognition programs do not, for the most part, take this reasoning-based approach to identifying objects.”

Autor believes that “middle-skill” occupations that require an element of decision-making—for example, those in medical support and construction— will continue to exist far into the future.

And the robot-proof skills needed for these jobs? “Significantly, mastery of ‘middle skill’ mathematics, life sciences, and analytical reasoning is indispensable for success in this training.”

Read the full report.

Read Neil Irwin’s take on the report at the New York Times.

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