Man vs. robot

Angst over robot jobs is picking up steam, writes Peter Nowak


industrial-robotsIt’s easy to tell when a new technology has reached critical mass – discussions over its long-term effects start kicking into overdrive. That’s happening now with robots and how they are going to affect the human job market.

Conventional thinking has always held that automation and robots have historically been good things, because when a machine takes over a task, the human who used to do it is forced to do something smarter and better. This has had traditional repercussions both great and small, from auto assembly line workers necessarily having to upgrade their skills or maybe even start their own businesses, to regular people simply not having to remember minutiae like phone numbers because machines do it for them. Machines have traditionally freed our brains to worry about other, more important stuff.

However, in a recent 60 Minutes interview, MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Bruce Welty raised a worrying issue – that robotic development has now reached the exponential phase, which means that machines are taking over human tasks faster than humans can come up with new and better things to do.

“Right now the pace is accelerating. It’s faster we think than ever before in history,” Brynjolfsson said. “So as a consequence, we are not creating jobs at the same pace that we need to.”

By that estimation, robots will eventually take over all human jobs, leaving us with nothing to do. This is very bad, says the New York Times’ Paul Krugman, because that means all wealth will be controlled by the people who own the robots (assuming the machines don’t turn on us and kill us all, of course):

Smart machines may make higher GDP possible, but also reduce the demand for people — including smart people. So we could be looking at a society that grows ever richer, but in which all the gains in wealth accrue to whoever owns the robots.

Wired writer Kevin Kelly, on the other hand, takes a more optimistic approach when he says that we can’t evenimagine the jobs we’ll create because of this increasing automation. Humans’ role in the future will thus be the same as it is now: to create jobs that only people can do at first, with those tasks eventually falling to machines, whereupon the cycle will keep repeating.

This stuff is exactly the meat of the current chapter I’m working on for Humans 3.0, my upcoming book. I’m more inclined to side with Wired because, if there’s one thing we can be certain of when it comes to the future, it’s that it’s very difficult to imagine. As Kelly puts it:

Before we invented automobiles, air-conditioning, flatscreen video displays, and animated cartoons, no one living in ancient Rome wished they could watch cartoons while riding to Athens in climate-controlled comfort. Two hundred years ago not a single citizen of Shanghai would have told you that they would buy a tiny slab that allowed them to talk to faraway friends before they would buy indoor plumbing. Crafty AIs embedded in first-person-shooter games have given millions of teenage boys the urge, the need, to become professional game designers—a dream that no boy in Victorian times ever had. In a very real way our inventions assign us our jobs. Each successful bit of automation generates new occupations—occupations we would not have fantasized about without the prompting of the automation.

Where Krugman’s thesis falters is in the notion that it’ll somehow be big entities that own the robots. With even children creating their own Lego robots, that’s highly unlikely. Robots are getting better and cheaper, which means that everyone is likely to benefit from the robotic revolution.


Man vs. robot

  1. Lordy, this is a 1950s B-movie plot.

  2. Although new opportunities will appear, the group of people qualified to undertake them will continue to shrink. Robotics will replace human labour in all environments where the cost of human labour exceeds a certain point or the requirements for speed or precision exceed human capabilities. Labour for “unskilled” tasks can be cheaply moved to other territories as long as transportation costs don’t exceed a certain point.

    Bottom line: employement opportunities in labour-oriented jobs will continue to decrease in advanced industrialized economies. There are lots of people without the ability to adapt–not everyone has the intelligence, personality or talent for non-labour oriented work–and they will increasingly become part of the working poor.

    That said, Germany could teach many industrialized countries a thing or two about a strong labour market in labour-oriented jobs/industries.

  3. In the not-so-distant future, machines and AI will take over most of the jobs putting most people out of work. There will be AI lawyers, doctors, engineers, models, actors, etc… Under the free-market system, everything would collapse. If people have no money from employment, there is no demand for the goods and services the machines produce, so they would be shut down. People would then revert to a barter economy and evolve a new economy that excludes machines.

    But using demand-side Keynesian economics, however, everything would be kept going. The government would dole out a living wage to people, who would use the machines. The government would collect taxes from the owners and the system would be self-sustaining. (People would probably tend to invest part of their wages in the ownership of the machines as a means to earn wealth.)

    This makes one think about our present economic malaise. Keynes predicted by now we’d have a 15/hr work week. This is because with productivity growth, machines and energy do more of the heavy lifting, meaning people need to do less work.

    The reason this didn’t happen is because of 30 years of free-market reforms. This created conditions where only the rich benefited from wealth creation and productivity growth. Living standards declined for everyone else (people ended up working more for less pay and benefits.)

    So for humanity to move forward we are going to have to discard the self-serving ideology cooked up by corrupt businessmen to hog all the economic resources. If not it will lead to more economic collapse and inevitable political chaos.

    • Keynes and Keynesian economics…..are dead, along with the 20th century.

      Let them go.

      • Sooo.. what’s the replacement? Are we going to trade magical thought waves now?

        • Well, I don’t see any asteroid mining yet, colonies on Mars, cloning body parts, cure for cancer, planetary cleanup, having everybody fed…..

          • None of those invalidate Keynesian economics in any way, nor replace it with anything. The fundamental question of how do we distribute resources and labour are not changed because we cure cancer, or mine asteroids. (Feeding everybody adequately might.. but that’s actually an affirmation of Keynesian economics, not a repudiation of it.)

          • Capitalism….Keynesian or not….is an economic system for the industrial age.

            We aren’t IN the industrial age anymore.

          • I’d argue against that. Although it is changing, as this article points out, we ain’t there yet by a long shot.

            Regardless, that still leaves the question of what’s going to replace it? How will resources and labour be distributed in the “post-capitalist” age, should it ever come about?

          • Oh it’s changed far beyond anything ever reported on here. The media is still chattering about ‘flying cars’ from the 50s.

            The chaos in the world financial system is flashing neon lights at you….that structure has to change to cope with the new reality….away from the factory model….and the ‘manufacturing’ of product.

            The insistence that nothing has changed, or that we only need a few tweaks, or the silly fuss over deficits….is a sign of a dying culture.

            A refusal to cope with change.

          • It seems you missed the second paragraph entirely. So I’ll restate: If Keynesian theory is dead, what has replaced it? How are we distributing resources and labour now? Magical thought waves?

          • Oh I read it….I just discounted it as more Canadian whining and lack of ambition. I noted the yearning for ‘magic’.

            Somehow you expected that one day the skies would light up, and somebody with a deep voice would say THIS IS THE NEW ECONOMIC SYSTEM. And bammo….it would work instantly, perfectly and at 110% efficiency.

            Noop….it’s a process dude, not a ‘manufactured product’ you can buy at Canadian Tire.

            We are figuring it out as we go along….it’s only about 200 years since our last economic changeover, so we should know how this works.

            We have to avoid the Ned Ludd reaction though, so things will go more smoothly.

          • No, there’s no yearning for magic, there’s a mocking of you and your continued proclamation that Keynes is dead despite providing no evidence that the basic tenets of supply and demand have disappeared with the invention of robots.

            Because at the end of the day, that’s what Keynes is, simply a restating of the basic ideas that:

            1. Demand unfulfilled creates opportunity.
            2. Supply unrequired creates waste.

            Knock down one of those two things and you might be able to say Keynes is dead. Until then, you’re just a loony on a street-corner with a The End Is Nigh! sign updated for the internet.

          • If you can’t tell that the world economy is in trouble, and that we’re driving it with 2 flat tires, there’s not much I can do to help you. Everyone else is aware that our economic system…Keynes or not….no longer fits our society.

            And it’s nowt to do with ‘robots’…..we’ve had them for centuries.

            Or supply and demand….what do you think Rome used? Or any other ancient society….?

            You are still talking manufacturing though….product…..and that’s gone. We are now a society of ideas, innovation, knowledge itself.

            Kindly stop telling people they’re crazy when you can read and see this all around you if you stopped being so snotty, and paid attention. It’s online, it’s in books, IN FACT THIS THREAD IS ABOUT JUST SUCH A BOOK…. it’s on TV……

            The ‘end isn’t nigh’ ……we’re just finally getting somewhere and you want to remain in the past. You have BECOME Ned Ludd.

          • So tell me, oh wise one, what food are you going to eat in this miraculous future where product no longer exists. I understand you think your own thoughts are substantial enough to sustain you, but I bet you sneak some fish broth once in a while.

          • ??? You haven’t seen the vertical farms in cities with plants growing hydroponically?

            You are unaware most food grown in NA is now GM?

            You’ve never heard of cloning?

            Why this persistant belief in magic??

          • All of which is.. product.

          • Mmm no, but I admire the attempt. LOL

          • With economics, the more things change the more they stay the same. For example, free market ideology culminated in a global economic meltdown in 2008 and 1929. (Of course, this time around we used Keynesian measures to prevent the Great Depression 2.)

            Today people talk about “structural changes” to the economy. They were saying the same nonsense back in the 1930s.

            The Industrial Revolution was founded on technological advancement. That’s exactly what we have today. Nothing has changed. All the economic fundamentals are the same.

            The only thing that changed was that we abandoned centrist Keynesian economics which created modern living standards in the post-war era. That’s what caused skyrocketing debt and inequality which culminated in another global economic collapse. (Those who don’t learn from economic history are doomed to repeat it.)

          • Thanks for the crackpot take on the issue. .

          • If you ever get your nose out of Keyne’s ass, you’ll discover a whole new world.

          • Keynesian economics created modern living standards which were unprecedented in human history. They created a booming economy from which all segments of society benefited and allowed governments to pay down most of their debts. Over the past 30 years we abandoned what clearly works for what clearly failed before, and guess what? It ended in another massive failure.

            So I back what has been proven to work — and work exceptionally well: for North America in the post-war era and today in northern Europe. Thankfully science took the same approach over the past 500 years or we’d still be stuck in Medieval times…

          • And Jesus walked on water….but that has nothing to do with the new 21st century Knowledge economy.

      • Yes, thanks for that “expert” opinion. You should contact Nobel Laureates like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, not to mention thousands of other respected economists (who, for example, predicted austerity measures in a slump are self-defeating) and inform them that they don’t know what they’re talking about — but thankfully YOU have all the answers.

        • Lots of people get awards, and are celebrated in their day for opinions which are later discovered to not be worth a damn.

          An ‘appeal to authority’ is useless.

          • You are a self-proclaimed authority. Just pointing out how ridiculous you look…

          • No hon, you are a Luddite.

            What I said on here is common knowledge….it’s online, in books and on TV

            Stop attacking other people, and pay attention to the world.

          • Appeal to the masses? Really? That’s your argument now?

            And in 1592 you would have been saying the same thing about the earth being the centre of the universe. Because.. hey.. everybody knew it.

          • LOL it’s not me ‘appealing to the masses’ it’s you being ignorant and trying to excuse that!

  4. I wonder if socialism would work if The State owned all the robots. People could be as lazy or industrious as we wish while robots do all the hard menial work that no one enjoys. If we could get robots to take over mining industry, as one example, and what ever wealth was produced through mining would be redistributed to all Canadians. People might go along with robots taking over world if they did wealth producing work that was redistributed to needy humans.

    I am not too worried about robots taking over work entirely because people still need to create wealth or else they can’t spend any money. Robots owned by a few rich industrialists would not work because the wealth would be too concentrated to top tier and the rich people would quickly become poor. There is more money to be made catering to employed middle classes than there is by focusing on extremely wealthy.

    • No. You cannot leave people idle or without goals and ambitions without creating social problems. After all, native reserves are filled with people that do not need to work if they don’t have to, and the social problems and poverty there are immense.

      You can however, free people to be innovative and creative without the need to do manual labour.

  5. The Luddites had it wrong. Krugman had it wrong. Most of the people on this thread have it wrong.

    The capacity for the economy to absorb innovation is limitless, so it
    doesn’t matter if a few control the robots as long as the population as a
    whole remains educated and educated properly. Quite simply, AI will
    not be able to take over the jobs of the creators and innovators, and
    likely never will. Robots will simply take away the least valuable parts of those jobs.

    Take Agriculture for example. It was only a few generations ago that the majority of the population was involved in producing food. When mechanization came in, the amount of people required to grow food has shrunk to only 1% or 2% of the population. So did the vast majority simply sit idle over the 20th century? No, they found other things to do, and the result has been a period of economic and technological growth and progress unrivaled in history. If automation becomes a reality, the farmer won’t disappear completely, he or she will just be less of a tractor jockey and more of a market researcher, animal or plant breeder, or even a geneticist.

    Now imagine the benefits that we have accrued with less people needed to be involved in agriculture, and agriculture that is less labour-intensive, and apply that to every industry on earth. I’ll say again, the capacity for the economy to absorb innovative and creative people is limitless and the vanishing of the labouring class would be a better thing for everyone.

    • You missed the entire point of the article. I suggest you reread the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs.

      Your point is acknowledged, but what is being said here that as fast as those new opportunities open up, automation and computers will be able to take them over.

      The capacity for the economy to absorb innovation may be limitless.. the ability of people to endlessly and instantly innovate is not.

      • The economy is made of people. People can endlessly innovate, as it’s part of the human condition to seek fulfillment of our needs. Robots will simply make it easier for us to fulfill our needs.

        I can imagine Krugman warning darkly of a “computer revolution where elites will own their own computers, but the ordinary people will never have access to such potent devices”

        Ordinary people will own robots, which will help to fulfill their personal needs, and help them in fulfilling the needs of others. People will become more empowered by this, and not obsoleted by this. Robots will work for Man, and not vice-versa.

        • Endlessly, perhaps. But endlessly and instantly? I dont think so.

          Robots will make it easier for us to fulfill our needs, sure, but what will we do? How will society decide whose needs get fulfilled and whose don’t?

          This is the part that Yanni and folks like you are missing. Yes, in the old times, when someone’s job was outsourced, they could find a new niche that nobody had ever been in before and make great stride that way, employing people along the way.

          What happens though if every niche you can think of is fulfilled almost as soon as you think of it? Any product you can think of making will be automated in its creation for cheaper than you can do it. Any mental service you can think of providing, expert systems will be able to provide it more accurately and cheaper than you can.

          See, what isn’t being discussed is the destruction of our current types of employment, but also destruction of every type of employment *as fast as we think of it* This is the point that you and Yanni seem to be missing. It won’t be a single wave of job destruction, but rather a continual one.

          So the question we need to think about as a society is how do we distribute resources when labour has no value?

          • What you are forgetting is that there is already a huge number of jobs that didn’t exist 5 years ago, or even last year. We don’t have people that are trained to do those jobs.

            So what do you do? You do what everyone does in the information age. You pick up the skills you need to do it as you are hired to do it, relying on self-training to gain the specific skill that you need. In other words you have to be intellectual capacity to be creative enough to take general knowledge and apply it to new specific situations.

            For the labour that doesn’t require that skill, that era is already dead. If you don’t have the brains to do anything that a working piston can do you were already out of a job 20 years ago. If you didn’t know how to do anything outside of your degree or technical training you are probably unemployed right now (or soon will be).

            The only people that will matter in the future are the people who make their own career. Everyone else will be worth as much as a robot (who is getting cheaper by the day) or a labourer outside of the 1st world who will still be suffering the aftermath of socialist and communist ideology.

            If you want to help people, they need education and access to the means of acquiring private property and capital. What is more, you have to do this by other means than a simple redistribution to try and force equality as that has been tried and failed utterly.

            If you do this however (and I’m not saying that government can’t play a role) you will not have a society where everyone will be equal, but everyone will be better off than they are now.

      • People can innovate a lot more than you think.

        Rural communities became ghost towns in a generation, simply because there wasn’t a need for them there. They moved to the city and became everything else when they weren’t growing food.

        The information age killed huge numbers of white collar jobs. But the jobs they stole were tedious and sucked. Did all the number crunchers whose jobs the spreadsheet stole simply go unemployed for years on end? No, they found something else to do. More fulfilling, productive things.

        The idea that human beings will innovate machines faster than we ourselves can innovate is also silly. Machines will always be designed so that human beings can use them to be more productive. What is more, when a technology matures it becomes cheap and user-friendly.

        We don’t have to imagine what a world with a breakneck speed of innovation looks like. We are living in it, and far from killing wealth, digital technology has multiplied it a hundred fold. As the technology has matured it has become ubiquitous, cheap, and democratized. What is the arab spring without the cell phone? What is modern general understanding of the world without wikipedia?

        The future is good, and the Luddites as always, are wrong.

        • So the jobless recovery doesn’t exist then?
          Oh wait..

          You may want to look into expert systems. I think you’ll be surprised by how much “innovation” is actually expert system automation in action.

          • The jobless recovery exists because both state and private interests aren’t making the necessary investments, and because there are still huge barriers to entrepreneurship.

            What I’m saying Thwim, is that in the future everyone is going to have to be an entrepreneur to have a decent standard of living. In some cases (with the most extreme case being on reserves) the government take down barriers they erected. In other cases, those of the laboring classes have to take their own initiatives to improve the lot of their heirs in terms of education and capital. In other cases, private enterprise has to recognize the opportunities that come from lifting people out of poverty (of which there are many).

          • And while we’re dreaming, I’d like a naked Michelle Pfeiffer on a unicorn, please.

            The libertarian wet dream fails, every time, because people are short-sighted by nature. People the like of Henry Ford come along very rarely, and these days are quickly beaten into submission by our computer controlled stock market. Private enterprise doesn’t “have” to do anything, and if it costs them money, likely won’t.

            Even today, most entrepreneurs fail. We’re talking 95% of all businesses opened are gone in the first five years, often taking with them the total resources that person and their family has built up over time. To assume that this ratio will get any better because of automation is folly. However, right now we have the benefit that the 5% which are successful are often able to employ a lot of people. Rapidly advancing automation will change that.

            So saying that we all have to be entrepreneurs is saying that you want 95% of people in poverty.

          • Hah, yeah. That’s what happens when governments encourage entrepreneurship. People end up in poverty. Moron. I’m not a libertarian, I’m someone who merely recognizes that property rights and access to property are the only ways to enduring wealth and security. I don’t care how we get there, but we always will benefit by creating as many capitalists as we can.

            People don’t end up in poverty when businesses fail, they suffer setbacks. That’s what good bankruptcy law gives us, and people can re-enter the workforce or try again. Henry Ford once declared bankruptcy himself. Bankruptcy law isn’t libertarian, but it is great for preserving capitalism. Probably why I’m not a goddamn libertarian, and why you don’t need to be a libertarian to believe in how property, trade and free markets make everyone better off.

            Meanwhile, your favoured ideology, that of “democratic control of fairly shared and distributed resources” is already alive and well on First Nations Reserves. Therefore every drug overdose, every statistic on infant mortality, everyone with chronic health problems from poor housing, almost every problem that exists on reserves is the fault of monsters like you. Those that cherish your ideology so much that you are willing to sacrifice human lives for it. Monster.

            If you give people access to means to build equity and develop private property on reserves, individuals on reserves can begin to develop better lives. That is a fact.

            Oh, and to get back to the topic at hand, what are you going to do about increasing automation Luddite? Are you going to try and stop innovation and technological progress? You think that will lead to greater welfare?

            Or how about the socialist side of you? You think it will lead to better welfare for people to forcibly redistribute wealth generated by the productive to pay people to live without hopes, dreams or ambitions? How do you think that will work out?

            Or you could read the damn article, and note that the only thing the robots can replace human beings doing, is routine, or repetitive physical tasks. NOBODY LIKES DOING THOSE. Robots will not think or solve problems, unless you give them the problems to solve. They are not magic.

            So if we do not need grunt labourers for their arms, or for their repetitive tasks, what do we need them for? We need people to think and to innovate. That’s it. You think somehow that we need people to run drill presses, or to work an air wrench and bolt on tires for 8 hours a day.

            You know what that is? A waste of human capital, a waste of human lives, and the crushing of human happiness. The death of labour is good.

          • Huh? I’ve never said I believed in “democratic control of fairly shared and distributed resources”. Never even hinted at it. There are certain areas where I believe public control is a good, and a lot of areas where I believe that private control should be mitigated and redistributed, but that’s got nothing to do with being democratic or fair. It has to do with stability and sustainability.

            And what the hell is this about reserves? I’ve never advocated one thing or another for them at all. I pointed out the contradiction you made claiming that lack of private property has never worked… except when it has. And you call me a monster for that?

            Then there’s this bit about me trying to stop increasing automation, yet I’ve never even hinted about that either, because not only is it foolish, it’s undesirable. My question has simply been how are we going to adapt when this happens?

            So with that plus this 1% thing.. the most charitable case
            here is that you’re simply mistaking me for somebody else, rather than some sort of early onset dementia that has you reading words that aren’t there. Unfortunately, then we get to where you tell me to read the article.

            Kindly point out to me where it says that the only jobs they’ll do are the routine, repetitive, physical tasks:

            I mean, I see this point, “Smart machines may make higher GDP possible, but also reduce the demand for people — including smart people,” which directly contradicts yours, but that’s because I read the article that’s actually there. What did you read?

            So at this point, the argument toward you suffering some sort of strange dementia gets stronger.

            Get well soon.

          • In the actual article, the first link with the MIT professors said with the analysis of what robots are actually doing. Namely, replacing jobs that don’t need you to think. That is where it says that they will do routine or repetitive tasks. Robots cannot think. Period.

            Paul Krugman talks about robots replacing smart people, but he just pulled that out of his ass by “imagining a sort of fantasy technology scenario”, not based on anything with real data. In fact, the essay he linked to was talking about how key technologies lead to spurts of innovation, not that innovation itself was a culprit in a lack of economic development. So he completely missed the point as far as I can see, and ignores what happened in both the industrial and digital revolutions in terms of labour saving and automation.

            As for the reserves, you were in a thread where I was arguing with people that were claiming that lack of property ownership on reserves was fine, and that the status quo could be made to work.

            My point was that the only people that had a complete and utter religious commitment to extinguish their freedom and material ambition could make socialism work. You then took that point and tried to claim that monasticism proved the status quo of Indian Reserves could somehow be made to work. The status quo that is the main economic reason for all of the problems on reserves, and leads to poverty and death.

            So yes, I think you are a monster for standing with the supporters who want to deny First Nations people access to security, equity, and property rights.

            As for the 1%, yes you said it. You can retract it if you wish.

          • Oh, and your numbers are wrong Thwim, because you simply paraphrase talking points rather than bothering to learn things about business. Why would you though, since you think the 1% are guilty of theft, as you once said to me.

            Business failure statistics show that about 96 percent of small
            businesses (1–99 employees) that enter the marketplace survive for one full year, 85 percent survive for three years and 70 percent survive for five years (Key Small Business Statistics – January 2009, Industry Canada).

            So not so bad after all. Now do business generally last forever? No generally not. Very few of the Fortune 500 companies that were around in 1970 are around today. However, despite the fact that business rise then fail for a variety of reasons, doesn’t mean they don’t make money while they are around. It certainly doesn’t mean that they do not generate wealth, contribute to innovation or lead to further opportunities after the business is gone.

            So perhaps you shouldn’t base your knowledge of business and entrepreneurship after old song lyrics about how hobos once built railroads. Hobos living in poverty exist because of mental illness, drug use and alcoholism, not because of failed business ventures.

          • My mistake. I was looking at small businesses online.
            Interestingly, Industry Canada says 70% survive for five years, but the small business association says that number is still only 56%.

            As for thinking the 1% are guilty of theft, you’re either mistaking me for somebody else or there’s a hell of a lot of context around that statement that you’re ignoring, because I don’t believe that.

            Either way, even taking your numbers.. that means 30% are gone within 5 years. And when that’s the *only* opportunities we have, as you say, that’s a 30% poverty rate. About 1 in 3 people will be unable to afford to live. That’s simply not sustainable.

          • Compare those numbers with how long your average tenure of employment is, and it does quite well. How many jobs do think, on average, last longer than 5 years? What are the economic losses of being on unemployment while you are transitioning between jobs?

            After all, most people don’t keep their businesses open when they are struggling until they are down to their last dime. Or at least, they don’t do that more than once. Generally people leave the market when their marginal revenue does not meet their marginal cost, and is likely to continue to do so in the long run. Then they liquidate their assets, shutter their business and declare bankruptcy if they need to. In any event, they aren’t necessarily driven into poverty.

            And yes, you did say that about the 1%.

  6. A chasis and frame composed of steel, aluminum, magnesium and plastics. Presently incapable of functioning as a surge-capacity pandemic bed for treatment.

    And resemble, look like, butterfly, bird, maple-leaf.

  7. Robot workers should pay payroll taxes.