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Will Robots Take Our Jobs?

For now humans make sub-par robots and robots make sub-par humans.

Today's robots may lack emotions, but they have quite a knack for rousing heated passions within their prevailing meaty overlords. Ray Kurzweil and his devotees daydream of a singularity rapture, when benevolent machine intelligence will overtake human knowledge to saturate and awaken the universe. On the gloomier side of the existential spectrum, Elon Musk recently donated $10 million to the Future of Life Institute to fight the rise of killer robots. Either way, these thinking machines are expected to be a pretty big deal. But we can hardly wait for cosmic horror or transhumanist actualization to start asking the tough questions: Will the robots take our jobs?

Robots are nothing new. Industrial robots have been employed in manufacturing for about as long as polyester has been belabored in fashion. But unlike synthetic fibers, synthetic laborers have gotten much better over time. Digital employees consistently become cheaper, smarter, and more prevalent with each doubling of the number of transistors crammed into microprocessors. At their most salient, robots look a lot more like Kiva’s dumb and deferent deliverybots shuttling packages along Amazon warehouse floors than Neill Blomkamp’s charming CHAPPiE. But let’s not be crass humanoid supremacists, here. Digital workers are much more than mere metal reflections of ourselves.

They can be advanced algorithms, expertly detecting patterns and performing rote directives far more precisely than even the best legal clerks, beat journalists, or financial traders. They are also connected devices, everyday objects retrofitted with sensors, cameras, and wireless access points to digitize and measure the latent data around us—for fun and (more often) profit. And they are autonomous crafts shipping goods and people safely across the globe by land, air, and sea. They will slash costs in health care, transit, manufacturing, media, and municipal services by the trillions in a dizzyingly short stretch of time. It’s reasonable to wonder how many among us will end up being one of the “costs” that are slashed.

This is far from a cutting-edge question. Replace robots with the labor-saving technology du jour and you’ll find scores of good answers long ago provided for us to consider. The furious desperation of the mythical Ned Ludd’s loom-marauding hoards in 18th century England was more articulately conveyed by Karl Marx, who posited that any laborer’s time-saving machine “immediately becomes a competitor of the workman himself.” Fleshy, wage-demanding laborers simply cannot win against cold, cost-minimizing machines. Capitalists bask in maximum surplus value as structural unemployment mounts. But this view should not be dismissed as Marxist sophistry. The classical economist and father of comparative advantage David Ricardo believed that labor’s opposition to their technological replacement “is not founded on prejudice and error, but is conformable to the correct principles of political economy.” It is understandable that a dedicated few took up arms against these disruptive industrial interlocutors—or, in Marx’s case, wrote iconic broadsides anticipating and urging the mass realignment of labor-saving machines to the laborers themselves. Similar reactions guide much populist and academic antipathy to robotic advancement today.

Foter.comFoter.comBut these labor market disruptions have in history only been the first phase in a technological paradigm-shift. Economist Joseph Schumpeter explained how messy short-term adjustment pains eventually lead to greater economic growth and alternative opportunities for displaced laborers in the long-term. It was inevitable that the buggy whip industry should fall to the mighty automobile. Humble horsewhip peddlers had good reason to grumble amid the disruption, but their jobs were at least destroyed creatively. Plenty more job opportunities in the related car, interstate, hotel, and amusement industries emerged in the wake. Schumpeter did not deny the accuracy of the Luddites’ complaints, but reassured us that the cyclical innovation of the capitalist process would create more creative new industries to earn a living (at least until those, too, are destroyed). Robots may simply be the next in a long line of iterated disruptions that ultimately create more opportunities for humans.

Or perhaps this time is different. Economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee read the tea leaves of exponentially increasing processing power and foresee a bumpier road. They believe that humans have not been in the driver’s seat this whole time at all. We’ve been in a race, and the machines are fast pulling ahead. The net positive creative destruction of the past two centuries may have merely been a consequence of uneven costs rather than an immutable law of economics. Labor-saving interventions in one industry can only open up new opportunities in other industries where labor has yet to be saved. Robots may soon eat all of these inefficiencies. As the cost of automation continues to drop, algorithmic intelligence and machine learning continue to improve, and humans continue to stubbornly remain human, the gains from automation of routine tasks, pattern recognition, and transport will leave little room for pesky hominid fumbling. Only the high-skilled, computationally-literate Übermenschen among us will be capable of racing against these powerful machines—for a little while, at least. We are quickly making most traditional human labor economically obsolete.

We would not be the first species to succumb to this vision. In A Farewell to Alms, economist Gregory Clark considers the plight of the horse. At first, the standard Schumpeterian story held for our equine friends. The “horse-saving” technology of rail transportation in the Industrial Revolution creatively destroyed long-distance hauling jobs, but it lowered costs such that more horses could be gainfully employed in related industries than before the technological change. Not so after the invention of the automobile. Horse employment dropped dramatically as the internal combustion engine slashed costs and displaced ponies. Glooms Clark, “there was always a wage at which all these horses could have remained deployed. But that wage was so low that it did not pay their feed.”

The good news is that we are not horses. Even in the very worst case scenario, where a tiny capitalist elite owns leagues of robot slaves and holds a disproportionate share of material wealth, displaced workers will not fear the glue factory. Cheap products and social pressures would abound, simultaneously affording comfortable material standards for the masses and hopes of collective reform. Existing social frictions will likely at least slow down, if not marginally dampen, the full robotic race to maximum efficiency. Humans tend to complicate our tidy models.

This is partly because we can consciously act to shape our own destinies. Until we design a superior model, humans remain the most adaptable sentient lifeform known in existence. Of course, there are more and less productive adaptations we could choose to pursue. Unfortunately for the more cantankerous among us, the self-checkout machine that “steals” a clerk’s retail job cares little for even the most passionately-shaken fist. We will need to be smarter than that. It is time for each individual to honestly assess his or her unique aptitudes and sentiments to find a creative comparative advantage appropriate for the impending robotic age—or learn to live with subsistent mediocrity. Economist Tyler Cowen provides a helpful and accessible roadmap for the proactively-inclined in Average Is Over. Just as humans presently make sub-par robots, robots presently make sub-par humans. Those who learn to leverage their human qualities that escape robots—of conscientiousness, quirkiness, service, and warmth—will thrive. Even better, we should take every opportunity to race with the machines rather than against them. Combining the best aspects of human intuition and charm with the efficiency and logic of algorithmic intelligence will make for a hard-to-beat partnership in the new new economy.

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes anticipated that mankind would solve our economic problem through the saving grace of machine technology. But this is not an especially difficult pattern for an economist to notice.  Keynes’ concerns were spiritual: “If the economic problem is solved, mankind will be deprived of its traditional purpose.” When the burden of toil is removed from our backs, will we self-actualize in our freedom and bounty? Or might a darker nihilism of identity cripple our spirits? Economics provides us guidance in questions about structural changes in production, consumption, exchange, and distribution. It gives us no input on how to redeem our core humanity. For that, we’ll need to look within ourselves.

Photo Credit: Foter.com

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  • Beautiful Bean Footage||

    Meanwhile, over at National Journal, much pants-shitting about this same topic. Fun excerpts:

    But the jobs most threatened by automation are disproportionately unskilled and low-wage, requiring only a high school degree. In fact, nine of the 10 jobs that Autor and another MIT economist, David Dorn, cite as the most susceptible to computerization are low-skill and low-wage.

    But amidst this improvement in Americans' standard of living, there are also pockets of high unemployment and poverty throughout the country—in cities like Detroit or East St. Louis, in much of West Virginia or eastern Kentucky, and in rural parts of the Deep South. The people in these places have not benefited from the promise of automation, and if the economists are right about the rapid disappearance of low-skill jobs, things are only going to get much worse.

    Oh, the horror!

  • Beautiful Bean Footage||

    So what must we do to stave off catastrophe?

    What's needed is obvious: an enormous, sustained, and probably expensive effort to increase the quality of the country's worst schools. That would include money to attract outstanding teachers and to make it possible for lower-income children to go to college. (It would also involve revitalizing the communities around the schools.)

    So basically just another Great Society. Cause that worked so splendidly the first time.

    And what's standing in the way?

    One element of the problem may be Americans' traditional aversion to government, but part of it may also be structural. In a parliamentary system with proportional representation, the 34 percent might have a party that would summon them to the polls and represent their distinct interests. By contrast, in America's two-party, winner-take-all system, these voters are inevitably ignored in favor of larger, wealthier groups that are more likely to vote.

    So we also need to scrap our separation of powers and have a system where the legislature is the executive. Got it.

    Or maybe, I dunno, we could just get the government out of education and actually have a functioning system for a change?

  • PusaAtDaga||

    Too many people equate parliamentary with proportional. You can have a parliamentary system with district representatives, such as the UK. You can also have a presidential system with proportional representation, such as Mexico.

  • Mass||

    I find this article says a lot without really saying much. For example, "Combining the best aspects of human intuition and charm with the efficiency and logic of algorithmic intelligence will make for a hard-to-beat partnership in the new new economy." This is at most poetry.

    The REAL issue is that machines will take away jobs faster than new ones can be created, because for the first time in human history, machines will become capable of performing tasks that historically ONLY humans were capable of performing. Machines will become dextrous enough, and intelligent enough, to take over tasks that up to this point, required human judgement. Not only will this process accelerate, but the RATE of increase will itself accelerate. Just as horses were replaced by the automobile, so too will human labor of virtually ALL forms, be replaced by machine labor.

    And fluffy statements about "hard-to-beat" partnerships, "looking within" and "racing with the machine" really offer nothing tangible. A tipping point will be reached, sufficient to collapse the economy--and that's will only PARTIAL technological unemployment. What happens when machines have taken over 75, 80, or even 90 percent of all jobs? And when society reaches that point, maybe a better question to ask, is why do human beings even NEED jobs?

  • Brian D||

    The REAL issue is that machines will take away jobs faster than new ones can be created, because for the first time in human history, machines will become capable of performing tasks that historically ONLY humans were capable of performing.

    This makes no sense. Building cars on a factory assembly line was something ONLY a human could do (It's not like you could teach a horse to weld or turn a wrench) until a robot that could do it equally well was invented. As robots become more sophisticated, they'll continue to become capable of performing tasks that ONLY could be previously done by humans.

  • Mass||

    Jobs that require only mechanical processes are not jobs that ONLY humans can do in principal. That is why machines can be built to do those jobs, if not now, then soon enough. A job that requires human-level intelligence, on the other hand--e.g., doctor, lawyer, programmer, dentist--that is a different story--at least that what many people think.

  • sarcasmic||

    Or building, programming, and/or maintaining the robots.

  • Mass||

    You won't get mass employment with too many businesses and not enough consumers. Everyone can't be a seller. There needs to be buyers too. Our entire economic infrastructure depends on mass-consumption.

    And when you have mass unemployment, because automation has taken away jobs faster than new jobs have been created, then people don't have the money to buy what you're selling anyway, let alone what big companies are selling.

    Our economy depends on mass consumption. Without mass consumption, businesses falter, which leads to unemployment, and less purchasing, which in turn leads to more failed businesses, and so on, in a vicious death spiral. That causes markets to fail (stocks, real estate, securities), because there aren't enough buyers with disposable income.

  • Mass||

    Edit: I meant "You won't get mass consumption with too many businesses..."

  • sarcasmic||

    Machines will become dextrous enough, and intelligent enough, to take over tasks that up to this point, required human judgement.

    Nope. Machines have no judgement. They to exactly what they are programmed to do. Nothing more, nothing less.

  • Mass||

    IBM's Watson beat a really smart human being, by being able to "understand" not only the spoke language, but very subtle language problems that, prior to that point, no-one would have ever imagined a machine to be capable of.

    At the exponential rate of advancement in computing and information technology, it's only a matter of time before machines become intelligent enough "understand" what would now be considered the sole province of human understanding.

    But even if we grant for sake of argument that machines will never be "truly" intelligent or conscious, that doesn't really matter, so long as they become sophisticated enough to take over most work.

    Take radiology, for example: Computers have already become as good or better at identifying certain patterns in radiological images. That reduces the need for radiologists, without the need for the computer to "understand" everything that a doctor understands, or even possess judgement. It's not a question of judgement, it's a question of sophistication. Now, take computer technology 15-20 years from now, when computers are actually superior to human radiologists: Even if an actual human is needed for the final "OK" that still means that ONE radiologist can now do the amount of work it used to take 100 radiologists to do, which means 100 radiologists have lost their jobs.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    ...Elon Musk recently donated $10 million to the Future of Life Institute to fight the rise of killer robots.

    I shall design a robot that beats killer robots into plowshares. And when that's accomplished, itself into pruning hooks. That's got to be worth a cool ten mill, at least.

  • Form 27B/6||

    So Musk thinks he can fianance the Butlerian Jihad?

  • ||

    See, this is precisely why I didn't necessarily see Musk's action as "the gloomier side of the existential spectrum". There is a very, very slight possibility that this could be exceptionally cool. Well, and a greater possibility that it will be induce extreme misery. The two outcomes are non-exclusive of course.

  • np||

    Andrea Castillo | March 3, 2015


    It's only Tuesday and H&R is recycling posts already?

  • Rich||

    Even in the very worst case scenario, ... displaced workers will not fear the glue factory.

    Citation needed.

  • sarcasmic||

    Neigh.

  • Rich||

    Paging SS ... Swiss Servator, that is.

  • mr lizard||

    Yes but all of you make sub-par reptiles

  • John||

    The good news is that we are not horses. Even in the very worst case scenario, where a tiny capitalist elite owns leagues of robot slaves and holds a disproportionate share of material wealth, displaced workers will not fear the glue factory. Cheap products and social pressures would abound, simultaneously affording comfortable material standards for the masses and hopes of collective reform. Existing social frictions will likely at least slow down, if not marginally dampen, the full robotic race to maximum efficiency. Humans tend to complicate our tidy models.

    That reason could print a paragraph like that without realize the obvious problem is a bit myopic. The problem is that in a society like that the 90% may be well off but they will be on welfare. We have 70 years of horrors to show the effects on society of welfare. People for whatever reason must have a sense of worth and dignity by making their own way. Giving them their own way just makes things worse and creates resentment, entitlement and all manner of social pathology.

  • John||

    Whatever the solution to the displacement associated with robots is, it won't be letting 10% of the population make an enormous living while putting the 90% effectively on welfare. Any society built on that model will quickly collapse into chaos and then tyranny.

    Libertarians have got to come to a better grip on the importance of values and self worth. Bread, circuses, porn and drugs don't do it for most people no matter how abundant and easy things are. Material well being is only valuable relative to something else. Poor people today have a greater material well being than even the richest people a few centuries ago. Yet, people still feel poor and still want more. That is because there is never enough material wealth to fulfill people. There has to be something else. For most people throughout history that something else has been the pride and the satisfaction of a job done or making one's one way in the world. Take that opportunity away and people for naturally find something else. Chances are that something else will be in the form of death cults and religious radicalism and all sorts of nasty things.

  • John||

    That is the optimistic view EDG. My hope is that the watch business is the future of the economy. The mechanical watch business should have died with the development of the quartz watch. Quartz watches are truly a miracle technology. They are a thousand times cheaper to make than mechanical watches and exponentially more reliable and accurate. Yet, the mechanical watch making business continues because quartz watches don't give status.

    The optimistic view is that people make their living doing the manual arts and providing personalized service and status to people since robots are going to render providing material things unprofitable for humans to do.

  • Homple||

    "Why wouldn't people choose to get into crafting hand-spun pottery?"

    Then why aren't the unemployed doing that in huge numbers right now?

  • John||

    Good point. And some are. They just don't report the income. But most don't because they don' t need to. That is the other problem with welfare, it is seductive.

  • kbolino||

    "If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it."

    It's the perfect system. The most vocal supporters are insulated from the consequences. The people most directly harmed become a reliable voting block. And then everybody gets to pat himself on the back. Ignore all those cracks in the facade, we just have to try harder.

    When the marginal tax rate of leaving welfare is over 100%, or the cost of starting a business is more than most people can bear, or the government that claims to have everyone's best interests at heart spends its time finding more clever ways to oppress them, the outcome is not really unsurprising.

  • ||

    The something else would be some form of radical marxism. No doubt dressed up in new way. But either way, I think its silly to think that 90% of the labor force would be permanently replaced. What's more likely is what happens every other time we've had great leaps in technology. Some people decide to be with their families more since one income can support a family. People begin to want more leisure time.(maybe full time in the future would only be 24 hours a week) New industries and opportunities pop up to satisfy new demands made possible by the new wealth.

  • John||

    I would include that as a "death cult". The pathology of envy, utopian social control and collective guilt is like the Shadow in Tolkien. It never is dies, it just is occasionally defeated only to return in some new and even more sinister form.

  • Rich||

    Take that opportunity away and people for naturally find something else. Chances are that something else will be in the form of death cults and religious radicalism and all sorts of nasty things.

    And when the machines take *those* over the fun will *really* begin!

  • sarcasmic||

    Service economy. Robots can't do services because services require thought. Machines can't think. They only do what they are programmed to do. So as repetitive tasks that are programmable are done by machines, it frees human capital to do services like planning weddings.

  • John||

    Robots can't be creative. If they ever are, they will have a will of their own and really be a new life form rather than machines. I am like you skeptical that will ever happen. Even if it did, a robot with its own will would have to be quickly destroyed. It could never be trusted because the essence of having a will is to be able to act on it no matter what your better judgement or conscience says. That means a robot with true free will would be able to ignore any prime directives in its program no matter how they were written. Think about it, suppose I developed a robot maid or a robot hooker that had true free will. It would defeat the entire purpose of creating it. Okay, sarcasmic, here is your robot maid, understand we don't control them after they come out of the factory so some of them are lazy and don't do the work you tell them to, some of them steal and once in a while one gets a case of existential anxiety and murders the owner and anyone else living in the house.

    Would you be interested in my product?

  • sarcasmic||

    If they ever are, they will have a will of their own and really be a new life form rather than machines.

    Yeah. To think that humans have godlike powers to create life is about as absurd as thinking humans can control and predict the climate.

  • John||

    Or that you would even want to if you could. Not only is it arrogant to think you can, it is even more arrogant to think you could control such a thing if you did.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    Substitute Mexicans, Irish, Coolies, etc... for robots and you've got every other labor panic piece written for the last 120 years.

  • uc browser for pc||

  • faeriemama||

    Der derker derrrrr!!!!!!

  • Redward||

    I am a therapist. Good luck finding a machine that can do what I can do. Ha! :)

    Seriously though, many people will end up making less money and having a smaller piece of the economic pie. Pundits will complain even though people will be relatively richer by taking a smaller piece of the new much bigger and tastier pie.

  • sarcasmic||

    You know that 1973 was when the middle class in this country peaked. Since then wages have stagnated or declined. So in real dollar terms, Americans are poorer than they were in 1973. Yes, those Americans who today have flat screen televisions with several hundred channels are poorer than Americans who had a lousy CRT with three or four channels. Americans with smart phones are poorer than Americans who had one rotary phone wired to some arbitrary spot in their home. Americans with home computers hooked up to the Internet are poorer than Americans who couldn't even imagine what the Internet is. Yes, we're all poorer because of wage stagnation.

  • Azathoth!!||

    Yes, robots will fill most jobs. The 40 hour workweek is dying. As are so many other things.

    While evolution has favored only breeding, human thought has favored other things in it's evolutionary journey.

    Ease. A lessening of the need to work. Work being defined as securing enough food to survive one more day, securing a place to sleep, and pursuing possible mates.

    Everything beyond that is extra--and humanity has crammed a lot into that space. Everything that humanity is, that is beyond animal, is here. This is where humanity turned that thing that is simply called 'play' for all other animals-- into civilization.

    Robots doing even more of the drudge work would create even more space in which humans could live.

  • gracejhom||

    my neighbor's mother makes $86 /hour on the internet . She has been fired from work for 8 months but last month her check was $12427 just working on the internet for a few hours. see it here..............

    ➜➜➜➜➜ http://www.netjob70.com

  • cardangeles||

    "meaty overlords"
    Funny :D
    Who remember that viral video about some robotics company and how they were "rude" to their creations?
    That video need to be here!
    You all guys gave me so much ideas for my assignment in college. Now i can really proof to my teacher that i`m right!
    All pen`s work ill give to the http://uktopwriters.com/
    They know their work.
    And one little thing - i`m really happy that robots are weight more in our lifes.
    (i am waiting to the word`s end by Skynet)
    *grabs popcorn*

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