Robots are taking your job and mine: deal with it

Two striking articles on the roboticization of the workforce: first is Kevin Kelly in Wired, with "Better Than Human", an optimistic and practical-minded look at the way that robots change the jobs landscape, with some advice on how to survive the automation of your gig:

Now let’s consider quadrant C, the new jobs created by automation—including the jobs that we did not know we wanted done. This is the greatest genius of the robot takeover: With the assistance of robots and computerized intelligence, we already can do things we never imagined doing 150 years ago. We can remove a tumor in our gut through our navel, make a talking-picture video of our wedding, drive a cart on Mars, print a pattern on fabric that a friend mailed to us through the air. We are doing, and are sometimes paid for doing, a million new activities that would have dazzled and shocked the farmers of 1850. These new accomplishments are not merely chores that were difficult before. Rather they are dreams that are created chiefly by the capabilities of the machines that can do them. They are jobs the machines make up.

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.

To reiterate, the bulk of new tasks created by automation are tasks only other automation can handle. Now that we have search engines like Google, we set the servant upon a thousand new errands. Google, can you tell me where my phone is? Google, can you match the people suffering depression with the doctors selling pills? Google, can you predict when the next viral epidemic will erupt? Technology is indiscriminate this way, piling up possibilities and options for both humans and machines.

It is a safe bet that the highest-earning professions in the year 2050 will depend on automations and machines that have not been invented yet. That is, we can’t see these jobs from here, because we can’t yet see the machines and technologies that will make them possible. Robots create jobs that we did not even know we wanted done.

Kelly is one of the great technological optimists of our era, and always makes a good case for the net benefit of technology. I really admire What Technology Wants, his 2010 book, not least because it sets out a program for deciding how to integrate technology with your life, and, more importantly, how and why to refuse to adopt some technologies (Kelly frames as being a "technology gourmet," someone who knows what she wants from technology and seeks it out; versus being a "technology glutton," who pigs out on whatever technology is on offer).

Now, contrast that robot-human co-existence manifesto with Why Workers Are Losing the War Against Machines, an excerpt from Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy , a new book by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee that's being serialized in The Atlantic:

Skill-biased technical change has also been important in the past. For most of the 19th century, about 25% of all agriculture labor threshed grain. That job was automated in the 1860s. The 20th century was marked by an accelerating mechanization not only of agriculture but also of factory work. Echoing the first Nobel Prize winner in economics, Jan Tinbergen, Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz described the resulting SBTC as a "race between education and technology." Ever-greater investments in education, dramatically increasing the average educational level of the American workforce, helped prevent inequality from soaring as technology automated more and more unskilled work. While education is certainly not synonymous with skill, it is one of the most easily measurable correlates of skill, so this pattern suggests that demand for upskilling has increased faster than its supply.

Studies by this book's co-author Erik Brynjolfsson along with Timothy Bresnahan, Lorin Hitt, and Shinku Yang found that a key aspect of SBTC was not just the skills of those working with computers, but more importantly the broader changes in work organization that were made possible by information technology. The most productive firms reinvented and reorganized decision rights, incentives systems, information flows, hiring systems, and other aspects of organizational capital to get the most from the technology. This, in turn, required radically different and, generally, higher skill levels in the workforce. It was not so much that those directly working with computers had to be more skilled, but rather that whole production processes, and even industries, were reengineered to exploit powerful new information technologies. What's more, each dollar of computer hardware was often the catalyst for more than $10 of investment in complementary organizational capital. The intangible organizational assets are typically much harder to change, but they are also much more important to the success of the organization.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee are more economist-jargon heavy than Kelly, and more downbeat, and they're also pointing out something obvious, which is that there are losers in technological revolution. See, e.g., Bruce Sterling's end of the year roundup:

Come 2013, I think it's time for people in and around the "music industry" to stop blaming themselves, and thinking their situation is somehow special. Whatever happens to musicians will eventually happen to everybody.

Nobody was or is really much better at "digital transition" than musicians were and are. If you're superb at digitalization, that's no great solution either. You just have to auto-disrupt and re-invent yourself over and over and over again.

It's pretty awful to be a musician and have no possibility of health insurance (as Jaron Lanier keeps pointing out), but you could have been a Nokia engineer. You'd have been blindsided even harder and faster, and you wouldn't even have had the girls and the weed.

Which is to say that even though technology makes us more "productive" and puts more goods into more peoples' hands, that the transition isn't bloodless, it isn't fair, and it isn't always very nice.

But here's the thing that neither of these articles -- or even Bruce's acid observations -- touches on: once technology creates abundance, what possibilities exist for distributing the fruits of that abundance such that the benefits are more evenly felt? We've been talking about an increase in productivity producing an increase in leisure for a long time, but instead, the "winner take all" world of Brynjolfsson and McAfee often seems to produce a "winner" class that works itself into an early grave by running 100-hour work weeks at astounding payscales, and a much larger "loser" class that works itself into an early grave by working 100-hour weeks in shitty, marginal, grey-economy jobs, trying to stitch together something like an income.

In America, anyone who proposes an increase in overall quality of life through public schools, health programs, libraries, or even Internet access, is immediately branded a socialist and dismissed out of hand.

On the other hand, the Internet-age's sweetest dividend is the creative possibilities: the chance to sit in your little grass shack or organic farm or urban crackerbox and use the tubes to carry on debate; to contribute to software and Wikipedia; to crowdsource capital for your creativity; to find makers who have solved 90% of the problem that's nagging you and who will help you solve the remaining ten percent; to access a library of human creativity and knowledge without parallel; to have your art and creativity accessible to all, and to find the mutants who're wired the same as you and jam with them.

That world of de-marketized, non-market, non-commodity and/or gift economy living is something that seems tantalizingly within our grasp today, and it feels like automation holds the key to so much of it. But is it just the latest version of the dream of a leisure society? Or can we Craigslist and Kickstarter and Freecycle and Etsy and Thingiverse and Open Source Hardware and Wikipedia and Creative Commons our way to a world where the means of information is owned by no one and yet tended by all?

(via O'Reilly Radar)


  1. SETI alien hunters ‘should look for artificial intelligence’


    “If you look at the timescales for the development of technology, at some point you invent radio and then you go on the air and then we have a chance of finding you,” he told BBC News.

    “But within a few hundred years of inventing radio – at least if we’re any example – you invent thinking machines; we’re probably going to do that in this century.

    “So you’ve invented your successors and only for a few hundred years are you… a ‘biological’ intelligence.”

    The Last Question by Isaac Asimov

    1. I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention to radio antennas, but the big million-watt ones that transmit easy-to-decode analog television signals are being rendered obsolete by phones that play video. Those phones are fed signals from a million 100 watt transmitters that send out an encrypted data stream that’s barely distinguishable from white noise.

      The result is that in the course of 50 years, we have seen the rise and fall of the Earth’s transmission of detectable-from-space radio signals. Expect other civilizations to follow the same path.

      Conclusion: SETI detection of distant civilizations has a small time window of opportunity.

      1. Since this article is about robots, my point in posting that was not primarily about SETI.  It was to point out that we have invented our successors in robots and AI which are evolving at a rate far faster that are we and which may quickly evolve to levels of capability far beyond that which can pass through a human birth canal.  The Asimov short story is about a self-replicating computer that grows far beyond planetary size and survives much longer than the biological civilization that created it.  It would be a spoiler to say more.

        And, yes, I know quite a bit about electronic communications technology as that was my profession before my retirement.

        1. It was to point out that we have invented our successors in robots and AI which are evolving at a rate far faster that are we and which may quickly evolve to levels of capability far beyond that which can pass through a human birth canal.

          There is at this point in history no reason to believe robots are our successors.  The term “artificial intelligence” is essentially meaningless except in the loosest sense — computers can perform some interesting tasks very well but what human beings think of as “intelligence” or even merely “competence” is still far, far beyond the understanding of any human engineers.  Robots and AI are not “evolving” except again in the loosest sense of the word.  Since they cannot self-replicate they cannot evolve in any true sense.

          A thought experiment: If humans went extinct tomorrow would robots and AI continue to get better and faster?  Of course not.  This simple thought experiment demonstrates it’s not the robots or AI that are living or succeeding or evolving — so far that’s been us.

          1.  “If humans went extinct tomorrow would robots and AI continue to get better and faster?  Of course not.”

            Not now, of course.  We have invented our _eventual_ successors for the reasons I mentioned earlier – computers are improving _vastly_ faster than we are evolving.  Quantum computing will accelerate that further by many orders of magnitude.

            If you desire to argue further, email this guy:


            Or these guys:


            or any of the large number of other scholars who believe that artificial intelligence will in a blink of biological evolutionary time outshine biological forms.

          2. Or you can go argue with the thousands of brilliant people who disagree with them.  Or you can stop making fallacious arguments like arguments from authority.

            We can’t even define intelligence yet.  We don’t know what consciousness is.  There is simply no justification for these sorts of extrapolations. 

            And this is the opinion of a materialist atheist sci fi nerd who thinks real artificial intelligence and mind uploading are possible in principle.  I just think we’re farther off than you Kurzweilians are willing to admit.

            BTW, do you see how you’re loading your language? I pointed out that machines aren’t really evolving so you switch to “improving” — but it’s still “the machines are improving”! No, the machines are not improving, WE are improving the machines. That little change in wording makes a huge difference to your argument.

          3. “We can’t even define intelligence yet.”

            I’ll go with this:


            “We don’t know what consciousness is.”

            I’ll go with this:


            “I just think we’re farther off than you Kurzweilians are willing to admit.”

            I have no idea how far off we are. Not within my lifetime for certain and I’d make a wild guess that it will be over 100 years from now. I just believe that, based upon the rapid level of improvements in their computing power and the prospects of quantum computing, computers will surpass us in intelligence and at some point WE will enable an ability in them to self-replicate and self-improve for OUR own benefit.

            The human brain is a massively parallel computer of a volume fixed by the size of the human birth canal (unless we come up with “test tube babies” that can be grown outside the womb and know how to enhance their brain size and capability) and I have no problem imagining that a quantum computer with atomic-scale components would far surpass it in raw computational capability.  The critical factor in the resulting intelligence of that hardware is the software driving it, of course.  I’d guess that that software is far more difficult to foresee than the extremely powerful hardware it would be running on.

          4.  “you Kurzweilians”

            Forgot to mention that I didn’t even know I’m apparently a “Kurzweilian.”  I looked him up and will have to read his books on AI.  From the blurbs and reviews of them, I’ll say that I’m _definitely not_ as optimistic about the time-frames involved as he is.

      2. Yeah, well it’s not 100W at 4AM or when 3 new towers go up or a mobile unit or morning comes in, so there is still handshaking etc. to see; as if Van Allen Noises and distance weren’t bigger issues. Well-collimated radio at parsec distance and suns used as Peavey (guitar) amps are their own things. You are not trying to root the alien iPhone 203r over baseband 8 years out, though that would be a fine secret thing for SETI to do.

        Also…so you’re listening to All The Radio, huh? You’re pretty together!

    2. I’d urge everyone to read the book “The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future”

      It is all about the impact of robots/automation on jobs and the economy. It makes the basic point that machines do not drive consumer spending. As more jobs are eliminated, could a smaller and smaller percentage of the population sustain consumer spending and the economy?  Would we want that? 

      Whether you agree with the book’s conclusions or not, it raises many important and fascinating questions. Questions that are are really not being addressed elsewhere. Check out the reviews on Amazon (over 100 with many strongly opposed views).

      1. So there will be a painfull job shift into computer programming, engineering and scientific researching. Repetitive, mind numbing and down right humiliating jobs will dissapear and human mind will do what it’s meant to; think. And guess what, we will move into moneyless society where scaricity and ignorance will become another past dark age in human history.
        Unless this greed bullshit causes extinction of our species.

  2. At the rate we are destroying our environment, robots may be the only ones to survive.  They will be our legacy.

    1.  I’m just trying to put together the shambling long-haired Jeff Bridges Dalek you’ve brought to mind, as he mutters (with fretted soprano chorus) “We are the superior environmental compliance enclave; we survive! You will obey; hey, hey pick up after your dog… MULCHINATE MULCHINATE Aquatic nitrogen below 0.8 …per million.” [Whistling solo]

  3. Apropos of this, one of the things that really bugs me about modern American political discourse is the endless focus on jobs, jobs, jobs, as if the Calvinists had taken over both political parties and declared that work is noble in and of itself. The left of a hundred years ago recognized that labor was a necessary evil and that, given a sufficient surplus, the problem should really be regarded as one of distribution. But today even Dennis Kucinich is beating the drum for more jobs.

    1. And it’s not just “jobs, jobs,jobs”.

      It’s brain-deadening, assembly-line “jobs, jobs, jobs”. 

      As if the River Rouge Model T line circa 1920 was the pinnacle of human aspiration.

      1.  I think the cry for mass-employing factory-ish jobs is merely conceding to reality. There will always be a far larger share of the population for whom such jobs are the best they can qualify for, given their economic, geographic and/or educational situation. That’s simply the nature of things in the US. The idea that everyone will be high-paid code nerds or globe-trotting authors is sheer fantasy.

        Factory work may not be the pinnacle of human aspiration, but I’ve yet to see anything else proposed that could provide work for as many people. There really isn’t much of a market for tiny house builders.

        1.  Yeah, except those factory-ish jobs are the ones being automated out of existence. Assuming we don’t somehow transition to a “gift” economy, the question is whether the average worker will have the skills and innate abilities to perform the new jobs that are created by automation. And based on how stupid the average person seems to be, I think the answer is that most will not be able to hold a job in the future. We already see this among the unskilled workers in the current economy, where the only thing keeping the official unemployment rate down is that so many are either in the black market economy and not “actively seeking employment”, or are in prison for participating in the black market organizations.

    2. i think it’s because jobs=money=the meaning of life in america. money is the means to self-sufficiency, if you have money you can afford a house and a family. and because the poor are reviled in america and no one want’s to end up like that.

  4. I have to say I’m in the Brynjolfsson camp myself.  When I was a kid, we imagined a future where machines did all the work, and the rest of us were artists and poets.

    What we hadn’t considered is that the owners of the robots would keep all the profits for themselves, and use the redundant workers to drive down wages for everybody else.

      1.  …or even more apropos – the Butlerian Jihad. Maybe AIs and robots above a certain level of functionality will be effectively banned like chemical weapons.

  5. Robots aren’t “taking” anything. It’s the greed of the owners, bean counters and board members who find investing in robots to be more cost effective than paying human workers. Sure, robots can do many things better and more efficiently than people but one thing they don’t do is usurp jobs. That blame falls entirely on other humans, for whom a workforce is more liability than asset. One thing they will find out though, is that robots not only don’t take jobs, they don’t buy the crap they manufacture.

    1. They have optimized the systems to minimize “cost of goods sold”. That equation doesn’t have “the greater good for all” in it.

      1.  The trouble is, even in self-interest they should be optimizing the value obtained from the market. If we hit 30% unemployment due to automation, who will buy all the shinies that the robots are producing so cheaply?

        The shit will REALLY hit the fan when the jobs in China and India start getting automated out of existence. Right now, companies are using the growth of the new middle class in those countries to fuel their own financial growth. But once those economies plateau, the only source of growth will be up (to space).

      1. If everyone but the factory owners are out of work with no money, who are they going to sell to in the first place? A market of 1 million people world-wide?

        Actually, this brings up a good point. A logical consequence of the factory owners trying to protect their wealth from the unemployed masses would be attempts at genocide.

    2. Well, as part of the 1% (I earn more than 41K/year, which puts me in the global 1%), I’ll admit that my greed has resulted in me buying a lot of machinery for my own home like dishwashers, laundry machines, microwave ovens, etc, all of which have usurped jobs that used to be performed by a domestic staff.

      I too have fallen into the mindset of buying machinery in place of hiring workers and giving little thought for those I displace. I can only hope that most of the good readers here are more responsible people than I and understand their responsibility to hire others instead of substituting capital.

      Mea culpa

  6. You guys seen Star Trek? 

    Notice how almost no one has to work?

    The first step to getting there is robots taking ALL the jobs.

    1. So you’re saying that in the future we will all wear stretch polyester and spend our time having terribly choreographed fake fights out by Vasquez Rocks. Awesome!

    2. Someone has surmised that everyone in Star Wars is illiterate.  They never read anything, the robots do.

    3. Ironically in Star Trek there are very few multipurose robots.  Hell there are few if any outside of the industrial complexes. Sure there was Data/Lore, but those were not massed produced models.

      Frankly most sci-fi either focuses solely on the uprising and integration of robots, like in I Robot or Alien(s), or glazes over the fact.

      Star one has to work…I’m pretty sure the unspoken code in Star Trek is similar to Star Ship Troopers.  Service in the Federation guarentees that the neccessities are provided.  There are plenty of things that point out that life is not all free/fair in the Federation.

    4. Except that in Star Trek the work is not done by robots. There is only one android, Data, and I don’t recall ever seeing a robot. I guess that Roddenberry  and his successors weren’t fans of Asimov.

  7. I work at the intersection of old and new industry.  I repair manufacturing robot lasers.  Industry needs them for a hundred tasks that would be impossible otherwise.  Like the strong, tiny continuous weld seams that allow a modern car to have great crash strength with a fraction of the weight.  There’s enormous capital investment in these industrial process.  The tech that’s going into laser-generated EUV light for lithography on the new generation of computer chips is astounding.  And fantastically costly.  Most of these processes eliminate a lot of jobs.  That’s not a primary goal, but a consequence of the fact that humans and robots don’t mix well in a factory.

    1. Until that is automated as well. 

      No correct that. It will be bad to be a software developer, since YOU will end up paying taxes through the nose, for people without jobs.

      1. I’ve never understood why I, as a middle-class coder, am supposed to be terrified of social-support taxes.

        Right now, I’m living large. This time two years ago, I was unemployed. I want there to be a system such that I and the people I love can survive and be happy during periods when they can’t find work. Am I willing to go without a few luxury items to ensure that that system exists? Of course I am! What’s wrong with you that you aren’t? Stop pretending that grasping selfishness is a virtue!

    1. Actually, the Luddites thought of it.  Today we don’t bother to learn their story; we just use their name as a swear word.

    2. Vonnegut wrote about it at about the same time, in 1952, in Player Piano. Spoiler alert: a bunch of quasi-religious uprisings take place, everyone smashes the machines, but within about a day everyone is excited to fix the machines just because they can’t help but love to.

      Maybe I’m over-thinking it, but it seems like us tool-users have always been afraid that our tools will overpower us, but just can’t help ourselves, from Prometheus and friends onwards.

      1. “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

        -J Robert Oppenheimer

  8. The typical argument for automation is that lost jobs will be replaced by new, better jobs: instead of factory workers, you have work for robot designers who create the robots working in the factory. While that makes sense, you have to wonder if it scales. Can this process continue indefinitely?

    If we try to push this idea to its limit, we can see that it doesn’t scale. Let’s imagine a future where you could buy a virtual slave for less than the price of a car. This virtual slave is happy to do anything you ask of it, for free, and will do so just as well as an average person. In this future, nobody would hire anyone because it would just be a pointless expense.

    We’re not there yet, of course, but we’re getting closer and fewer jobs are needed. Usage of robots have dropped because China added a gigantic pool of cheap labor to the world’s work force, but as Chinese salaries climb we’re seeing a return to more automation.

    What’s more, I think rich countries are getting close to the end of scarcity. I’m just part of the middle class, but I can honestly say I’m not lacking anything essential. The very rich don’t spend most of their money, they invest it to get even more. When we reach the point where the average production per person is larger than what the average person has a need for — and rich countries are almost there imho — then suddenly increasing productivity doesn’t really make people meaningfully richer, it just reduces the number of people who have to work to maintain that life style.

    This is all a very good thing however. If we can all live comfortably while working less and less, isn’t that something great? One problem is that our society is built around the idea that everybody must be working to deserve comfort. The idea of making people work less is contrary to our culture. Another problem is that our system doesn’t promote sharing wealth among the population. For a few decades, increases in productivity have made CEOs very rich while middle and lower class salaries have remained stagnant. Instead of everybody living in comfort, the majority of people must keep working hard while a minority absorbs all of the wealth that’s created.

    Avoiding these pitfalls require a shift in culture, which is always extremely hard to do. Succeeding, however, could result in huge improvement in the quality of life of nearly everybody.

  9. DEALING WITH IT is not dealing with these goddamn robots. Au contraire. Dealing with it is making sure everyone has money to live a decent life. 

    I SEE NO ALTERNATIVE than some form of income redistribution.

  10. “Your job and mine” might not be completely accurate. Cory at least should be safe for the foreseeable future.
    And they’re not technically taking existing jobs. What I see happening in manufacturing is that existing production processes are replaced with more efficient ones that have less human labor. Nobody’s replacing a human at a welder with a robot, they’re incorporating the manual task into a new automated process that’s more efficient and has fewer people. And that’s close to a one-to-one tradeoff of labor for automation, the simplest case.
    I was in an auto assembly plant on 12/27 during plant shutdown to do machine maintenance. Despite the plant being ’empty’ several lines were running with just techs making engineering prototypes. Dozens of robots cutting, welding, etc. and just a few humans to push the buttons and look things over.There has to be some sort of self-limiting mechanism in this but I haven’t seen any analysis on how stagnant wages and manufacturing unemployment affects demand for products. Everyone says unemployed auto workers don’t buy cars but so far no actual data.

  11. Frankly I’ve been hearing this since the 80’s.

    The reality of where people think the world should end up is amazingly similar no matter what you believe now.  Everyone would like to see us get to the point where robots do 90%+ of the menial labor jobs.  The problem is the time getting from where we are now to where that is a reality.  Those years are going to be sad and depressing to say the least.

    The more I think about life and the world the more I realize it should be run a lot like a video game, sort of RTSish.  In the beginning or even right now we are working towards that self sufficient/surplus mode of life.  Robotics is just another tool we have at our disposal to get there.  In most games you don’t start out with much, so you really have to pick and choose where you need those resources to be allocated.  Frankly I think we do a poor job of that in real life, but not everyone is willing to sacrifice some niceties to get to a better future (that they probably won’t be around to experience).  As time rolls on your technology increases, skills increase, production, ect..  Eventually you get to that tipping point, where each year or generation has it easier than the last thanks to all the hard work put in by the last one.  In the end you usually end up with a surplus of money/resources and hopefully everyone is happy.

    Besides right now not a whole lot has changed in the world of robotics.  There isn’t going to be a new production drone rolling off an assembly line this year.  A “robot” probably isn’t going to take your job.  Your job might be automated out of existence, but that’s a lot different than saying a robot stole it from you.  I’m more afraid of the coming zombie apocalypse than I am of the robot uprising.  (minus SkyNet, cause everything is falling in place for that to happen.)

    1. Pretty sure “robot uprising” is just cheeky shorthand for SkyNet/The Matrix/universal automation of industry by networked computers.  That is, I think everyone understands that people lose their jobs because of automated processes, not Robby the Robot.

  12. Wow, where to start with this one.

    “In America, anyone who proposes an increase in overall quality of life through public schools, health programs, libraries, or even Internet access, is immediately branded a socialist and dismissed out of hand.”

    Actually, anyone who proposes that we do away with our archaic, obsolete, poorly performing, and increasingly authoritarian government schools, crony capitalist/monopolist health industry racketeers, or government-enforced monopolized Internet access is immediately branded an anarchist and dismissed out of hand.  How do we know this? Because all of the things you say are dismissed out of hand are actually the law of the land, virtually everywhere. What we have now is the failed remnants of numerous attempts to do exactly what you propose – increase overall quality of life through these governmental structures.

    Those arguing against trying to (again) reform our broken government schools, arguing for the replacement of our preposterous crony-subsidy worst-of-both-worlds healthcare system, and our lackluster Internet services, are merely acknowledging the obvious: our societal attempts to control these things via the government are abject failures. Such systems are fundamentally incapable of lasting reform or improvement in literally any way. We even have the future laid out in front of us: the Khan Academy; sophisticated, inexpensive, and ever-less-intrusive healthcare services like laser eye surgery; highly competitive, inexpensive high-speed Internet service. Yet we are so hidebound, so stubborn, so myopically focused on preserving our existing systems that we’re missing out on all the new stuff.

    Pag: Of course the process scales.  We’ve gone from a population of less than a billion to a population of seven billion in a little over two hundred years. How would that be possible if technological progress and productivity growth didn’t scale? Why aren’t we living in abject poverty with seven people fighting for each job? Because during that time, technological progress and economic growth have had little problem “creating” the necessary jobs, even while constantly making billions of other jobs obsolete. This process, this creative destruction, goes on all the time because the economy is devoted to servicing human needs and wants, which are always in a constant state of change and always expanding. As new goods and services become possible, people move into those jobs and abandon old, obsolete jobs. Virtually everyone involved in this discussion does a job that DIDN’T EXIST sixty years ago.

    Think of all the wonderful things we have today that cost a third or less in terms of work hours than they did just sixty years ago; then, think of all the wonderful things we have today that simply didn’t exist sixty years ago. Hell, sixty years ago we couldn’t even have had this very conversation!

    It is utterly amazing to me that, despite the overwhelming evidence literally at the tips of their fingers as they are writing, people STILL peddle this economic nonsense that robots and automation are somehow “stealing” people’s jobs and making us worse off. It isn’t true, has never been true, and will never be true. We are all living, breathing proof of that.

    1.  ‘…It isn’t true, has never been true, and will never be true.’.
      It has been and continues to be true for *some people* (often many people), even if the overall result is improved living standards. People did die of privation in England as a result of agricultural mechanization (check the history of the Swing Riots). Likewise many manufacturing workers are worse off than they were twenty years ago, the male median wage in the US has fallen in the past forty years, and so on. And it is possible to advocate redistribution without supporting any of the institutions that you list. Noted pinko Milton Friedman suggested a negative income tax to solve the problem, which in my opinion would work nicely.

    2. Pollyanna Whittier’s got nothing on you.

      Why aren’t we living in abject poverty with seven people fighting for each job?

      You mean like half the world lives?

    3. Are libertarians capable of talking about anything besides their hobby horse?  Cripes, man, doesn’t reacting with this same wall of text to every opinion that isn’t yours ever get boring?

      BTW, when you say what you believe that’s called offering an opinion.  When you provide some evidence and reasoning that suggest that what you believe is actually true that’s called an argument.  Try the latter.

  13. Jobs, ownership, money … all concepts that need to be revisited every few centuries.
    To tell the truth, no one is working now. Not like they did in 1750, for example. All those hard agricultural jobs were automated first.

    Will our wonderful technology survive peak oil?  We have miniaturized computing, but not everything is going to be miniaturizable..

  14. What a depressing series of articles! 

    Reading them both indicates that individuals will have an enormous amount of personal power due to automation for a cost that they could afford today, but at that time all of that automation will be too expensive and used only by a few superstar designers and artists to make all of the products anyone will be able to afford.

    What is detroit or new orleans if not an inexpensive prison for the poor? Can time say anything but I told you so? If I could tell you, I would let you know

  15. Belgian philosopher Philippe Van Parijs’s idea of a Universal Basic Income seems better than Milton Friedman’s Negative Income Tax, but I’m still sorting through all kinds of this stuff. Clearly: more people need to start hearing of these ways to think. What is work and money for? So some can be winners and others losers? So Lloyd Blankfein gets to be a Very High Status Ape?

  16. a world where the means of information is owned by no one and yet tended by all

    whether we get that or not is going to be largely irrelevant if the means of production – of food, of water, of energy – is inaccessible or inadequate for large numbers of people.

    information may enrich our lives hugely, but we are living systems first, and that means we need to eat, drink and be (sort of) safe. the current trends are not looking too good as far as providing access to such basic needs.

  17. On the other hand, the Internet-age’s sweetest dividend is the creative possibilities: the chance to sit in your little grass shack or organic farm or urban crackerbox and use the tubes to carry on debate; to contribute to software and Wikipedia; to crowdsource capital for your creativity; to find makers who have solved 90% of the problem that’s nagging you and who will help you solve the remaining ten percent

    Though I agree with some of what’s implied here, this is a top-down fantasy of life at the lower end of the income spectrum.

    Not only do those of us at the bottom have to deal with the corporate shuffle, we also have to deal with those who think every little creative idea thought up in someone’s basement, “wants to be free”ly crowdsourced to someone else who is in the process of climbing the economic ladder.

    For some abject reason the problem of collective income creation, itself, is part of the mythical 10% here. You can’t save an organized group if you don’t believe in “organization” in the first place.

  18. Optimists think that as old jobs get eaten by automation (do not advise your nephew to become a truck driver) new jobs will emerge. While hoping this is correct, if it is not, we face a cultural transition that we are completely unprepared for – how do we earn dignity and respect without work?

  19. This post seems to conflate automation machinery with robotics and artificial intelligence.  I haven’t lost an argument with a computer lately, or seen a robot that can fix itself.

    The Kurzweil-flavor “singularity” is boring– a simple extrapolation that demeans the wonder that is human intelligence and the natural systems that created and sustain it.

    But a real singularity of sorts is upon us:  the real connectedness of all human beings through communication technologies.  Humans have been cybernetic beings since machines became integral parts of our lives– even simple tools and clothing make humans more capable creatures.  Now we have so much technology to reach out and be more human than ever, and frankly I’m sick of hearing about how powerful the robots are becoming: it’s about how powerful we’re making OURSELVES!

    Technology moves in all directions– sometimes backwards– in generally small steps, and people will adjust and find things to do.  But when people talk of the “singularity,” it’s like saying suddenly we’ll jump 50 years ahead, be surrounded by smart robots, and have no idea what to do.

    Robots are just machines.  How incredibly arrogant of humans to think that we could design machines smarter than us, or to think that we can even completely comprehend what “human intelligence” really is!

  20. “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.”

    Not sure what’s going on in Shanghai, but I for one prioritize indoor plumbing over a tiny slab that allows me to talk to faraway friends. 

  21. lol do I hear people here wanting human rights from a profit focused system?
    Please, if you want socialism, vote for it. Otherwise don’t complain about the system you love only when it stings. Capitalism = profit. The charity part only happens when it’s for profit only, think about it. If it’s not for money, then it’s for social standing that only brings more profit.

    1. Please, if you want socialism, vote for it. Otherwise don’t complain about the system you love only when it stings.

      You seem to be making a few unjustified assumptions here.

      I mean, technically the industrial economy is the result of direct government intervention in the market (AKA “socialism”) rather than this mythical “capitalism” stuff I hear so much about.  Walmart, UPS, and FedEx can all thank Ike Eisenhower’s interstate system for their success; Apple, Google, Amazon, etc. can thank Bell Labs and their cushy government-sponsored monopoly that allowed the basic research into electronics and computing in the mid-20th century — and the federal government’s moves to turn the packet-switching technology developed through DoD grants over to private industry, another huge direct US government subsidy of tech business.

      But ignoring the lack of historical basis for the libertarian view of the world, you’re assuming that those who want socialism aren’t voting for it.  Why assume this?  They usually are voting for it — or would if voting for socialism was an option in the USA.  Somewhere around half of USians like the idea of a single-payer healthcare system; those people voted for a president who didn’t even consider single-payer to be an option during the process of reforming the healthcare system.  (Incidentally, health care is a great example of a system that is not optimized when it is profit-driven as demonstrated by the superior performance of socialized healthcare systems.)

      Finally, you’re assuming people complaining about the system love it.  Maybe some people don’t think a boring, meaningless, and alienating existence is adequately repayed by little plastic pieces of junk that let you play “Angry Birds” on your morning commute.

  22. I watched my family lose work because of technology and looked in vain for anyone discussing this issue about 8 years ago.  I was teaching Intro. to CS for non-majors and had to teach a section on “social issues”.  The only social issues of computing mentioned in the book (and discussed by computer scientists)  were information privacy and the ethics of hacking.  No mention of technological unemployment. I searched the Web and the only person I found almost nothing on it (except for socialist websites and Marshall Brain). All those years I watched this happen, pro-technology people were saying, “New jobs will be created.”  They were wrong.

    From watching this happen, I have concluded that our government is not interested in taking action to protect jobs.  In a government that prioritized  citizens over corporate profits, there would have been, I don’t know, task forces and debates.  But it was radio silence on this issue.  You don’t have to have socialism to make policies that protect people’s livelihoods.  There are government subsidies for all sorts of things (including sending jobs overseas, I believe).

    I am very grateful to see this issue being discussed now.  It’s not abstract for me because I saw what happened to my family and also because I am now a lecturer.  Online instruction poses a real threat to teachers’ jobs.  It’s time to have a serious discussion about technology vs jobs. 

  23. The author is correct that robots are taking over the jobs of common laborers. That is why only 5% of the jobs in the US are in manufacturing, yet we produce more tangible products than any other country. That is why the average age of farmers in the US is 60 years. 60 years!

    What will happen to the 95% of have-nots by 2050. Yes, by 2050 the highly educated 5% will control the robots, and the robots will reproduce themselves.  And by 2050, many of those robots will run a 24/365 surveillance and protect the 5% of haves from the 95% of starving and desperate have-nots. If the 95% of starving and desperate have-nots are not working, then what will they live on? And who will consume the products produced by the robots that are built and controlled by the 5% of highly educated haves?

    Will the haves eliminate the monetary system altogether? Perhaps wealth will be measured on how many and what kind of robots a person designs, builds,  owns, and controls. Will the haves program their robots to enslave the 95% of have-nots, to minimally feed, clothe, and house them, and then to gradually exterminate them like rats? Life can never again be as it was, where the have-nots eked out a meagre subsistence while supporting themselves and the haves. By 2050 there will be no more meaningful jobs for the have-nots, because robots will have taken over all those jobs, robots that require no food, no clothing, and minimal shelter.

    Without a doubt, the ever-burgeoning population of have-nots must consume ever-increasing amounts of precious food, clothing, and shelter, whereas the ever-burgeoning population of robots can get along nicely without them. By 2050, robots will be fully capable of reproducing, caring for themselves, and supplying all their and their masters’ needs. Thus it seems more and more likely that the haves would feel less and less compelled to prolong the existence and suffering of the have-nots.

    So the phrase “Engineering will get you through times of no Music better than Music will get you through times of no Engineering” will take on more and more significance in the coming decades. One must become highly educated and skilled to reduce the risk of falling by the wayside and becoming trampled under the stampede of robots.

    So, “It is a safer bet that the surviving professions in the year 2050 will control the automations and machines that will insure their very survival.”

  24. I’m going to be pedantic and say that Brynjolfsson & McAfee’s winners are not going to work themselves to an early grave, but instead live a very long time. They will also report higher satisfaction than the unemployed, or part-time workers.

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