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.

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[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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