Recently there’s been a huge resurgence in the idea that robots will take our jobs.
Just as horses were replaced by cars in the early twentieth century, so too will you be replaced by a machine as technology marches on.
Back in 2014, a video was released on this topic.
Its title: Humans Need Not Apply.
Its message: You will be replaced by a machine. Your job is doomed.
Three Reasons I’m not a Horse:
But wait. Are we really like those poor horses, destined for joblessness in a mechanised world of dystopian abundance?
Perhaps, and as a data-scientist, I ought to hope so; but the economist within me just can’t accept it.
Here are a few reasons why we’re not in the same position as our four-legged friends:
Reason 1: The economy isn’t designed to maximise the living standards of horses.
We humans occupy a unique space in our economy. We’re not just a means of production; we’re the reason production exists in the first place. We’re the agents of the economy. Economic activity is geared towards increasing our living standards via consumption and increased efficiency. Indeed, 2015 was reckoned to be the best year in history for the average human to be alive. Horses, while majestic, are not economic agents.
Reason 2: The economy is designed for me to work and consume.
One of the reasons horses were made redundant was because they are only factors (read ‘tools’) of production. Now the cynic in all of us will say that we are simply tools for our shareholder overlords to exploit and fire at will. In the aggregate however this simply isn’t true. Were we all working constantly with just enough resources to facilitate our work, there would be no time for consumption and the economy would suffer. Were our jobs taken by robots, we would have zero income, zero consumption, and zero capitalist economy. For the economy to function we need to participate both as workers and as consumers. Robots cannot be the sole employees in an economy because if they were, there would be no economy.
Majestic though they are, horses are factors (tools) of production
Going back to our equine comparison, these reasons help to explain why the human population didn’t falter when technology advanced over the course of the industrial revolution, while the horse population plummeted after the introduction the car.
An economy needs its agents.
While it may seem obvious, the third reason is by far the most controversial.
Reason 3: I can gain new skills and get a new job.
To quote Carl Sagan: “We are an adaptable species.”
To demonstrate this in context, here’s a massively simplified history of modern production in two sentences:
19th century: production lines of unskilled workers replace skilled artisans; machines are used to complement unskilled labour.
20th century: production lines are automated; machines replace unskilled labour; skilled labour is needed to operate machines.
The last two centuries have demonstrated that workers will adapt when skilled labour is threatened (19th Century) and will adapt again when unskilled labour is threatened (20th Century).
But maybe this time is different…
It is often claimed that this time is different. Robots are acquiring skills that no human can hope to master. They are encroaching on our cognitive territory. Robots are writing articles, driving cars, composing symphonies. We cannot hope to compete. They are like a horse who, upon discovering the advent of the car, develops the ability to teleport.
A 2013 paper estimated that up to 47% of employment in the US is at risk of computerisation.
This is arguably the most potent argument in favour of mass joblessness, and is related to the idea of technological unemployment advanced by eighty years ago by John Maynard Keynes.
However, the ‘this time is different’ argument undermines itself.
Here’s why with an example:
It is claimed that self-driving cars have huge application elsewhere in the economy, from delivering retail stock to moving iron-ore. Therefore, to call them mere ‘cars’ is to limit the scope of your imagination. This is undoubtedly true.
But the same is true for us. Working people have adapted to changes in the environment, both natural and artificial, for millennia. We are driven by necessity and inspired to learn. Who knows what jobs will occupy our schedules in a future of automation. We’re human beings. Calling us ‘workers’ limits the scope of your imagination.
So what will the future really look like?
Well if there’s one thing we can be sure of, it’s that we really have no idea. However, a great deal of economics is based on self-fulfilling prophesies – literally, if enough people think something is going to happen, it will happen – and so I’ll make a prediction.
Assuming we continue on our current exponential trajectory, I predict that current advances in robotics won’t cause mass unemployment. They will however take work away from us. The result: automation of routine tasks complemented by a three or four day work week for human workers.
We are seeing the seeds of this emerging in popular thinking. Even in the absence of robotics, people are questioning the logic of a life focused on work, with consumption and leisure affixed at the margins – but that is perhaps a topic for another day.
Ultimately, what is the purpose of the economy unless it is to improve our lives? With current advances in robotics, we have a real opportunity to work less, engage in more socially satisfying work, and dedicate our mental resources to solving real human problems.
So, why the long face?
Additional credit to:
Richard Newton: “AI Invasion will allow workers to empathise, problem-solve and adapt”