Stop worrying and learn to love robots

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Even as unemployment falls throughout the United States, many people fear that their jobs will soon vanish. An October 2017 poll from Pew Research, for example, found that seven out of 10 Americans were worried about a future where robots do more jobs. Broader measures of financial insecurity also remain high for a country with low unemployment and a booming stock market.

As voice-recognition technology that mimics human communication becomes ubiquitous on phones, in homes and in cars, modern life increasingly resembles robot-heavy science fiction. As such, impressions suggest the “robots” are coming. But impressions are wrong: There’s no evidence that robots will take over the job market anytime soon or are even having a huge influence on today’s work. And, contrary to popular sentiment, that’s not a good thing.

For all the talk about robots, no concrete definition of what constitutes a “robot” exists. Dictionary definitions of “robot” instead talk about computer-controlled machines that can carry complex tasks without extensive human oversight. But, by this definition, many modern cars and even microwave ovens are “robots.” The devices that dominate current imagination are more of the same: automated, limited-purpose devices like self-driving trucks and highly automated factory equipment. Nobody has either the ability, or a practicable plan, to build truly human-like robots in the model of Star Wars’ C-3PO.

The “robots” we’re likely to see in our lifetimes, in other words, are really just the latest type of productivity-enhancing machinery. The same way that water power, steam power and the internal combustion engine powered successive industrial revolutions in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the internet brought an increased standard of living in the 1990s and early 2000s, the latest inventions — robots — offer the promise of a new increase in productivity per-worker.

This technology-fueled worker-productivity increase is important because widely shared increases in the standard of living require increases in per-worker productivity. If each worker cannot produce more over time, then gains for one person or group must come at the expense of someone else. And this doesn’t make anybody happy.

Productivity can rise, however, when people either work more hours or work smarter. The first approach has helped raise economic growth recently as unemployment has declined. But right now, Americans already work more hours per week than their peers in similarly rich countries and are about half as likely as those in Europe to be unemployed. Even if individuals did increase their work weeks further, in any case, an aging population and lengthening retirement periods mean that fewer people will be in the labor force. In the long run, it will be impossible to maintain current social benefit systems, much less the overall standard of living, without making each worker more productive. And this requires more efficiency-improving devices — in other words, more robots.

And the big problem facing the economy isn’t too many robots, in other words, but too few. Consider, in 2016, even as unemployment fell and plenty of Star Trek-esque technology made its way into the mainstream, per-worker productivity actually fell in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity growth between 2007 and 2016 was the slowest of any 10-year period since the end of World War II. The throughout history, it has been very difficult to raise living standards without increasing productivity.

New machinery — which we will likely call “robots” — will, of course, displace some workers, just as people making horse-drawn buggies, writing computer code in Fortran and running video-rental stores have lost their jobs at various points in time. But just as these people were supplanted by autoworkers, Python programmers and people running video-streaming services, new jobs will replace those lost. This doesn’t mean, of course, that every individual will be better off. But such “creative destruction” is the best way to increase living standards. And the next phase of big economic growth is going to require more robots.


Image by PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek

 

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