The robots are coming, bringing hope of a better future.

Summary:  Slowly the outlines of the 3rd industrial revolution becomes clear, and with it the only path to a better future for humanity. Today we have an excerpt from a brilliant article about this by British journalist and novelist John Lanchester.

That means the role of humans as the most important factor of production is bound to diminish in the same way that the role of horses in agricultural production was first diminished and then eliminated by the introduction of tractors. The general theoretical proposition that the worker who loses his job in one industry will necessarily be able to find employment, possibly after appropriate retraining, in some other industry is as invalid as would be the assertion that horses who lost their jobs in transportation and agriculture could necessarily have been put to another economically productive use.

— Wassily Leontief ( Nobel laureate in economics), The Future Impact of Automation on Workers (1986).

A woman in the robot office

Excerpt from “The Robots Are Coming

John Lanchester
London Review of Books, 5 March 2015

Lanchester reviews these books:

We are, Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue, on the verge of a new industrial revolution, one which will have as much impact on the world as the first one. Whole categories of work will be transformed by the power of computing, and in particular by the impact of robots.

… We are used to the thought that the kind of work done by assembly-line workers in a factory will be automated. We’re less used to the thought that the kinds of work done by clerks, or lawyers, or financial analysts, or journalists, or librarians, can be automated. The fact is that it can be, and will be, and in many cases already is. Tyler Cowen’s Average Is Over points towards a future in which all the rewards are likely to be captured by people at the top of the income distribution, especially those who become most adept at working with smart machines.

Robot Journalist

… The reassuring lesson from history {is that} although it might be possible in theory for some new invention to come along and make a category of work disappear so quickly that there is no alternative work to replace it, in practice that hasn’t happened. Innovation takes away some jobs and replaces them with others. … So, by extension and analogy, maybe we don’t need to fear technological unemployment this time either.

That isn’t the view forcefully put by Brynjolfsson, McAfee and Cowen. … Imagine an economy in which the 0.1% own the machines, the rest of the 1% manage their operation, and the 99% either do the remaining scraps of unautomatable work, or are unemployed. That is the world implied by developments in productivity and automation.

… What if that’s where we are, and – to use the shorthand phrase relished by economists and futurists – ‘robots are going to eat all the jobs’?

A thorough, considered and disconcerting study of that possibility was undertaken by two Oxford economists, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, in a 2013 paper “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?” {They conclude that in} the next two decades 47% of employment is ‘in the high-risk category’, meaning it is ‘potentially automatable’. … {that} must be right on the edge of what a society can bear, not so much because of that 47%, as because of the timeframe.

Robot waitress

… It’s also worth noting what isn’t being said about this robotified future. The scenario we’re given – the one being made to feel inevitable – is of a hyper-capitalist dystopia. There’s capital, doing better than ever; the robots, doing all the work; and the great mass of humanity, doing not much

… There is a possible alternative, however, in which ownership and control of robots is disconnected from capital in its current form. The robots liberate most of humanity from work, and everybody benefits from the proceeds: we don’t have to work in factories or go down mines or clean toilets or drive long-distance lorries, but we can choreograph and weave and garden and tell stories and invent things and set about creating a new universe of wants.

This would be the world of unlimited wants described by economics, but with a distinction between the wants satisfied by humans and the work done by our machines. It seems to me that the only way that world would work is with alternative forms of ownership. … It says a lot about the current moment that as we stand facing a future which might resemble either a hyper-capitalist dystopia or a socialist paradise, the second option doesn’t get a mention.

———————–  Read the full article————————

John Lanchester

About the Author

John Lancaster is a British novelist and journalist. See his Wikipedia entry, his articles at LRB and his books:

For More Information

See all articles about the 3rd Industrial Revolution. Of special note are the posts about solutions: Education, the glittering but fake solution and Steps to make the tech revolution boost America, not just the 1%.

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9 thoughts on “The robots are coming, bringing hope of a better future.”

  1. “We are used to the thought that the kind of work done by assembly-line workers in a factory will be automated. We’re less used to the thought that the kinds of work done by clerks, or lawyers, or financial analysts, or journalists, or librarians, can be automated.”

    A lot of physical manipulation work is actually pretty complex from a machine point of view, while a lot of paper pushing is relatively easy to automate with a software running on a PC. That said I still remember from years ago that it was expected that one third of all US military ground vehicles would be entirely robotic by 2015, so I would be cautious about timeline prediction.

    1. Marcello,

      “In 2000, this was the main factor that led Senator John Warner (R.-Va.), then chairman of the Armed Services Committee, to mandate in the Pentagon’s budget that by 2010, one-third of all the aircraft designed to attack behind enemy lines be unmanned, and that by 2015, one-third of all ground combat vehicles be driverless.”

      That was a rational act by Senator Warner. While the directive was absurd, he was probably paid quite well by a defense contractor for this action. However, actions of politicians are not reliable guides to the future of technology.

  2. Most humans will react badly to the news that they are superfluous. Retraining them for busy work (Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, TaskRabbit) must be a moral imperative. The nature of such trifling work should be to provide elites with amusement, or else the work has no value.

    1. Anthony,

      “Retraining them for busy work”

      I assume you’re kidding. I hope you’re kidding. After all, there’s no need for that. The 1% will employ us as servants. Rent Pride and Prejudice to see one possible future for America. In a world of robots, human servants will be the greatest indication of wealth and power.

      [caption id="attachment_52110" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Why does Mr Darcy keep staring at me? Why does Mr Darcy keep staring at me?[/caption]

  3. Unstated in these book reviews looms the elephant in the room: capitalism as we know it must end, else we face a dystopia of unspeakable proportions.
    Conventional capitalism, in which capital has the social power and owns & controls the machines used for production, means a nightmare. Severing the link twixt capital’s ownership and control of machines means ending capitalism as we know it. If all the machines are owned in common and not used for profit, that means radical socialism at the very least — more likely some forum of industrial communism in which no individual other than society as a whole “owns” driverless cars or robots anymore. It also means something like ending money (a guaranteed minimum income goes a long way toward that), eliminating for-profit companies (what’s the point of profit-loss accounting if machines are owned in common by society as a whole? Who cares if some use to which robots get put loses money, if society judges it an overall benefit?), stripping corporations of their status as immortal persons (they won’t own the machines anymore, so that’s the point), and throwing out conventional economics with its disregard for “externalities” and finite resources.

    1. Thomas,

      I disagree with that metaphor. Everyone agrees that there is an elephant in the room, although they might choose to ignore it. That capitalism must go is the opinion of a tiny minority — a group that has been saying so for over a century. Making false predictions, advocating failed systems.

      Not much credibility there. It is in effect repeating Marx’s false claims about the imminent self-destruction of capitalism in the 19th C.

      Nor is there much evidence or logic to the assertion. Perhaps it’s true, but that requires ignoring all other adaptations possible to capitalism.

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