Robots

Will Robots Cause Mass Unemployment? A Soho Forum Debate

Martin Ford and Antony Sammeroff debate the impact of robotics on the economy

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Robotics will soon lead to widespread joblessness and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.

That was the resolution of a public debate hosted by the Soho Forum in New York City on January 6, 2020. It featured New York Times bestselling author Martin Ford, arguing the affirmative, versus Antony Sammeroff, spokesperson on economics and environment for the Scottish Libertarian Party. Soho Forum Director Gene Epstein moderated.

It was an Oxford-style debate, in which the audience votes on the resolution at the beginning and end of the event, with many "undecided." The side that gains the most ground is victorious. Sammeroff prevailed in the debate by convincing 19.64 percent of audience members to come over to his side. Ford picked up 2.68 percent. 

Ford is the author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, Architects of Intelligence: the Truth about AI from the People Building It, and The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology, and the Economy of the Future.

Sammeroff, who argued for the negative, is the author of Universal Basic Income: For and Against and co-host of the Scottish Liberty Podcast.

The Soho Forum, which is sponsored by the Reason Foundation, is a monthly debate series at the SubCulture Theater in Manhattan's East Village.

Produced by John Osterhoudt.

Photo: Brett Raney

NEXT: The Failure of LBJ's Great Society and What It Means for the 21st Century

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  1. If no one has a job how will they buy the things made buy the robots to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few?

    1. Yah, the simple question they can never answer.

      1. I didn’t answer because IceTrey misrepresented the original question, which was whether wealth and jobs would concentrated. Changing it to no jobs and concentrated wealth is a different scenario entirely.

        That said, it’s still possible. Imagine the idle rich, a person that gets by just with the proceeds of their wealth/assets but does nothing themselves. There’s a difference between such a person who’s living at a middle-class lifestyle and one who’s living at a Jeff Bezos lifestyle.

        But as I said, he misrepresented the original question.

        1. There’s a difference between such a person who’s living at a middle-class lifestyle and one who’s living at a Jeff Bezos lifestyle.

          Is there? What is the difference? Why are we concerned with the idle wealthy?

        2. “Robotics will soon lead to widespread joblessness”
          How is “widespread” concentration?

        3. I am making 10,000 Dollar at home own laptop .Just do work online 4 to 6 hour proparly . so i make my family happy and u can do

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    2. A job is an attempt to fulfill a need or want. If there are no jobs then the robots have fulfilled all needs and wants. If all needs and wants are fulfilled, there is no need for a job.

  2. It’s yet another super-hyped prediction of the future being used to promote socialism/UBI.

    Forget about whether it will or won’t happen. It’s the future, you don’t know.

    Tell jerks you’re not interested in their self-serving predictions. When the future happens, then we’ll see it. Then it will be real. Then we can formulate a policy to deal with it.

  3. Robotics will soon lead to widespread joblessness and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.

    If it does that doesn’t necessarily mean anybody will be worse off. That concentrating wealth has to come from somebody and there needs to be something you can spend it on. Otherwise, it’s not wealth. If your robot sees to all your needs, then all you need is a robot. And if that robot was made by another robot…

  4. I see a future where most people are jobless, but the cost of living is essentially zero because the robots do all the work. So a little bit of charity from the wealthy results in most people living in the lap of luxury. Everyone gets a modest home, decent food and full access to high speed internet for media and gaming. All provided by robots.

    Meanwhile the ambitious and wealthy are working in a whole new economy and I won’t even try to guess how it will work.

    1. I mean, we have data on this.

      When you take away the need to struggle, people tend to focus on what they want to do.

      So consider anything that people want to do, but don’t because they have to work instead. Art is a common one. Spending time with family/loved ones. Heck, it might actually turn back the fertility curve, since people would have more free time to raise their kids without stress.

      As for the “ambitious and wealthy”, look at what men and women of leisure did during the renaissance. Some engaged in trade, the quest for more money, but many pursued science for it’s own sake. And with the better public education, the number of folks that are going to do so would probably be much higher.

      But that’s provided we get over the transition point: going from a world where welfare is barely enough to get by on, and if you want to live well you have to work, to a world where welfare (from charity or government) is comfortable and only people that want to work do so. That transition has the possibility of being very ugly.

      1. I agree with you on everything except the transition. I think it will happen surprisingly quickly and peacefully. I think prices will drop faster than employment rates. People getting laid off will feel like they should be worried but won’t be feeling any actual financial pressure. They’ll be confused, if anything. And charity will smooth things out even more. People already give more to charity than ever before. Imagine if suddenly that charity starts going much farther than ever before.

        Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe people will spend their newfound free time watching cable news and start to disbelieve their lying eyes.

        1. I think you both are too pessimistic / optimistic. People like being active, even if it’s just flipping channels, but for most it is a lot more. People will find things to do or make, other people will like what they do or make, a business opportunity will be noticed, and *poof* there goes another non-unemployed person. Whether their fun is painting Victorians in 11 gaudy colors or making custom electron microscopes, people will find things to do that others will want to purchase. And whether that painting or microscope building is done by robots or humans, it will still be thought of and supervised by humans.

          1. I agree with you. I just don’t think what most people do will rise to the level of a “job”, certainly not a “full time” job. They probably won’t get paid for it in money. They’ll just do stuff because they like it and other people like it. Most people will just be retired, doing their hobbies.

        2. You know what?

          Let’s go with your utopian ideal of humanity.

          Your idea of “charity” will involve a massive, voluntary, wealth redistribution downwards, spreading to all corners of society. Covering the costs of meth-heads in Appalchia to the guys hiding out in Alaska.

          Even if the rich decided this was a good idea, the infrastructure and systems necessary for this unprecedented, and continuous, wealth transfer downwards is not there. And if we don’t prepare, which you say we don’t need to, it won’t be there.

          Simply put, even if you want to argue that the rich are going to care enough to throw money at tweaked out bums in Alabama†, they won’t be able to in a fast enough time frame.

          Your utopia, if it happens, will rise from ashes.
          ________
          †And there’s no evidence that they will.

          1. Your idea of “charity” will involve a massive

            It wouldn’t be massive because robots have made the common comforts essentially free.
            the infrastructure and systems necessary for this unprecedented, and continuous, wealth transfer downwards is not there.

            The robots are building it.

            they won’t be able to in a fast enough time frame.

            I’m willing to bet that if robots take all our jobs they’ll be able to create anything faster than an idle human can destroy it.

            1. It wouldn’t be massive because robots have made the common comforts essentially free. […] The robots are building it.

              Assuming you had the money, and there were no wire-transfer fees, how would you send $5 to every US citizen?

              Simply put, there is no private-industry capacity for that. While different private-industry sectors have different bits of necessary data, the coordination between them to send everyone $5 would (A) be illegal, (B) be unethical, and (C) take a lot of coordination.

              And no, it’s not the kind of work that robots are going to do. We’re talking about interfacing databases and system. That’s the kind of high-skilled job that isn’t going away, can’t be done by a robot, and will take at least a year once everyone gets approval and the lawyers sort out that side of things.

              The IRS could send everyone a $5 check or wire them the amount. But you’re ruling out government action, remember?

              You can’t just say “robots!” and excuse every technical problem. They’re tools, not magic.

              And of course, this ignores that people have to come to the conclusion that something needs to be done, organize around a single idea, and start implementing it.

              So c’mon, what’s the unemployment rate and/or labor participation rate where this happens? We’ve hit double-digit unemployment and folks resisted dramatic action, and you’re talking about the most dramatic action ever. So how bad does it have to get before the Bezos and Waltons of the world do something?

              I’m willing to bet that if robots take all our jobs they’ll be able to create anything faster than an idle human can destroy it.

              “Idle”? Unemployed, angry, hungry masses won’t be “idle”.

      2. So consider anything that people want to do, but don’t because they have to work instead.

        Mostly it seems to be ‘drugs and fucking’.

    2. So a little bit of charity from the wealthy

      I assume by this that you mean “the forcible extraction and redistribution of wealth”

      1. That’s a more realistic scenario, but no, some guy appears to be that much of a utopian that he thinks the Walton family is going to turn Wal-Mart into a charity and just give away food.

        1. No, that’s your dystopia.

          You just can’t envision people actually helping each other without Big Brother’s guns forcing it, can you? You really do think people are selfish, greedy, lazy bums, and that is why you want socialism to force their sorry asses to produce stuff for you to consume.

  5. The Democrats are going to elected a robot president?

    1. Don’t blame me. I voted for Flexo.

    2. That explains their willingness to kill all humans.

    3. Didn’t work when they nominated Gore.

    4. “The Democrats are going to elected a robot president?”
      A female robot could not be elected president.

  6. I’m reminded of the Romans and the steam engine.

    Two thousand years ago, some Roman dude had already invented the steam engine. But it was so costly to operate compared to slave labor that it was seen as a toy and nothing more, and as such development was never pushed.

    Modern automation is much the same. The two things that prevent modern automation from reaching the levels we keep predicting is that (A) automation is expensive, and (B) human labor is cheap. Change either of those and automation becomes more likely. And the closer you get to the “break even” point, the faster we’re going to start moving.

    All of which is to say, the kind of mass automation of low-skilled jobs might stay at being “five to ten years away” for the next century. Or it might happen next year.

    And when it happens, we are not going to be prepared, because we’re refusing to prepare now, and when it happens it’ll be too fast to start preparing.

    To be clear, I have no solutions to offer. All the ones that would work would not be socially acceptable. All the socially acceptable ones are like spitting in the wind.

    1. It will happen eventually, and we won’t be ready for it. But we don’t need to be either. We weren’t ready for the internet, but we’re figuring it out just fine and we’re much better off for it.

      1. It must be nice to be an optimist. I hope you’re right. You have not convinced me to think you’re right.

        1. I’m always cautiously optimistic. I think if you take an unbiased look at history you have to be. Human quality of life has been improving for centuries and the rate of improvement has been accelerating of late. How can you not be optimistic?

          1. I’m not pessimistic about the long-term. Sure, we’ll eventually be better then we are.

            I’m pessimistic about getting there. And if you look at history, you see a lot of pain and suffering in periods of disruptive innovation. It may be a boon in the end, but it will ruin lives on the way.

            1. I think we may be past the pain, though. The industrial revolution had pain because most people were still living hand to mouth. The information revolution has been painless, I think. Sure, some people gripe about things, but they were always going to gripe. Nobody is starving or homeless because of the internet. I think all big transitions from here on out will be the same. There will always be some gripers, but nobody foments a revolution when their belly is full and they still have access to a Netflix account.

              1. You keep talking about the “information revolution” as if it replaced low-skilled jobs with high-skilled jobs.

                It’s kind of showing a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem.

                1. I was just referring to it as a massive upheaval in the way our society and economy work. And it did displace a lot of low-skilled jobs. I don’t know where they went. I think a lot of the losses were during the recession. Now the employment rate is coming back up, but it is probably not the same people. The info age plus the recession seem to have just pushed a bunch of people into early retirement. The rest of us adjusted.

                  Also, if the moderators are seeing this, ignore my flag for review. My finger twitched at just the wrong moment. We should really be able to undo a flagging. Just like we should be able to edit our posts.

                  1. I was just referring to it as a massive upheaval in the way our society and economy work.

                    When? You keep talking about the “information revolution”, which wasn’t “a massive upheaval in the way our society and economy work”.

        2. Automation has been putting people out of work for centuries, since windmills and watermills at least, or sailing ships, or horses and oxen pulling carts.

          Humans always adjust. We find new things to do with the wealth and extra productivity.

          Robots are just another new tool. If robots ever get to be as creative and independent as humans, they will just make more wealth and find more ways to increase productivity.

          If robots ever get to be smarter and more creative than humans, they could decide we are pests. More likely, they would ignore us, or buy trinkets to decorate their homes. There’d be no point in exterminating us.

          1. And for the most part it’s been replacing low-skilled jobs with other low-skilled jobs.

            But in the past fourty years, in America, it’s been replacing a lot of low-skilled jobs with high-skilled jobs.

            That’s an important distinction.

            1. No it hasn’t. Tell me, I’d like to know: we used to be 90% farmers, now we’re 1%. Are all those other 89% in low-skilled jobs?

              Used to be servants all over. Every middle class house had several servants. What do all those low-skill peopel do now, what low-skill jobs do they have now?

              1. What do all those low-skill peopel do now

                They hang out in their baby momma’s Section 8 apartment, playing video games and getting high.

          2. Part of me agrees with your last phrase, but part of me also thinks about ants. People only go out of their way to kill ants when the ants are annoying. But they also don’t go out of their way to avoid killing ants that just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. So what if the robots start trying to climb the Kardashev scale.

            We’re not trying to kill all humans, but when we start using all the earth’s water to power our fusion reactors you’re def gonna die. Sorrynotsorry.

            1. Frankly, that’s not my problem, and not just because it’s in the future, but because I don’t see it happening. We didn’t grow up with ants for neighbors and friends. We didn’t evolve from ants within the last generation or two. The analogy is inapt.

    2. because we’re refusing to prepare now

      What does preparing mean?

      Does it mean having ‘Top Men’ in the government make predictions that are slanted towards their personal benefit take control of large swathes of the economy to ensure we’re ‘prepared’?

      1. What does preparing mean?

        Potentially lots of things.

        But as I said, it doesn’t actually matter because we aren’t going to.

    3. ” The two things that prevent modern automation from reaching the levels we keep predicting is that (A) automation is expensive, and (B) human labor is cheap.”

      There are a great many jobs where automation has already replaced humans, and this will only continue as long as computing power keeps following its exponential performance/dollar improvements.

      For all those saying “there will always be another job”, I suggest you look at US labor force participation rates.

      The overall Labor Force Participation Rate has fallen to levels not seen since around 80, before women fully entered the work force, and currently are significantly below the rates seen through the 90s.
      https://goo.gl/PHK7Y1

      1. While women’s rates climed steadly from the 50s to 2000, they have slipped since, never reaching male rates.
        https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/LNS11300002

      2. Male labor participation rates are at all time lows, down about 20 points from 1950. The steepest period of decline for males rates was 2008-2014. It’s been flat since, but the next economic shock likely produces another big drop. The rate has never had a sustained increase.
        https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/LNS11300001

        1. the next economic shock likely produces another big drop.

          Yes, we’ve seen that the last couple of downturns. Many who lose their jobs never return to work during the next expansion, especially older workers.

  7. Will Robots Cause Mass Unemployment?

    Yes. If we do it right.

    1. Yes! Why else have robots?

  8. Is human unemployment a robot problem? – a Soho Forum Debate.

    – By Libertarian Journalist Robot #11905.

    1. “Yes, but only because you haven’t disarmed your humans yet.”

  9. Robotics will soon lead to widespread joblessness and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.

    Well, I don’t know; let’s check the last 200 years of human history.

    Good grief.

  10. Of course they’ll cause mass unemployment, this isn’t really up for debate. The question is what happens after that, and how and where will new jobs be created.

    This reminds me of Iowahawks tweet in response to a politician who said that because of lack of immigrant labor, crops were going unpicked!!!

    Iowahawk showed a picture of a massive combine harvesting acres of crops by one guy.

    1. They already *have*. See labor force participation rates for details.

      It’s so weird that people deny the obvious. Automation gets cheaper/better/faster every year *exponentially*. We don’t.

      Do the math.

    2. where will new jobs be created

      As others have already said here, ideally new jobs WON’T be created, and we’ll come up with new ways to distribute wealth to cope with that. Who the hell wants a job? Jobs suck.

  11. Perhaps we should learn from when 90% of humans were displaced from the farms, and just sat around. Or when 90% of factory workers lost their jobs, and added to the current masses of unemployed. Or the collective hordes shed from specific industries by labor-saving devices or improvements in technology. The past century has just been one massive unemployment crisis after another.

    1. The situation we’re headed for is something new, though. Artificial intelligence is a game changer.

      1. “Artificial intelligence is a game changer.”

        If it ever gets here, it might be.

      2. So was the steam engine, and the plow, and factory robots, and…

        Every time is different, but it is a human ego defect to claim that MY time is the most different.

        1. Sometimes our time IS different. Major revolutions in human life do occur.

  12. I hope so. I’m tired of working.

  13. Why is this even a debate? Anyone who has a basic understanding of both history and technology realizes that technology has always removed more jobs than they created. The question becomes, is every job able to be done by a machine? The answer at present is no, but advancements in technology removed a lot of blue-collar jobs in the 1960s and 1970s, and then many U.S. businesses abandoned the technology and shipped all the manufacturing to third world countries to be built by cheap labor. Manufacturing here in the country with mostly robotic labor would still bring some jobs back, and would not be sending money to other countries at the expense of Americans. Someone would have to supervise the robots, repair them, and manufacture and program them. Why shouldn’t it be Americans doing that?

    1. Because American robots will be doing it cheaper/better/faster.

  14. “Why is this even a debate? Anyone who has a basic understanding of both history and technology realizes that technology has always removed more jobs than they created…”

    That’s the reason unemployment is peaking at 99.9% of the population, since the club was invented and we no longer had to wrestle the mastodons to the ground.
    You need some learnin’, there pal; you ain’t got a lick of sense.

    1. For people failing to get why this time is different, machines couldn’t compete with us on perception and intelligence before.

      In task after task, they now can compete and defeat us.

      1. “In task after task, they now can compete and defeat us.”
        No, they can’t.

        1. Yes, they sure can. Apparently you’ve never held a skilled job. I’m guessing that’s because you’re still in middle school.

  15. Will transrobots be treated the same as cisrobots?

  16. When we discuss this phenomenon, we tend to visualize tech as it exists today. Unfortunately, in a few decades, machines will surpass human capability in every endeavor. That is inevitable. Only the time frame is in doubt. How we will deal with it is also an unknown, but productive human work will be an oxymoron.

  17. Let us consider the opposiite scenario.

    Suppose a huge electromagnetic pulse frued all electronics on the world.

    Would this not lead to unprecedented prosperity, since businesses would have to hire people to do the work once done by machines?

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