all hail our robots co-workers and replacements?

January 9, 2013 — 3 Comments

cyborg integration

Stop me if you’ve heard any of this before. As computers keep getting faster and more powerful and robots keep advancing at a breakneck pace, most human jobs will be obsolete. But instead of simply being pink-spilled, humans will get brand new jobs which pay better and give them a lot of free time to enjoy the products of our civilization’s robotic workforce, create, and invent. It’s a futuristic dream that’s been around for almost a century in one form or another, and it has been given an update in the latest issue of Wired. Robots will take our jobs and we should welcome it because we’ll eliminate grunt work in favor of more creative pursuits, say today’s tech prophets, and in a way they’re right. Automation is one of the biggest reasons why a lot of people can’t go out and get jobs that once used to be plentiful and why companies are bringing in more revenue with far fewer workers. Machines have effectively eliminated millions of jobs.

When we get to the second part of this techno-utopian prediction, however, things aren’t exactly as rosy. Yes, new and higher paying jobs have emerged, especially in IT, but they’re closed to a lot of people who simply don’t have the skills to do these new jobs or for whom no position exists in their geographical vicinity. Automation doesn’t just mean that humans get bumped up from an obsolete job, it means there are fewer jobs overall for humans. And when it comes to positions in which dealing with reams of paperwork and mundane office tasks is the order of the day, having computers and robots in them eliminates internships college students or young grads can use to build up a resume and get their feet in the door. They’re now stuck in a Catch-22 where they’re unable to get experience and more education puts them further behind thanks to a machine. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is not what the techno-utopians had in mind.

Of course humans will have to move up into more abstract and creative jobs where robots have no hope of ever competing with them, otherwise the economy will collapse as automated factory after automated factory churns out trillions of dollars worth of goods that no one can buy since some 70% of the population no longer has a job. And at 70% unemployment, every last horrible possibility that sends societal collapse theory survivalists screaming themselves awake at night has a high enough chance of happening that yours truly would also start seriously considering taking up gun hoarding and food stockpiling as really good hobbies. Basically, the failure to get adjusted to the growing cybernetic sector of the workforce simply isn’t an option. Companies, no matter how multinational, would be able to eliminate so many positions that the robot takeover of human jobs with no replacements in sight that it wouldn’t start feeling the economic pain as they hit maximum market saturation and can go no further because no one can buy their wares.

But all these good news aside, just because we’ll have time to adjust to an ever more automated economy and feel the need to do so, doesn’t mean that the transition will be easy and people will not be left behind. Without a coordinated effort by wealthy nations to change the incentives they give their companies and educational institutions, we’ll be forced to ride out a series of massive recessions in which millions of jobs are shed, relatively few are replaced, and the job markets will be slowly rebuilt around new careers because a large chunk of the ones lost are now handed off to machines or made obsolete by an industry’s contraction after the crisis. And this means that when facing the machine takeover of the economy we have two realistic choices. The first is to adapt by taking action now and bringing education and economic incentives in line with what the postindustrial markets are likely to become. The second is to try and ride out the coming storm, adapting in a very economically painful ad hoc manner through cyclical recessions. Unlike we’re being told, the new, post-machine jobs won’t just naturally appear on their own…

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  • http://www.facebook.com/richard.garrard1 Richard Garrard

    Thank you for this article. The possibility of a massive and permanent reduction in the number of jobs is a huge thunderhead on the horizon. I don’t see much preparation, and I’m not sure how much is really relevant or practical; I have a slim hope that it can be addressed without war, both civil and international. It will take a true revolution in human creativity to solve this problem.

  • TheBrett

    I’m not convinced by this argument yet, particularly since robots are still largely replacing workers in work that is highly routine and rule-based. Mechanization has usually put new spins on old jobs, created entirely new categories of work, and broken up what were once highly skilled “generalist” positions into specialized work. It’s still far too early into the Information Era and spread of robotics to dismiss that happening again.

    Of course humans will have to move up into more abstract and creative jobs where robots have no hope of ever competing with them,

    Some people will, but I’m skeptical. As machines get smarter and more capable of non-routine work, they’ll start to bridge the gap between highly skilled workers and lesser-skilled workers. Instead of a doctor, you might have ten medical technicians who can do most of the same work with machine assistance, but at a fraction of the price.

    Companies, no matter how multinational, would be able to eliminate so many positions that the robot takeover of human jobs with no replacements in sight that it wouldn’t start feeling the economic pain as they hit maximum market saturation and can go no further because no one can buy their wares.

    They’d feel it pretty quickly if it led to 25% unemployment, since that represents a major drop in consumer demand in an economy. Either they’d have to re-tool to provide goods to a still-wealthy elite, or they’d face merciless pressures to drive down costs to sell goods to the poor.

    My guess, though, is that all those unemployed workers would result in so much cheap labor that they’d start displacing some machines. Particularly if a lot of stuff can be accomplished cheaply with humans and machines working together. It also might lead to some bigger family arrangements. I’d expect more multi-earner households, if single-earner households are no longer viable.

  • Paul451

    robots keep advancing at a breakneck pace, most human jobs will be obsolete. But instead of simply being pink-spilled, humans will get…

    I assume you meant pink-sllpped… but pink-spilled does sound more like something we’d be after a robot uprising.

    [More seriously, one big problem is that the US put itself in the worst position to deal with the loss of jobs. For the last 30 years you've pushed income distribution upwards and the tax burden downwards. Ie, fewer people in low income brackets benefit from increased GDP compared to previous decades, at exactly the same time that corporate taxes make up a smaller proportion of Federal revenue (with payroll tax making up an increasing share). Likewise, wages have been stagnant, and worker hours are, if anything, increasing to try to compensate. For over a century, labour movements won a reduction in weekly work hours, along with wages that reflected a fair share of gains in national GDP. That combination lead to amazing prosperity and improvements in society. Now minimum wage and work-week hours have both been stagnant for decades. At the previous rate of progress, and the rate of GDP growth, you could have brought in a four-day work week, even at an improved wage. That alone would protect you against another decade of automation-driven job loss. And unleashed another surge of consumer-driven prosperity, as in the 1950s. There are ways of dealing with job losses from automation, the way the US is going is not it.]