The Dawn of the Robots

by Matt

Source: NPR

“…[C]omputers still aren’t very good at many menial labor jobs like cleaning bathrooms and other janitorial work; we still need humans for that. So it turns out for many very low-skill jobs, there’s still demand. For high-skill and high-touch jobs like being a good manager at a company, a doctor, or a nurse, we need humans. But many middle-skill, middle class jobs are where we’re seeing the squeeze.”

— NPR,  “How Technology is Eliminating Higher-Skill Jobs”

Although the US GDP has returned to pre-recession levels, unemployment still remains about as high as it has been since the mortgage crisis began. Many companies have found ways to increase productivity with a smaller work force, and technology has a role in making it happen.

NPR seems to be developing a bit of a thread around this idea, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s a fascinating phenomenon that has the potential to influence modern life more and more powerfully, and — if it is pursued without careful consideration — perhaps not in the best ways.

The basic dynamic is simple. A new technology, from AI to articulated robots to TurboTax, makes it possible for more work to be done with fewer people, and so people are put out of work. This saves a company money, and that money tends to travel uphill.

Even critics of the pure free market would have to admit there’s something natural about the cycle, and free-market devotees would argue that there’s nothing wrong with it. Of course people are displaced by innovation, and of course they should be expected to reinvent themselves, in some small or large way, and dive back into the job market.

I taught an economics class a few years back in which we discussed this “creative destruction” of technology replacing human labor. The kids found it really depressing — even though I offered them the free-market argument that it was pretty natural. They weren’t convinced.

So to stir up the discussion, I asked them to imagine some dramatically pre-industrial tribe hunting and gathering on the savannah. Suppose those folk fell into possession of a bunch of robots; what then?

The kids agreed those folks would be tremendously liberated — until the robots started breaking down, that is (or until they became self-aware and started cooking schemes of Skynet and big, pink-bulbed battery towers.)

But for us, in the modern era?

The robots are worrisome for us, the kids said again.

It seems to me that the question of whether labor-saving technologies are a blessing or an irritant to the job market may boil down to a question about sharing. No matter how one navigates the details, the I think the core issue might really be pretty simple. There are wealthy people who could choose to share wealth with others, to the greater benefit of society, who don’t — and, in aggregate, when wealthy people in this day and age are the benefactors of creative destruction, and therefore faced with the choice of sharing or not sharing, they tend to choose the latter.

This, of course, is what fuels the “Occupy” movement, and — of course — it is an observation with some serious limitations. It is way too simplistic to effect policy change (as one hopes the “Occupiers” will learn). However, I don’t think it’s false, either; I think it’s apparent. So while it won’t effect change by itself, I do think it adequately calls for some.