The Robots Are Coming!

Gregory Clark worries that robots will take all our low skill jobs, and that it will mean more taxes for the favored few:

No, the economic problems of the future will not be about growth but about something more nettlesome: the ineluctable increase in the number of people with no marketable skills, and technology's role not as the antidote to social conflict, but as its instigator.

The battle will be over how to get the economy's winners to pay for an increasingly costly poor.

This is a prospect to strike terror into the heart of the dumbest libertarian. Patrick Appel makes the error of reading Ryan Avent and Will Wilkinson. Alas, pooling their ignorance does not manage to produce a wisdom of crowds effect.

Ryan Avent brings his powerful analytical mind to bear:

The ranks of the unemployable will only grow over time, [Clark] says, potentially leading to a world in which the bulk of the population sits around idle, supported by the few skilled workers who are still smart enough that machines can’t duplicate their work.

But this is silly. Why? Machine and robotic resources aren’t free; they’re resource constrained just like everything else is resource constrained. We have the tecnological know-how to replace millions of human workers with machines right now, but we don’t because the expense of building, programming, operating, and maintaining the machines is too great. It’s not worth it. As demand for human labour falls, the price of human labour will also fall making the hiring of humans more attractive. Meanwhile, as demand for robot labour increases, the price of robot labour will also increase (since the stuff robots are made of is scarce), making the use of a robot for any given task less attractive. There will then be some market equilibrium which will, in all likelihood, involve plenty of employment for low skilled workers.

The notion that a little more immizeration will make unskilled workers competitive with robots shows an utter disregard for the history of the last half century. Robots are made mostly of cheap materials: steel, plastic and silicon. The price of computing has fallen a billion-fold in a bit more than a generation, and it's dragging a whole world of machines with it, especially robots.

It is difficult and expensive to build and program a skillful robot, but one only needs to do it once (or a few times). IBM spent many millions building a chess robot that could beat the world champion, but now fifty bucks can buy you a much more powerful one that runs on your laptop.

Nor is the difficulty of building and programming robots necessarily formidable. An associate and I recently taught a bunch of high school students to build and program simple robots that could find their way through a maze. Lessons, building, and test took well under three hours. Once the necessary scaffolding is in place, programming is not so hard at all.

He does have one point:

It seems probable to me that machines will begin replacing doctors before machines begin replacing, say, streetsweepers.

An exaggeration, to be sure, but he is right in thinking that the low skilled are not the only targets. It's little noticed, but airline pilots have already been largely displaced in many of ther functions. Replacing train drivers with machines that won't get distracted by texting their girlfriends is overdue.

Fortunately, we have Will Wilkinson for comic relief. He tries to get a running start with a little willful distortion:

Gregory Clark’s basic assumption would seem to be that some people are born idiots.

...Which seems incontestable as long as Will Wilkinson is around.

Is that unfair? Well, sure. In fact some of what Wilkinson says is pretty evident and would make sense if he could just get his libertarian lenses cleaned enough to stop distorting Clark. He thinks, for example, that the industrial revolution didn't wind up impoverishing workers, and that a similar result might obtain in the future (well, maybe, but how?) He also thinks that high skill individuals might face the same fate and that all the profits would go to the slave owners capitalists who owned the bots.

I have a lot of doubt about a scenario that has robots smarter than us content to be our slaves (or the slaves of a few rich people).

The robots are coming (are already here) and they will profoundly distort economic relationships. Will humans survive in any capacity? TBD.


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