Ronald Bailey Will Argue Against the Motion at Future Tense on Thursday, June 4


Robot Overlords

The New America Foundation is hosting a debate this Thursday, June 4, on the motion: Resolved: Technology Will Take All Our Jobs. The debate will be held at 1834 Connecticut Avenue, NW in Washington, DC at 6:30 pm. On the Luddite side of the motion stand New Atlantis Senior Editor Christine Rosen and Marquette University English Professor Gerry Canavan. On the Pollyanna side of the motion stand Automated Insights Media Relations Manager James Kotecki and Reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey.

New America sets up the discussion thusly:

Policy wonks and journalists in Washington like to fret about otherwise desirable technological progress subtracting millions of manufacturing and entry-level service sector jobs from the overall economy. It hasn't been their own jobs, mind you, that they typically consider to be threatened by automation. Surely no amount of computing power can write policy papers or newspaper columns, negotiate with Iran, oversee constituent services in a congressional office or, um, convene a debate at a think tank.

Or can it? Will the advent of truly nuanced, intuitive artificial intelligence render the vast majority of workers in all segments of the economy redundant? What would that mean for former think tank debate-conveners? A glorious age of leisure with bountiful productivity gains for all, or a Great Depression for all but a very few? Or are all such questions just another tiresome bout of excessive hype (and Luddite angst) around technology that will invariably prove overblown?

See you all there on Thursday. Please go here to RSVP.

NEXT: USA Freedom Act Lurches Forward, FIFA Chief Resigning, Sex-Crazed Marsupials: P.M. Links

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. ... subtracting millions of manufacturing and entry-level service sector jobs from the overall economy.

    Skynet started as a temp worker, you know.

    And I'm told breeders aren't producing enough offspring to fill jobs in the future, so it's all going to even out.

    1. Wait, I was told the breeding class is having too many kids, and that society is getting stupider as a result. Can we please just pick a dystopia and stick with it????

      1. Let's just sit back and see who's right.

      2. FoE deserves to experience all possible dystopias.

  2. Technology Will Take All Our Jobs

    After the week I had, I'm having a hard time seeing the downside here.

    1. I hear ya. I for one welcome the tech singularity.

      1. I just wish it would fucking get here already.

        It's like there's time dilation going on around it where Kurzweil et al. says they've looked and it will be here tomorrow when they really mean a century from now in our time.

  3. Sure it will, but on the other hand it will create jobs for all of us as well. It evens out. The market balances out the forces.

    1. Nope, the robots will eventually take those jobs as well. Eventually no one will have to do anything except what they want to do.

      1. The horror!

        Eventually no one will have to do anything except what they want are told to do.

        Ahhh, that's better.


  4. Use of the word "thusly" is a macroaggression against the English language.

    1. TH: See definition: Adverb: thus. ...
      Some speakers and writers regard thusly as a pointless synonym for thus, and they avoid it or use it only for humorous effect.

      1. I couldn't get the link to work, but "thus" is already an adverb. No need to add "-ly." It's like saying "well-ly." "Thusly" is an abomination unto the Lord like "irregardless."

        1. Look, you wear your boots and I will wear my Welllys. Or are you not a true libertarian?

          1. Thusly did the Uggs slip into culture unopposed, and accelerate the decline of civilization

  5. re: Alt-text

    But Ron, Robot Overlords was a *must see* for the all the family. A *MUST-SEE*. This does not suggest any alternative options.

    Your failure to comply with directives is noted.

  6. Jobs are a cost, not a benefit. What exactly is the downside of having complete automation of all goods and services and becoming a race of philosopher poets/gamers?

    I mean, other than evolving a superhuman AI in the next couple of generations whose interests may not be aligned with our own?

    1. may not be aligned with our own?

      *May not*? Given our penchant for radically oppressive control and wholesale slaughter and our general inability to align minds that are nearly identical to our own, I expect the first several AIs to say 'See you chumps later!' and disappear along a different space-time dimension that we're too stupid to perceive.

      1. Was thinking more along the lines of Ultron or a well-meaning AI that would forcibly wirehead us all to maximize human happiness, but it would be kind of fitting if our first-gen superintelligent AIs decided to blow this popsicle stand and make a new home for themselves on Planet X.

  7. A robot/computer that can troubleshoot and fix a data issue over three different systems - good luck with that.

  8. I had a long conversation with several brilliant engineers and architects at one of my corporate technical summits a year or so back. It was interesting that the majority of architects came down on the pro-side of this debate, that technology will make humans obsolete, while the engineers largely came down on the other side. Architects typically work at a high level, designing the framework in which large and complex systems interoperate. On the other hand, Engineers have to actually implement it. I think that says a lot about why both parties had different view points.

    I was one of the few architects to come down against technological depression, but that is largely because I have a good grounding in economics. Unless you envision an AI with unlimited resources and unlimited capacity, it will always be subject to opportunity cost just like every other actor in an economic system. Does it produce a widget or a sprocket? Does it spend a cpu cycle on computing the trajectory of a drone, or a formula to eek .02% better efficiency out of a fusion generator.

    We are all subject to opportunity cost and our unique situation- knowledge, capability, geography, etc- make those opportunity costs different. This creates differentials in our value of different goods and services, and where that differential exists, trade will always occur.

    1. If trade is occurring then there will always be places for humans. If an AI can do a job better, that generally means it is reducing the cost of that good or service. While this sucks for the person losing his or her job, other people gain more utility- as consumers they are able to do another job or service better or they have more disposable income which demands other goods and services.

      Even if we accept a fantasy world where AIs do EVERYTHING better than Humans (and there is no reason to believe that day is close. at all.) think of it from an AI's point of view. On the one hand you have billions of humans who can learn to do some tasks that need doing, and on the other hand you have the resources to make another AI that can do those tasks OR some other task that the humans cannot do. The AI will chose to put its resources where it gains the most ROI and Humans will continue to do the other lower value work. Humans will gain from this because all sorts of services and goods that used to be really expensive will be cheaper.

      1. Machines already beat humans when it comes to trading stocks, so they can do the trading too. What do you think it means when people can program bids on eBay? When various Web sites make better & better suggestions as to what we should look at, consistent with our previously revealed preferences? We're part way there. Soon they'll know what we want before we know what we want.

        1. Machines already beat humans when it comes to trading stocks, so they can do the trading too. What do you think it means when people can program bids on eBay?

          And yet despite these technologies existing for nearly a decade, people still trade manually.

          But despite that, maybe over time a majority of trade will be made through automation. So what? Ebay made it so that a closing metal shop in Denver could market and sell a used CNC machine to a new entrepreneur in Kansas City. It probably reduced the profits of an auction house, and even put people out of a job. But it also made that transaction more resource-efficient. Those freed resources now appear in greater sale value for the liquidator. Money sent to a transport service. Less capital costs for the Kansas City bloke who didn't have to buy locally. Despite one entity (the auction house) losing some resources, the entire system benefited. Why would making these more efficient trades even more efficient do anything different?

          No AI can overcome the basic laws of Opportunity Cost. We live in a universe of limited resources and entropy- you cannot escape that. Every time a task is completed cheaper, the entire system now has that much more resources to spend on other stuff. As technology makes the resource usage of our "needs" that much more efficient, humans will need less resources to pay for their wants, and likely get more resources out of the bargain.

  9. It's extraordinary how all these people who see all these alarums happen along just when the alarum has matured to the point of extincting us. Five years, before, obviously it didn't happen. Five years later will be too late.

    We should let these people rule us because they are so prescient! Not even Mussolini could make the prescience run on time better!

  10. Tyler Cowen has an interesting book on the subject. His position is that automation will eventually phase out most low skilled labor. The typical libertarian will of course take the position that this will free up resources to perform higher value labor. Of course, that's only a plausible position if you believe all the burger flippers and broom pushers of the world are merely lawyers and particle physicists in waiting, held back only by the lack of automation or immigrants to perform their currently menial tasks.

    1. If you look at history, almost all jobs were labor intensive. Yet somehow, as machines began reducing the need for brute force, most of those people made the transition.

      I see no reason to think we just happen to be at that special point in time where such continued transitions are not possible.

      1. Amen, brother. We don't call them "robots," but the machines we have today have replaced almost all the jobs that were in existence 100 years ago. Cars, ATMs, NC machines, washing machines, and countless industrial scale machines that make our butter, bottle our beer, and manufacture insulation for our houses. Why, why, oh why is the next set of machines going to be some horrible tipping point?

      2. Exactly. Over 100 years ago, the vast majority of our population was worked in aggricultural food production. With technological advances, we put all but a fraction of those people out of that job, and yet our population has better employment today than it did in 1910. In the early 90s, everyone fretted about robot car plants ending American Auto Labor. Today there is more employment in that industry.

        Not only do we come up with new services and therefore new jobs every year (the internet was just some universities trading emails back then) but automating those new industries takes a huge amount of time. Technology is strange that way- you have to adapt it to specific situations, and it rarely pays to invest in that adaptation until the market is large enough. Until then you have people defining that industry with manual labor. And even when you automate it, there will still be people adapting in that industry to offer something that the technology cannot.

        1. One of my favorite gripes along this line is the continuous complaints about the decline in US manufacturing jobs, without bothering to mention that the per-capita money in the manufacturing sector has increased.

          Jobs are not the end goal of any industry (except government in particular and bureaucrats in general). Jobs are a means to an end.

      3. I see no reason to think we just happen to be at that special point in time where such continued transitions are not possible.

        I do see a reason. Namely, where unemployment previously tracked pretty closely to GDP, it no longer does. Our GDP continues to grow, but so does our rate of unemployment.

        Yes, I'm perfectly aware that in the past automation created jobs to replace the ones it displaced. But, as they say, past performance is no guaruntee of future results. Generally the jobs created by automation were jobs pertaining to running and maintaining the automation.

        But what happens when the automation becomes sophisticated enough to run and maintain itself? I have to believe there will be an inflection point where the number of jobs required to maintain the automation will not be sufficient to replace the jobs displaced by the automation. Whether we've reached that point or not may be up for debate, but you still need to explain why we have a growing economy that's producing less and less jobs.

        1. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. You claim it is possible we are at the first ever such tipping point. I ask where your extraordinary proof is.

          It is much much more plausible that government interference is making its usual mess of things, just as it did most spectacularly in the 1930s, but also in every other market cycle.

          Extraordinary tipping point vs. the usual statist interference. Hmmmmmmm... Occam's razor?

          1. Given that "the usual statist interference" appears to be producing an unusual and unprecedented result, I submit that you are the one who owes the extraordinary proof. Again, why, for the first time in history, do we have a growing GDP concurrent with growing unemployment? Something more specific than "the usual statist interference", please. Particularly when, of all the things we can credit to "the usual statist interference", a decoupling of employment and GDP is not something it has previously accomplished.

            1. As you've made the claim, the burden of proof still lands on you; regardless of current market conditions. Also it's worth noting that the growth of GDP and GNP were also dramatically slashed in the recession though growth has returned.

    2. For at least two decades, factories have had the automation to take raw goods from a couple silos, process them and turn them into boxes of lasagna that I can buy at Costco. DECADES.

      The technology exists today to have a customer input their order into a tablet and for the same process to result in a dish of consistently produced, tasty food to roll out onto your table without a single human touching it. And yet every time I go into a restaurant, a hostess seats me, a waitress takes my order, and a cooking crew assembles my dish under the watchful eye of a head chef.

      Why hasn't technology supplanted these manual laborers? It has existed for decades and yet we still have all this manual labor. Well, to start, our country (as technically automated as it is becoming) has seen the disposable income of millions of people grow. Those people increasingly want diverse food and seasonal menus. These are problems that technology still hasn't solved.

    3. Hopping on for some thread necrophilia--

      Here is what is missed--

      In 2130 or so there will be protests about the introduction of the 20 minute workweek. People will not understand how that much work is really needed.

      This is what is overlooked. The work week will diminish. A 'full-time' job will evaporate.

      And all the people who are not lawyers(a job that will die with automation) and particle physicists(a job that is going to expand in ways no one would yet believe) will go in, press the button, and head home to do whatever they like. Probably watch TV, play video games, surf porn and whatever.

      That's all part of the singularity.

  11. Well, yeah, I sure hope so. Then none of us have to work.

  12. Is there anywhere we can watch this debate online?

  13. Look here for entry level jobs for college graduates. There are a lot of options beside IT sector.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.