Robots and jobs

Are robots going to free us from the slavery of work, or are they going to steal people’s jobs?

As a computational neuroscientist, this is a question I sometimes think about. For a long time, I have followed a self-reassuring reasoning, which seems to make sense from a logical point of view, that having robots do the work for us means that either we get more products for the same amount of work or each person works less for the same quantity of products. So it has to be a good thing: ideally, robots would do the work we don’t want to do, and we would just do what we are interested in doing – maybe travel, write books, see our friends or play music.

This is a fine theoretical argument, but unfortunately it is also one that ignores the economy we live in. Maybe we could (or should) think of an economy that would make this work, but how about our current capitalist economy? Very concretely, if robots arrive on the market that are able to do the job that people previously did for cheaper, then these people would simply lose their job. If work can be outsourced to poorer countries, then in the same way it can also be outsourced to robots.

One counter-argument, of course, is that in a free market economy, people would temporarily lose their job but then they would be reassigned to other jobs and the whole economy would be more productive. This is a classical free-market fundamentalist argument. But there are at least two problems with this argument. The first is that it commits the mistake of thinking the economy as a quasi-static system: it changes, but it is always in equilibrium. It is implicitly assumed that it is easy to change job, that it has a negligible cost, that large scale changes in labor market has no significant impact on the rest of the economy (think for example of the effect on the financial system of thousands of sacked people being unable to pay their mortgage). Now if we think of a continuous progress, in which innovations regularly arrive and continuously change the structure of the labor market, then it is clear that the economy can never be in the ideal equilibrium state in which jobs are perfectly allocated. At any given time there would be a large fraction of the population that would be unemployed. In addition, anyone would then face a high risk of going through such a crisis in the course of their work life. This would then have major consequences for the financial system, as it would make loans and insurances riskier, and therefore more expensive. These additional costs to society (cost of unemployment and reconversion, financial risk, etc) are what economists call “externalities”: these are costs that have to be paid by society, but they are not supported by the ones that take the decisions that are responsible for these costs. For the company that replaces a human by a robot, the decision is based on the salary of the human vs. the cost of the robot, but it does not include the cost of the negative externalities. For this reason, it is possible that companies take decisions that seem beneficial for each one of them, and yet that have a negative impact on the global economy (not even considering the human factor).

A second problem is that the argument neglects a critical aspect of capitalist systems, which is the division between capital and work. When a human is replaced by a robot, what was previously the product of work is now the product of capital (investment in buying the robot) – see this blog post by Paul Krugman. Very concretely, this means that a larger part of the wealth goes to the owners rather than to the workers. As a thought experiment, we could imagine that the workforce is completely replaced by robots, and that the owner would only buy the robots and then get the money from customers without doing anything. Wealth would then be distributed according to how many robots one owns. This might seem far-fetched, but if you think about it, this is pretty much how real estate works.

So concretely, introducing robots in a capitalist economy means increasing productivity, but it also means that owners get an increasingly bigger part of the pie. In such an economy, the ideal robotic world is a dystopia in which wealth is distributed exclusively in proportion of what people own.

This thought is very bothering for scientists like me, who are more or less trying to make this ideal robotic world happen, with the utopia of the no-forced-work society in mind. How could one avoid the dystopian nightmare? I do not think that it is possible to just stop working on robots. I could personally decide not to work on robots, and maybe I would feel morally right and good about myself, having no responsibility in what happens next, but that would just be burying my head in the sand. The only way it will not happen is if all scientists in the world, in all countries, would stop working on robots or any sort of automation that would increase productivity (internet?). We don’t even seem to be able to stabilize our production of carbon dioxide even when we agree on the consequences, so I don’t think this is very realistic.

So if we can’t stop the scientific progress from happening, then the only other way is to adapt our economy to it. Imagine a society with robots doing all the work, entirely. Since there is no work at all in such a society, then in an unregulated free market economy wealth can only be distributed according to the amount of capital people have. There is simply no other way it could be distributed. Such an economy is bound to lead to the robotic nightmare.

Therefore, society has to take global measures to regulate the economy, and make the distribution of wealth fairer. I don’t have any magical answer, but we could throw a few ideas. For example, one could get rid of inheritance (certainly not easy in practice), and transmit capital from the deceased to the newborn in equal proportion. Certainly some people would get richer than others by the end of their lives, but it would be limited. As a transition policy, one could allow the replacement of people by robots, but the fired worker would own part of the robot. Alternatively, robots could only be owned by people and not by companies. A robot could then replace a worker only when a worker buys the robot and rents it to the company. Another alternative is that robot-making companies belong to the State and can only rent the robots to companies. The wealth would then be shared among citizens.

Certainly all these ideas come with difficulties, none of them is ideal, but one has to keep in mind that not implementing any regulation of this type can only lead to the robotic dystopia.

Une réflexion au sujet de « Robots and jobs »

  1. I worry about this too from time to time.

    It seems to me that we have a ready made historical example, the industrial revolution. Despite in the long term improving things, I for one would not like to see the horrific human cost of that era repeated again.

    Like you, I don't see that there is any way of avoiding the horror within our existing capitalist system. I think it requires a revolutionary change however, not the introduction of new regulation to the existing system. To take your inheritance example, it's probably too difficult in practice to regulate this because as long as free exchange of capital is also allowed, you can set up schemes to have de facto inheritance. This already happens, there are many ways to get around inheritance taxes. The other problem with it is that there would be massive resistance from the powerful and wealthy even to this scheme, and so actually it would require a revolutionary change even to do this. Given that we will need a revolutionary change whatever we do, why not be a bit more ambitious and aim for one of the many possible socialist, or better, anarchist alternatives on offer? One idea that I rather like is parecon (participatory economics), see and It's also designed with a scarcity-based economy in mind rather than the post-scarcity robot economy you're talking about, but as I understand it it could be modified to work with this too.

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