However, technological change evolved as the growth of postsecondary education slowed and companies began to spend less on training their workers. “When technology, education and training move together, you get shared prosperity,” said Lawrence Katz, a Harvard labor economist. “Otherwise, you don’t.”
The increase in international trade tended to encourage companies to adopt automation strategies. For example, companies worried about low-cost competition from Japan and then China invested in machines to replace workers.
Today, the next wave of technology is artificial intelligence. And Mr. Acemoglu and others say that it can be used primarily to help workers, making them more productive or to supplant them.
Acemoglu, like other economists, has modified his view of technology over time. In economic theory, technology is almost a magic ingredient that increases the size of the economic pie and enriches nations. He recalled working on a textbook more than a decade ago that included the standard theory. Soon after, as he investigated further, he had doubts.
“It’s too restrictive a way of thinking,” he said. “It should have been more open-minded.”
Mr. Acemoglu is not an enemy of technology. His innovations, he points out, are necessary to address society’s greatest challenges, such as climate change, and generate economic growth and improve living standards. His wife, Asuman Ozdaglar, is the head of MIT’s department of electrical and computer engineering.
But as Mr. Acemoglu delved into the economic and demographic data, the displacement effects of technology became increasingly apparent. “They were bigger than I expected,” he said. “It has made me less optimistic about the future.”
Acemoglu’s estimate that half or more of the growing wage gap in recent decades came from technology was published last year with his frequent collaborator, Pascual Restrepo, an economist at Boston University. The conclusion was based on an analysis of demographic and business data detailing the declining share of economic output going to workers in the form of wages and increasing spending on machinery and software.