The rhetorical flourish that opens this article from Businessweek
says it all, really: ‘The robots are coming. Resistance is futile.’ Obviously meant tongue-in-cheek in what is a very well-reasoned article, it is perhaps not so far-fetched after all . Here might be the one threat that robots do pose to human existence that may not be hyperbolised. Robots will take over our jobs, leaving humans unemployed, and starving, and largely redundant.
The counter-argument, of course, has always been that we will still need to human labour to build the robots, to programme the robots, to fix the robots. But we know of course that this is not the case. The robots are increasingly capable of building themselves; and anyway, not everyone who loses their manufacturing jobs to a robot will be able to make the side-step into programming (assuming the robots let us keep control of that aspect of production). Our economy simply isn’t set up that way. Just like not everyone in the north of England who lost jobs after the closure of the mines were able to re-train as stock analysts our investment bankers. Or as mobile app designers.
However, here at Dreaming Robots we do not see ourselves charging at the windmills of change. And fortunately, the Businessweek article happily reminds us that we humans are useful, that there are still some things that we simply do better than our robot colleagues. For example, apparently, we are really good at picking things up. Good on us!
The article, however, makes a very good point. It is not a case, perhaps, that the rise of the robot will cause mass human unemployment and poverty throughout the global economy (and remember, whatever else, robots are still expensive to make, and human life, and at least in certain parts other world, is still tragically cheap), though perhaps it is a case that
the role robots play in our economy and our lives begins to provoke fundamental questions about the nature of work. We have organized our economic system around the idea that income is derived from labor. But what happens when labor is not just transferred from one group of people to another (outsourcing) but to machines?
Just as the Industrial Revolution radically forced us to re-organise our modes of production, and so reconceive, ideologically, certain fundamental notions of what it is and means to be human, so too perhaps this post-industrial revolution (do we really want to call it that?) may well require a similar reconceptualisation of fundamental ideas about labour, capital, our mode of production and so therefore ultimately (because I’m an old Marxist, really) the notion of human nature itself.
Philosophers are already out there working on these very questions, incidentally, and I hope to introduce you to some in the coming months. But governments, too, need to prepare for this new economy, as the article makes clear.
For the U.S., that will require innovation and entrepreneurship, but also policies that foster those things—such as an immigration policy that attracts and retains high-skilled newcomers who can help build job-creating industries, and a corporate tax rate that encourages investment in domestic opportunities and not offshore tax-haven chicanery. Critically, more of the wealth created by productivity gains needs to be channeled into a stronger system of education and training.
Finally, though, and again this is something that the article very correctly makes clear, there is a whole lot wrong with our economy right now, and these measures would not be wasted, even if the robot threat is revealed one day to be overblown. If you’re looking for problems in our economy, we’re told, robots ain’t it.