The economist takes a stab at the robot debate but like most of the commenters I was left wanting more…
“What policy makers need to worry about is the impact of autonomous technology in a world of seven billion people where nearly all of them do non-mental tasks to earn a living. Robotic engineers, graphic designers, architects, etc… are a long way off. Robots that can negotiate a light assembly environment and put the cell phone in a box along with a bunch of pieces of paper are maybe a decade or two away. They will also be able to assemble the cell phone, or sew the shirt, or pick the fruit, or work behind the McDonalds counter or stock the store shelves. The Industrial Revolution displaced massive numbers of workers. But they were displaced into new jobs that machines could not do. A robot that can do anything a low to medium skilled worker can do, can do any new low to medium skilled job. There are no new jobs for the displaced that can’t be automated. Western Europe, Japan and the US have had a huge number of these jobs go to China, Vietnam, etc… These Western economies will actually gain as automated light industrial and textile factories return. A robot costs the same to operate in China as Glasgow, but shipping from Glasgow to London is considerably less. But what happens to China and the rest of the world? All those workers who left the farm have no intention of going back to the farm. What will they do?
Is it really progress if GDP doubles while the unemployment rate skyrockets? What if the standard of living rises but only in the average, not median sense? I’m still clinging to the belief that this recession and joblessness are not solely the result of a Chinese savings glut and subsequent credit bubble collapse. They are also the result of a people not able to adapt quickly enough to a (quasi) capitalist economy that is now subject to something like Moore’s law.
There is a strong egalitarian slant to our thinking as Americans. I don’t know how we’re going to reconcile that belief with increasing unemployment. There is a fear of robots replacing factory workers but I work on software that automates dozens of jobs in the name of improved healthcare deliver systems. No mechanical arms are necessary to obsolete most jobs in America. Maybe in the future we’ll have PDF pushers instead of paper pushers but it seems unlikely.
I’m intently watching this play out. How web based media adapts to new economic realities will shape politics going forward. Media may not be controlled by a handful of media corporations in the future but it certainly will be shaped by media figureheads (populisits) and the angst of the masses.
This recession (which I tend to believe is the first real affront to the status-quo by creative destruction) is far from over in my opinion but I sincerely do hope I’m wrong. If the stock market continues to rise then my worldview is going to need a major overhaul.