The White House recently released two important reports on the future of artificial intelligence. The “robot question” is as urgent today as it was in the 1960s. Back then, worry focused on the automation of manufacturing jobs. Now, the computerization of services is top of mind.
At present, economists and engineers dominate public debate on the “rise of the robots.” The question of whether any given job should be done by a robot is modeled as a relatively simple cost-benefit analysis. If the robot can perform a task more cheaply than a worker, substitute it in. This microeconomic approach to filling jobs dovetails with a technocratic, macroeconomic goal of maximizing some blend of GDP and productivity.
In the short run, these goals appear almost indisputable–the dictates of market reason. In the long run, they presage a jobs crisis. As Michael Dorf recently observed, even though “[i]t is possible that new technologies will create all sorts of new jobs that we have not imagined yet,” it is hard to imagine new mass opportunities for employment. So long as a job can be sufficiently decomposed, any task within it seems (to the ambitious engineer) automatable, and (to the efficiency-maximizing economist) ripe for transferring to software and machines. The professions may require a holistic perspective, but other work seems doomed to fragmentation and mechanization.
Dorf is, nevertheless, relatively confident about future economic prospects:
Standard analyses…assume that in the absence of either socialism or massive philanthropy from future tech multi-billionaires, our existing capitalist system will lead to a society in which the benefits of automation are distributed very unevenly. . . . That’s unlikely. Think about Henry Ford’s insight that if he paid his workers a decent wage, he would have not only satisfied workers but customers to buy his cars. If the benefits of technology are beyond the means of the vast majority of ordinary people, that severely limits the ability of capitalists and super-skilled knowledge workers to profit from the mass manufacture of the robotic gizmos. . . . Enlightened capitalists would understand that they need customers and that, with automation severely limiting the number of jobs available, customers can only be ensured through generous government-provided payments to individuals and families.
I hope he is right. But I want to explore some countervailing trends that militate against wider distribution of the gains from automation: