Saturday, October 29, 2011

Will robots take our jobs?

There's a saying which I think I first heard on the Robots podcast which goes something like the following:
Americans are worried that robots are going to kill them
Europeans are worried that robots will take their jobs
Japanese want robots to be their friends
What automation already has done and will do in future to the employment market is a question which has been debated for many decades.  A fairly intelligent discussion about this can be found here between Martin Ford and Robin Hanson.

The standard narrative about automation has typically been that robots will do the dull, dirty and dangerous work which people mostly don't want to do, but that they won't encroach much beyond that, leaving an intellectual refuge within which human "knowledge workers" can remain as the non plus ultra.  This is true now, and also for the immediate future, but I tend to agree with people like Hans Moravec and Martin Ford that in the long run - assuming no major setbacks such as asteroid strikes or insurmountable energy/material shortages - that practically nobody's job is going to escape from the rising tide of automation.

You can always point out the limitations of particular contemporary technologies.  Hanson mentions how Google Translate does not entirely do away with the need for human translators, and I've had some first hand experience of those situations.  Most industries have their own specialized vocabulary and set of acronyms which automatic translation doesn't handle well.  However, given more time and training data there is no fundamental obstacle to having automatic translators also handle niche vocabularies.

Martin Ford describes in more detail in his book how anyone doing what he calls a "software job" will be at risk from technological unemployment in the foreseeable future and that the economic value of possessing a college degree will fall accordingly.  In his opinion what has been happening to blue collar workers (outsourcing, offshoring and replacement by automation) will also increasingly happen to white collar knowledge workers in this century.

Is technological unemployment a component of the current economic troubles?  Perhaps.  But if it is then it's only a small component.  One thing which is however conspicuous is that it's possible to have something like 10-25% of the population classified as being "economically inactive" without any really major downturn in overall productivity.  GDP can be rising at the same time as unemployment rates.  There are a few possible interpretations as to why this might be, but one is that this could indicate that over time a smaller fraction of the population is required to be in the loop of economic production in order for it to still continue to function effectively.

Ultimately this challenges the notion that in order to have income you need to be personally and directly involved in economic production activities, and whatever happens I think it's going to be true that advances in automation will fundamentally change the way that the economy functions - sacrificing a few ideological sacred cows along the way. 

Hanson talks about democratic ownership of the means of production, and that seems quite likely to me.  RepRap is an obvious pointer in that direction, but it's also not too hard to imagine that mobile robots equipped with appropriate tools and sophisticated enough software could perform jobs of significant economic value which effectively free the owner of needing to be personally involved at all.  If the automation is cheap enough, or can be produced in a viral manner similar to RepRap components, then potentially anyone can manufacture things which they might need, or want to sell or barter.

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