Will this decade finally be the one in which the machines take our jobs? Such concerns have been aired many times over the centuries and they have always been wrong. But they are not intrinsically absurd. In 1979, the economist Wassily Leontief pointed to the fate of the horse. Horses had long been of vital economic importance, but faded in the second half of the 20th century as the internal combustion engine became the dominant source of horsepower.

Horses still have a niche, but will never outcompete engines, no matter how cheap oats become. Might large numbers of human workers go the way of the horse? In 2003, the economists David Autor, Frank Levy and Richard Murnane published a study of the economics of technological change that made two influential observations.

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