Will robots take all the jobs?

In a fascinating installment of the IEEE Techwise podcast [MP3], Rice University Computational Engineering prof Moshe Vardi discusses the possibility that robots will obviate human labor faster than new jobs are created, leaving us with no jobs. This needn't be a bad thing -- it might mean finally realizing the age of leisure we've been promised since the first glimmers of the industrial revolution -- but if market economies can't figure out how to equitably distribute the fruits of automation, it might end up with an even bigger, even more hopeless underclass.

I think the issue of machine intelligence and jobs deserves some serious discussion. I don’t know that we will reach a definite conclusion, and it’s not clear how easy it will be to agree on desired actions, but I think the topic is important enough that it deserves discussion. And right now I would say it’s mostly being discussed by economists, by labor economists. It has to also be discussed by the people that produce the technology, because one of the questions we could ask is, you know, there is a concept that, for example, that people have started talking about, which is that we are using, we are creating technology that has no friction, okay? Creating many things that are just too easy to do.

Many of these ideas came up in this Boing Boing post from January, which also touches on Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy, a book that Vardi mentions in his interview.

The Job Market of 2045 (via /.)


  1. “…promised since the first gimmers of the industrial revolution…”


    Though a “gimmer” sounds like the sort of person who satisfies the “gimmees”.  At least in context of your sentence.  

  2. They might take all the manufacturing jobs, but we still don’t really know what thinking is, and we aren’t any closer to making a machine that can think than we were 30 years ago.   Having enormous amounts of processor power makes scientific research much easier, and lets us do lots of things we couldn’t do without it, but actually replacing scientists, or a significant number of other creative professions, would require a change in kind, not degree, and you can’t really predict when, or if, something like that will occur.

    1.  Get back to me when a majority of the work done in the world is creative work.  As it stands, most people are employed in manufacturing, resource extraction, and in some countries menial service jobs – if automation removes the majority of those jobs, where will those people go?

      1. Easy. We will just sell financial services to each other. 
        I think I’m the only person here who thinks this future is coming much faster than most people suspect. Just one innovation – self driving vehicles – could eliminate all kinds of driving jobs and make the roads much safer and more efficient. 

        Even thinking jobs are in danger. RadioLab did a great episode about theorem writing robots (http://www.radiolab.org/2010/apr/05/limits-of-science/). 

      2. So cleaners inter alia must be forbidden to see their work as creative? They are forever to remain drudges.

      3. if automation removes the majority of those jobs, where will those people go?

  3. Like most headlines that ask a question, the answer is no, we won’t have robotic servants doing all of our work for us in just 30 years.  I do agree that it will be harder for people to find menial low skill jobs as time goes on, simply because that’s what automation is good for, but machines still (and for the foreseeable future) suck at being creative and solving problems. 

    1. I suspect that custodial and food service jobs require more flexibility than can be provided by computers in any sort of near-term time frame.  In fact, I think it would be easier to automate a lot of white collar work than a lot of blue collar work.

      This is based at least partially on my experiences with the…creative locations in which my fellow students would vomit back in college.

      1. I saw a prototype of a pretty much fully automated McDonalds several years ago.  You punched in what you wanted on the computer and the machines in the back put it together for you and slid it out on the counter.  I don’t know if it is still around (I’m guessing the machinery was a lot more expensive than a few highschool minimum wage earners), but it is an example of where automation might take away jobs that people previously thought were safe. 

        Janitors are a good example of a job that won’t go away entirely though, for the reasons you mentioned.  It’s too hard to program robots to deal with every possible mess people might make, although a staff of 3 or 4 might get reduced down to 1 if you have roombas like robots cleaning the floors and whatnot.

        1.  If it’s like so much else that’s been outsourced, they’ll build a robot that sort-of handles 95% of the situations, and then you’ll have to call a contact number were they’ll send a human being within a day for the unexpected.

          It won’t work all that well, but well enough that the organization will save a ton of money and the employees will just just sweep “that one corner that the robot always misses” themselves, lose a day or two of work when there’s actually a serious spill (and do overtime to catch up), and put up with a workspace that’s just that much dirtier all the time.

  4. I’m not sure that, once mature killbots become available, the adverse effects of large hopeless underclasses on property values will continue to be tolerated…

  5. Obligatory:

    “The wars of the future will not be fought on the battlefield or at sea. They will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall mountain. In either case, most of the actual fighting will be done by small robots. And as you go forth today remember always your duty is clear: To build and maintain those robots.”

    – The Secret War of Lisa Simpson

    1. I was more hoping the wars of the future would be fought by people in very large robots.  A la Robot Jox style.

      I mean what could go wrong…

    1. The forces that have created and shaped our market economies have absolutely no desire to equitably distribute the fruits of automation. Quite the opposite, in fact.

      From their point of view, these market economies are doing exactly what they’re intended to.


      1. The greatest subsidy undercutting the free market are laws against theft & murder, I always say.

        I should note that this is a joke, but also an honest comment that the nature of power structures privilege the haves.

    2. A centrally planned economy that is directed by humans has never succeeded and I don’t think that will change. But one directed by machines could. I think we just need to sit back and wait for the rise of intelligent machines.

        1.  Huh?  Isn’t profit the difference between what people are willing to pay and what is costs? 

          In the perfect market, new competition arrives until such point that supply meets demand at the production cost.  Of course, perfect markets are as common as perfect vacuums.

          1. As a thought experiment, I’m very eager to consider a profitless society. Not a moneyless one, but a profitless one. I don’t…really understand how an inherited ownership class exists? Seems pretty much…the same as feudalism? & I can’t help but see the success of non-profits as proof of concept. People complain about taxes but they don’t complain that their labor is undervalued for an ownerships class to make money off their work, & I don’t get that. Maybe all industry should be co-op?

          2.  > Inaccurate valuation of goods & services.

            Implies you’re paying more than they’re worth to you, rather than more than the cost of manufacturing. 

            If something is worth $10 to me, paying $5 is not an inaccuracy even if it cost the seller a dime to manufacture/market/etc.

          3. I would say it is, that is irrational valuation. Also I might go on to speculate– in this post-scarcity or at least post-capitalism thought experiment– that the person offering it for $10 is doing so unethically, if it cost them nothing to produce/market/etc. (Though I would have a hard time imagining what product that would BE; I think labour & opportunity cost would need to be factored in).

          4. I would say it is, that is irrational valuation.

            Okay, that’s really weird.  Are you really saying that there’s a single rational valuation for a good?  There’s no trade if there aren’t different valuations!  We’d have all starved to death 10,000 years ago.

            Come on, trading cards on a elementary school playground prove that individual valuation is not irrational.  Do you truly believe that in order for anything to be sold, at least one participant has to be irrational?  And by implication, that no trade/sale can be “win-win”?

            Since you’re rational, why do you ever buy anything?

          5. No, I’m not saying that; the value of trade is in scarcity. Also, wait, trading cards on an elementary school playground is…a super irrational marketplace.

    3.  Well, quite. We probably need to stop making economists, as a first step. I do believe there’s a kinda relevant Shakespeare quote. Strangling is involved…

  6. Marshall Brain, creator of HowStuffWorks, has a novella about robot labor getting its start in the fast food industry: http://marshallbrain.com/manna1.htm.

  7. Robots will be saved for difficult or important jobs. Leaving the truly menial to humans. Sorting through centuries of garbage to find the first beatles recordings or sorting the desert sands by grain size. They will find things for us to do.

  8. This is something I have thought a lot about lately….

    Humans imagined a future where robots did all the work and we wouldn’t have to work nearly as many hours per week. Also, since everything was automated, things would be much less expensive

    Seems like the opposite has happened. Just my opinion

    1. Historically speaking, things are pretty good right now. Compare your life to the life of a worker from the Victorian era. There’s certainly room for improvement and for every two steps forward, there seems to be one step backwards, but things are definitely going in the right direction.

      1.  Depends on the scale.  Expectations for working hours and commitment to one’s job seem more stringent now than they did in the 80’s and 90’s to me.  Yes, if you zoom out and look at 100 year chunks we’re doing better than early 20th century factory workers but even in the 50’s US culture seemed to prioritize leisure higher than we do today.

        Just my impression, though, I wasn’t there to say for sure.

    2. Stuff is cheaper.  Go back in time to 1980 and buy all the crap needed to reproduce the function of my cell phone.  You will need a couple of super computers, satellite phone, GPS unit, etc, and it will take up a room and suck more than my phone.

      Or, try and get from point A to point B, where you don’t know the area round point A and B.  You can do it, but it is going to cost you some quality time with a map or someone who knows the area, rather than 10 seconds on Google.  Ditto for most of the easily accessible information of the world.  It exists, but it will take a trip to the library (and sometimes not a library near you) to get it.

      If they made a car with 1980s standards, it would be vastly cheaper without all of those safety components, low weight body components, and MPG boosting technology (and illegal to sell).

      Stuff is cheaper and better.  It isn’t evenly distributed for sure.  Computer stuff is multiple orders of magnitude cheaper, where as food is nearly unchanged, and larger industrial parts with fewer electronic components are only marginally cheaper.  The real problem is that our wants and needs kept pace with technology.  If you were content to live a 1980’s life style, you could have all of your electronics for free out of the trash, and those electronics would be better than their 1980’s equivalent   

      The problem is that you want to live like it is 2013, and that costs pretty much the same as living like it is 1980 in 1980.

  9. Look, I’m having trouble finding a replacement for my Cherry 2000 gynoid as is. . .

  10. “The wars of the future will not be fought on the battlefield or at sea. They will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall mountain. In either case, most of the actual fighting will be done by small robots. And as you go forth today remember always your duty is clear: To build and maintain those robots.” – The Simpsons

  11. “… prof Moshe Vardi discusses the possibility that robots will obviate human labor faster than new jobs are created, leaving us with no jobs. ”

    This is great.  Then we’ll all be able to sit around the pool, think lofty thoughts,  contemplate the Forms, write poetry and music, sip rare essences from crystal goblets, … 

  12. If replicators existed, and were freely available, and small, we’d have no need of land, labour, capital or enterprise.

    I think we’re already in the dawn period of a new economic reality.  It might bounce around, but manufacturing is coming closer to home, less money is needed to do it, less expertise (insider knowledge on ‘how to’), less basically everything.

    3DP machines already optimise internal structures and materials usage for us, to degrees of complexity a team of engineers couldn’t manage.  Design and manufacturing are becoming easier.

    Will there be sociological stratification?  Until that perfect replicator exists and can be conjured at the thought of ‘give me one’, yes.  The same types of people with masses of capital will have masses of resource.

    What then will happen?  If we all have everything we need?  Ideological warfare?  A fat, lazy humanity blogging all day?  Will we, in the absence of need, simply stop thinking?

    Ouch, brain.

    1.  Well, compared to 200 years ago, each of us in the middle class *do* live better than kings in an absolute scale.

      However, we humans are creatures of *relative* status, and it doesn’t matter that to me if I’m 10 times wealthier if my neighbor is 100 times wealthier.

      However, before I get all righteous, I try to remind myself that that the inequality within most countries is *nothing* compared to international inequalities.  Thus the relative happiness of the world would be much higher if I and all Westerners had their income capped at $10K.  However, I’m a greedy SOB and not quite prepared to fight to see my income reduced to a global average of $7K.  I’ll keep the fight against inequality confined to my own country for the moment.

      1. Well, compared to 200 years ago, each of us in the middle class *do* live better than kings in an absolute scale.

        I’d happily trade in electricity for footmen.

        1.  You, my friend, are the exception.  They’ll pry my electricity out of my cold, dead…  Um, nevermind.

  13. Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, is about this issue.  It’s staged in an industrial city in upstate New York where the industry has been taken over by automation.  In his story though, resources are shared with the no longer working folks, but they are so fed up with the boredom and pointlessness of a life without labor that they rise up and destroy their own society.  Interesting story.

    Personally I feel that we certainly already see this problem happening in the US.  Manufacturing jobs have not only been lost to overseas competition. Automation has already taken a big toll on our workforce and the best social safety net we have for the communities of out-of-work manual labor is having them claim disability.  Not a good system if you ask me.  We need a real social safety net in this country, and one that specifically provides a decent education to anyone that wants it.

  14. Yes, the the age of leisure we’ve long been promised will surely come about, because the 0.01% who own all the robots will almost certainly decide to share selflessly with their fellow humans. That’s how it works now, isn’t it?

    1. But the very interesting thing is no longer will the narcissistic hoarders have financial mechanisms to control the distribution of “wealth” such as it may come to be defined.  Will they dare step over the line and actively prevent proliferation of access to the free ‘n’ easy provisions and shelter?

      I’m kind of guessing yes.

  15. I think SkyNet is a more likely outcome from all the robots.  I mean if right now people are capable of hacking into a power station control grid via the internet…then what’s going to happen when it’s all run by robots.  

    1.  Finite resources require efficient usage.  What are we good for?  Fertiliser, that’s what.

  16. Thanks for initiating a very good conversation around the episode, Cory. Fyi, I also had a Techwise Conversation with Andrew McAfee, co-author of Race Against the Machine, about a month before the book came out:

  17. The idea that “taking our jobs” is the main consequence of automating almost every human job seems incredibly shortsighted. It would mean, first, that we could produce every good and service available now, without any labor input. It would all be, not free, but incredibly cheap to produce. Need for money to meet every need the market currently satisfies would collapse.
    Unfortunately our leaders *are* short sighted, and utterly unable to take the kinds of actions to push us towards anything but dystopia. Remember how bad cities got when we automated farming and 90% of humanity lost their jobs? And that was back when the new jobs – manufacturing – didn’t require decades of education and raising the general level of societal intelligence and willingness to help and support one another as industries rise and fall several times in a single human lifetime. 

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