I, For One, Welcome Our Robotic Overlords

A recent Atlantic article is the latest installment in ‘the robots are taking all our jobs’ genre. It’s pretty good, but I’ve never entirely understood the concern. I’ve always viewed this as an opportunity:

In 1900, about half of the U.S. population was engaged in agriculture. While some of this was ‘non-essential’ in that the U.S. exported these products, that’s still a huge fraction. Today, less than two percent are engaged in agriculture. Yet somehow we keep most people employed. There were dislocations during the shift…

[But] We can find plenty of worthwhile things for people to do, even if they are not ‘essential’: arts, education, research, improving our infrastructure. If we still lived in a world where we needed half of our workers on the farm or else we couldn’t eat, funding these things would be wasteful. But with idle workers, idle industrial capacity, and real needs, the only limiting ‘resource’ is currency. The federal government can create that at a drop of a hat–money should never be limiting. As long as we don’t have shortages of resources, including workers, there’s no need to worry about inflation or resource misallocation.

It’s worth noting this is happening not just in manufacturing, but scientific research as well. To the extent having people do less mundane work is a problem, it’s one that’s relatively easy to fix, especially if we’re willing to also grant people more ‘non-subsistence work’ time*–which should be a goal of a wealthy society.

As long as we don’t let the greedheads fuck this up, we could get through this rather well.

*Some people will spend most of that time in leisure, others might do something more ‘valuable.’

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3 Responses to I, For One, Welcome Our Robotic Overlords

  1. Min says:

    When our robotic future arrives, it would be possible for us to live in a world of shared prosperity, where we could spend much of our time pursuing sport, art, science, and so on, living like the leisure classes of yore. But history tells us that that is not the most obvious result. We already inhabit a future anticipated by thinkers and visionaries at the start of the Industrial Revolution, which they saw as one of shared prosperity. But in the rich nations of the world we face the apparent paradox of widespread penury amidst prosperity. And within country inequality is increasing. And democracy is being attacked and undermined. The key questions about our robotic future are who will own the robots, who will own the land, and who will own the government?

  2. Wish I shared your optimism, but look at where we are right now…Prevailing trends today (and throughout history) do not point to a future of shared prosperity.

  3. Toby Aswell says:

    I love the sense of optimism here, however I harbour many doubts.

    In the west we have societies where people are expected to work longer hours for more of their life to afford an “average” standard of living (and yes, the average now is better than 50 years ago).

    The utopian dream of automation leading to greater leisure time and greater time to think & improve humanity is just as far from most people today as it was from the people in Victorian poorhouses.

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