The Economics of Our Robot Future
On Sunday morning of SkepchickCON I was one of the panelists on the faux award winning Cities of the Future panel along with Ryan Consell, Desiree Schell and Shawn Otto. We discussed a whole bunch of issues and problems that may come up in a future society such as global warming, resource constraints, and increased urbanization, but by far my favorite part was when we discussed robots. Right now we’re living in the infancy of robotics. Robots are already creating many of our manufactured goods, not to mention cleaning our carpets, driving our cars, playing jeopardy and even playing their own version of the World Cup. Even so, outside of certain industries, robots remain mostly in supportive roles. They are something humans use in order to make us better at our jobs rather than to replace our jobs. However, in the future as robots get smarter and more independent they may take over most of our work for us, freeing us humans up to do useful things all day like read, think, make art or more likely just sit around playing video games or watching tv.
However, as someone steeped in economics, when I think about this robot future it doesn’t seem quite as wonderful as it may appear. In fact, a future where robots are doing almost everything for us creates a lot of problems in determining how we divvy up our societal resources.
We can’t look into the far future, but we can look to the past to make predictions about what our future may look like. If we go back to the Industrial Revolution, with the advent of steam power many human jobs were replaced by much more efficient machinery. Although this may have caused job loss in the short term, leading to movements such as the Luddites who protested the replacement of their jobs by machines, the greater efficiency lead the economy to grow and entirely new industries popped up with new jobs that only humans could do. It’s possible that a future robotics revolution could take this same path. Even as most of the jobs we know about today get replaced by robots, entirely new industries that we can barely even imagine may open up. People living a century ago never could have imagined the field of computing and all the fields that fast and efficient computer technology has created. My own job as a data scientist barely existed even a decade ago. As technology advances some fields become obsolete while others are uncovered. Who knows what types of jobs we may be doing alongside robots a hundred or even a thousand years from now.
But wait a second, what about the future where we get to sit around playing Assassin’s Creed IV all day while our robots do our work for us? If robots taking over our current jobs just mean we’re going to move into new types of jobs, we’ll never have the ideal future where we don’t need to work any jobs at all. The thing is, just because in the past new fields have always opened up as others became obsolete doesn’t mean this will always be the pattern in the future, and in fact, we don’t necessarily want it to be. Isn’t a future where we can do whatever we are passionate about while our robots do everything we dislike something we should be striving for? Although it does sound great in many ways, there are many things that would actually cause this future to be a particularly bleak one.
In almost every society on Earth, we have a capitalist system in which individuals do work and are paid for that work with currency that we use to buy things we need to survive and be happy. Even in countries that have a communist or socialist government, society is still mostly run by a capitalist system in which people work for pay. In a future in which robots are doing most of our jobs for us, where would we get the money we need to buy the books we plan to sit and read all day let alone the food and shelter we need to survive? In a world without jobs, how could we buy all the things that the robots are making for us? How could we take advantage of our myriad of free time when we have no way to gain resources or money? Sure, the people who own the robots will be getting all the benefits gained from the robots (since robots don’t generally demand a salary), but who would they be selling their robot-made goods and services to when no one in our society has any money to buy from them? And without anyone buying their products, they wouldn’t be making enough to keep up with maintaining their robots and would likely go out of business. In other words, a robot future could actually lead to economic collapse.
The problem is that a society without jobs is a society that cannot sustain a capitalist economy. If we want to live in a future where robots are doing all our work for us so we can sit around and enjoy free time to follow our passions, we would need to come up with a new economic system that allows people to have resources without having jobs. For example, maybe rather than have all the robots owned by some giant monopoly, the government would divvy up the robots with everyone getting a certain number of robots. That way my robot can go to my job each day and do all my data scientist work for me while I continue to cash the paychecks. However, as one of the audience members in the Cities of the Future panel pointed out to me, this sounds an awful lot like communism and that never seemed to work out for anyone.
He’s right in that a communist society really would not work in today’s world where our jobs are done by people. If everyone is assigned a job and everyone gets the same amount of resources no matter how well you do at that job, then there is no longer any incentive to do your job particularly well. If you are wondering how bad things can get under a communist government, just ask the 36 million Chinese who starved to death in a 3-year period under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. However, these problems are due to issues with people. Robots are not humans and do not have the same considerations. Robots could work and work all day and night as long as they are being maintained and given energy to consume. They will do their jobs at a top-notch level with no paycheck and no complaints and no need for health insurance or even good working conditions. Nowadays we complain when we feel the companies we work for treat their employees like robots, but robots never complain about being treated like robots (unless you program them to complain, of course). A future society that chooses an economic system closer to socialism than capitalism may not do so bad in a robot world. There are obviously other things to consider, such as who decides who gets what and the consolidation of power. Future generations will perhaps come up with some sort of hybrid system that is able to democratically divvy up resources gained from our robots.
If we do end up with this idealized robot future, I don’t know what type of economic system we would have but I know for certain that we wouldn’t be able to sustain the capitalist system we have today. Our future society will need to come up with a new way to decide who gets what so we could take full advantage of all the time we have to do new and exciting things while robots do all our boring work.
Featured image of a robot at the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago by Jamie Bernstein