Welcome, Job-Destroying Robots

Saturday, August 2, 2014
By dreeves

A line of robots doing human jobs

Let me first emphasize that I’m not talking about the deeper question of superintelligence and what happens when robots can do anything a human can do. This is about the (relatively) more immediate question: What happens when robots can perform any unskilled labor much more cheaply than humans?

My answer is that we’ll need a good social safety net for all the people whose labor doesn’t earn them enough to live on, but we’ll necessarily be so rich that that will be easy to pay for.

And now let me pause to tell you how sick I am of politicians talking about creating jobs. It’s as dumb (ok, not as dumb) as saying that what we need is more coins and bills. We don’t want more coins or bills or jobs — we want more awesomeness. Instead of coins and bills, we want more of the things we spend coins and bills on. Instead of jobs, we want more of what people create by working at their jobs. Often we can get that by replacing the humans with robots and programs, thus creating value by destroying jobs. That’s a good thing!

“Labor-saving technology? Great! Job-destroying technology? Even better.”

I’m mostly annoyed by the rhetoric: Labor-saving technology? Great! Job-destroying technology? Horrible. But those are the same thing! We shouldn’t think in terms of jobs but in terms of efficiency. So, yes, idle workers and idle factories are a massive problem. Employing humans for work that robots could do cheaper and better is also a problem, and it’s the same problem: inefficiency.

If our society is so rich — as is gradually becoming the case — that it’s cheaper to use Freaking Robots instead of people then that is an amazingly wonderful and luxurious problem to have.

But wait, you say, if automation (or outsourcing) destroys jobs then it reduces consumer demand which hurts producers and makes everyone (or non-foreigners) poorer. [1] That’s wrong in the same way that it’s wrong to think that breaking windows can help the economy. But otherwise clueful people persist in taking it seriously. For example, Martin Ford’s The Lights in the Tunnel, which argues that more efficiency and robotic awesomeness will hurt the economy.

I’m not just pointing out that automation helps average consumers because they can have personal robots and whatnot. Maybe you can’t actually have one if you don’t have a job and can’t afford it. I’m arguing that the existence of that kind of technology means society in aggregate is much richer and then it’s just a question of redistributing the wealth. Wealth redistribution feels unfair to a lot of people currently but I think they’ll have to get over it (and it can be done in better ways than currently). Because letting people suffer is really not an option. Plus, the richer society gets in aggregate the cheaper it is to provide the basics for the poor. So objecting to redistribution on principle will, by the time society’s so rich as to have created personal robots, seem silly and petty.

Think of it this way. Say robotics causes 90% unemployment. No problem! The 10% who have jobs in that scenario will be so fantastically rich that they can easily afford to pay more than what the 90% is currently getting. [2] Assuming the right redistribution of wealth, building robots that destroy almost all human jobs is necessarily a Pareto improvement over the status quo.

Related Reading



[1] This deserves another blog post but let me emphatically say that everything here applies even more so to immigration and outsourced jobs. The urge to protect jobs in one’s community is fundamentally misguided, even if you only care about members of your in-group. Outsourcing from and immigration to America makes Americans better off, not even accounting for the benefits to the foreigners getting those jobs. (Which I think is ridiculously shameful to not account for but we can set that aside if that’s what it takes to win the political debate.)

[2] What if it’s true that idle hands are the devil’s workshop? If that’s a problem (I don’t know if it is) there are much better solutions than trying to suppress automation (or immigration or outsourcing!). For example, people could be hired at public expense to work on infrastructure projects.


Illustration by Kelly Savage

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  • http://www.kongregate.com/accounts/player_03 player_03

    Wow, I went and looked through the comments on the “Rome is Burning” post, and it seemed like no one was listening. Everyone gave their own explanation of recessions and very few explanations overlapped. (Oh, and the explanations tended to boil down to one single factor. Kind of like the explanation in the article itself.)

    I don’t think I saw anyone even acknowledge anyone else’s arguments. Though to be fair, most of the comments were unthreaded, so maybe they just skipped all the other comments.

    In any case, good article. Here’s hoping that your comments section is more sane.

  • Bill Walsh

    You can’t actually believe that we would be able to pull off adequate wealth redistribution from the 10% to 90%.

  • http://beeminder.com Daniel Reeves

    Mostly I think that even when robots can perform all unskilled labor better than humans, more than 10% of humans will still earn a living just fine. Historically that has been the case. Before the industrial revolution most people had full-time jobs in agriculture (ie, growing their own food) and then technology happened and destroyed literally 98% of those jobs. Humans figured out other ways to make a living.

    So destroying 90% of jobs doesn’t mean leaving 90% of people twiddling their thumbs. But even if it did, I don’t see that as a reason to try to slow down the progress of robotics. I’d rather fight for better redistribution than fight against technology in hopes of keeping the redistribution from being as necessary.

  • Bill Walsh

    So, you need to revise your argument then. You have to claim that even if 90% of existing jobs are destroyed, net employment won’t plummet.

    You can’t just argue that restdristibution will take care of the problem without resorting to some socialist fantasy!

  • http://beeminder.com Daniel Reeves

    I’m saying we probably don’t need a socialist fantasy but I’m willing to resort to one if necessary, if that’s what it takes to get my personal robot. :)

    I doubt we actually disagree about this!

    Note that I’m arguing against a particularly dumb but popular position (popular among even the tech clueful, as evidenced by the Martin Ford book): that automation will hurt the economy overall. I concede that it may hurt income equality and that that might be bad. Just not so bad that we should try to slow down progress in robotics.

  • Jase

    I’ve thought a bit about the likely employment scenarios when robots can do everything better than we can.

    I say that we will not have idle hands.

    When robot-produced goods are cheap and abundant, human produced goods will be rare, pricey, and therefore deemed superior.

    You already see this with the rise of artisanal goods and hand-stitching on your luxury handbag.

    I suspect that human-facing jobs will become common, as ‘help’ becomes a status symbol. Personal trainers, masseurs, nannies, private chefs, and life coaches are probably just the leading edge of this trend. I can imagine a future where rolling with an entourage will become the way to say you’ve made it.

    I’ve written a bit more about this idea here: http://thomasthethinkengine.com/2014/07/31/face-age-the-economics-of-employment-in-the-robot-revolution/

  • Stephen M. Gingell

    If I am one of the wealthy 10% of robot owning super rich why would I want to redistribute my wealth to the unproductive poor? Why not just keep all the wealth for me and my robo-capitalist friends and sic Terminators on any poor people who object. What are they going to do about it? None of them have any productive capacity to resist me with.

    When humans stopped needing horses to pull plows we didn’t share our newfound tractor based wealth with the horses, we sold them to glue factories.