By James H. Nolt
Robots taking over is a staple of science fiction, including in Isaac Asimov’s classic novel, I Robot, and the films based on it. The “Marketplace” program on National Public Radio has been running a series in recent weeks that explores a more prosaic aspect of this quintessential fear: What jobs are least prone to be automated out of existence? There is another aspect of this problem that is less often considered: What use will the robot owners have for the rest of us? Perhaps it is not the takeover by robots we need to fear, but by their owners.
Economics considers three factors of production: land, labor, and capital. In economic terms, the “robot takeover” is the growing capacity of machines to replace labor. The owners of machines (capital) and land would still have income, but what about the proletarians who own only their own labor? What is their future in a robot world?
A couple years ago, best-selling author Martin Ford argued in The Rise of the Robots that the displacement of human work by machines would require something like a guaranteed income for those left without work. Yet what force will compel this? Peter Frase’s Four Futures: Life After Capitalism also considers the relationship between a guarenteed income and potential environmental degradation and property relations. Frase understands, perhaps better than Ford, that owners will not necessarily concede income to non-productive people. The mass of people may not be secure unless they own a share of the means of production themselves.
Economics textbooks have long told a happy story that though manual laborers, farmers, and factory hands are becoming obsolete, labor remains useful in services and in what former labor secretary Robert Reich called “symbolic manipulation,” referring to various jobs involving advanced mathematical and linguistic skills. However, the rapid development of artificial intelligence, symbolized by IBM’s “Watson,” will accelerate the replacement of such jobs as well. Software and machines are now so inexpensive to replicate that once a single breakthrough occurs, it can spread very quickly, displacing workers by the millions in a short time.
Picture: William Tung from USA (SWCA – From Droid Builder’s Club Room ) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons