Society has long exhibited fear of man’s automated creations. Czech playwright Karel Čapek is credited with coining the word robot in his play Rosumovi Univerzální Roboti, where his robots began as happy workers for their human masters only to rebel and exterminate the human race.
One of the earliest science fictions films, 1927′s Metropolis, features a robot that is used to create violence and mayhem to maintain control over a dystopian society. The theme of killer machines in the years hence became a staple plot, featured in such classics as The Terminator, Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Matrix.
Outside the world of fiction, society’s fears take on a different, much more personal form. Rather than extinction, the common source of anxiety over robots is that of displacement. People today don’t fear for their lives, but for their jobs.
Yet of the two fears – uprising versus displacement – the latter is by far the most irrational. Not because it might not happen, but because we should want it to. Far from a potential source of impoverishment and despair, widespread automation of today’s jobs would be a huge economic boon for society that would leave us all better off.
A few years ago, Obama placed the blame for his sluggish economy at the feet of “businesses [that] have learned to become much more efficient with a lot fewer workers.” Specifically, he said, “You see it when you go to a bank and you use an ATM, you don’t go to a bank teller, or you go to the airport and you’re using a kiosk instead of checking in at the gate.”
A recent, anxiety-filled article in the New York Times similarly fretted, “With the processing speed of computers doubling roughly every 18 months and machines becoming ever smarter, paid work for human beings could become a lot scarcer — and soon.”
Former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, Robert Reich, goes further and warns that, “New technologies aren’t just labor-replacing. They’re also knowledge-replacing.” He imagines mobile health apps providing health testing and information instead of your doctor, and online courses replacing teachers and professors. “Where will this end?” he moans.
Can you even imagine the horrors of convenient healthcare at your fingertips and abundant and cheap education for all? Confound this blasted technology and the hell to which it shall deliver us!
The faults of this manner of thinking are its static view of economic activity and fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose and nature of work.
There’s an old saw about the great free market economist Milton Friedman and a trip he took to an Asian country, where he toured a worksite with a local bureaucrat. Shocked to find that the workers were using shovels instead of modern tractors and earth movers, he asked why there were so few machines. The government bureaucrat replied, “You don’t understand. This is a jobs program.” Friedman responded, “Oh, I thought you were trying to build a canal. If it’s jobs you want, then you should give these workers spoons, not shovels.”
In all likelihood the story is not true. Alternate versions attribute similar quotes to differing individuals in various locations, and can possibly be traced back to the 1930s. It also applies most directly to a different issue: the conflicting goals of so-called government works programs. But it also illustrates a relevant point about how we wrongly think about jobs in the context of public policy.
Namely, the story forces us to confront what we all know but is rarely acknowledged about work: that it is a means, not an end. By taking the efforts of politicians to “create jobs” for their own sake to the logical and absurd extreme, the tale reminds us that the goal of work is, first and foremost, to produce something of value that enhances our lives. Otherwise, what’s the point?
The vast majority of the wealth that exists in the world today was created over a very short span of human existence. While the first civilizations date back more than 5,000 years, and humans as a species much further, the vast majority of our current wealth was created in just the last couple centuries. At first blush that seems improbable, when so much more combined labor was available over several millennia than that of just the last few centuries. But it’s less surprising when we consider the positive role of technology and how it has increased productivity in ways previously unimaginable.
Before the industrial revolution, almost everyone worked in agriculture. They had the kind of dependable, steady work that should please the likes of Robert Reich, but their lives were miserable by modern standards. Certainly they didn’t want to work 12-hour days just to feed themselves. They had to.
But when technology allowed a mere fraction to produce even more food than was needed, it didn’t in turn leave the majority without work – they just put their labor to other uses, creating yet more wealth. When today’s new technologies allow for more to be produced with less labor, it is just as much a mistake to believe that we’ll suddenly run out of jobs than it would have been for per-industrial farmers to have thought the same.
Other behavioral changes are also likely to occur as technology continues to propel productivity to unprecedented heights. Because we work only as a means to produce valuable goods and services that enhance our welfare, the more productive that work becomes the less we will necessarily need to engage in it. That’s a good thing, because it frees up more time for leisure and pleasurable pursuits.
Imagine if you could live as well or even better than you already do, but only had to work 20, 10, or even just 5 hours per week to do so. That would be great, right? You’d have much more time to do what you want to do rather than what you have to do.
But wait, Reich and his ilk claim that will be impossible, because with robots taking all the jobs no one will have money to enjoy what the automatons produce.
Nonsense. Prices are determined by supply and demand, and with more production comes more supply, thereby reducing prices. People won’t need as much money to maintain a similar standard of living, though of course many will choose to keep working full time so as to an even higher standard of living.
Moreover, there will be plenty of work those who want it. The longer trend toward a service economy will likely continue, where we find ways – often using creative skills – to better the lives of one another through entertainment and personal care. And there will also be new industries created by the very same new technologies that are displacing the old.
Though I don’t claim to see the future, many of the jobs people will work in the years ahead are unimaginable today, just as today’s were in the past. We can study and learn from the past, however, and it has demonstrated time and time again that as old jobs are made obsolete, people inevitably find other ways to apply their talents. The potential uses for human labor and abilities, after all, is limited only by our imaginations. So bring on the robots to help us produce even more and live even better.
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