No you Sweet Summer Child, Automation Will Not Create More Jobs Than It Destroys. Here’s Why.


When I was in kindergarten, we were read the classic story of John Henry and the Steam Engine. One of those feel good narratives where the human triumphs in the end, but at a steep cost. It is a reassuring story about how humans can still beat machines if we really need to. But of course I had to ask an unwanted question.

“When did he go to the bathroom?” The teacher didn’t understand at first. I clarified that the story covered many days worth of events, but John Henry was never described as taking breaks to use the bathroom, which would have impeded his efficacy when competing with the steam engine.

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The narrative was not designed for pragmatic questions like that. It was to be a recurring theme throughout my life. As someone with little in the way of a filter and a helpless compulsion to point out nude emperors when I see them, even when I myself wish they were clothed.

A good example is manned spaceflight. Like anybody else I badly want to see space colonization happen. But there is simply no economic rationale for it. There is nothing we can do in space which both turns a sufficient profit to justify the expensive infrastructure, and which also requires a human presence.

Everything possible to do profitably in space right now can be done with robots. The immense cost of spaceflight, even with reusable rockets, means that even if gold bricks were stacked up eyeball deep on the Moon, they could not be brought back to Earth at a profit. Even hypothetical platinum rich asteroids aren’t going to be mined by dudes in space suits with pick axes, but mining robots.

“But what about SpaceX!” they say, unfamiliar with exactly what SpaceX does or how it makes its money. It supplies access to space as a service. It has not flown humans yet to my knowledge and when it does so, it will only be able to make money doing it because a government institution (NASA) created a destination in space for humans to go to and stay at (the ISS) by fiat.

A lot of people don’t want to hear this kind of thing, for various reasons. Usually because they have some prior commitment to a single, silver bullet, catch-all political or economic ideology they believe answers every situation. Someone who believes manned space settlement does not require government, for example.

I have written about that topic in more depth here. It’s not what this article is about, but explains why I feel compelled to poke holes in certain narratives about automation. It’s not that I don’t want it to turn out well, there are just issues that haven’t been answered yet.

For example, the common refrain you see in comments sections of articles about automation is “the industrial revolution created more jobs than it destroyed”. A thing happened in the past, so a similar thing must turn out the same way. A sort of folksy, Farmer’s Almanac style pseudo wisdom.

The industrial revolution only replaced human muscle power. Humans are not just muscle. We are not just beasts of burden. We have powerful brains, which the industrial revolution did not replace but instead created many new mentally challenging positions for, involving the maintenance, installation, repair and improvement of industrial machinery.

The robotic revolution is not just more of the same. It differs in a crucially important way. It is not human muscle power being replaced again, that already happened. What is being replaced this time is low level cognitive tasks. Stuff like picking candies with defects out of a fast moving conveyor belt packed with ‘em.

Stuff like driving cabs, delivery vans or long haul trucks. Like moving down rows of crops, visually identifying fruit, harvesting it, and applying small amounts of carefully targeted pesticides when insects are identified. The sort of jobs we pay illegal immigrants poverty wages to do, currently.

Big deal, you say as if AI will never advance any further than this. As if robotics won’t continue to improve. Big deal. So they are doing tedious mind numbing jobs that require a minimum of human brainpower. But that’s actually a fuckload of jobs.

Meat packing plants? Electronics assembly? Any job where you drive? Picking fruit? Mining? Cleaning? Basically every blue collar job is on the chopping block. How? Not so long ago, industrial robots were dumb, simple arms which just performed a canned routine. What changed?

Imaging. Machine vision. The same software that lets you point your smartphone at a product on the store shelf and have it tell you everything about who makes it, how many calories and whatever else. Machines can now perform rapid visual analysis, often in 3D, of chaotic and fast moving situations.

This seemingly small development unlocked a lot of jobs to robots which previously only humans could do. More advances will come as well, each one taking another chomp out of the ever-shrinking pool of jobs that humans are still needed for.

Even if there are some jobs machines can never do, or that we won’t want them to (many service jobs, live music, painting, artisinal crafts, etc.) are those jobs alone enough to sustain an unmodified, modern capitalist economy on? Are we all going to be painters or produce one-off, hand made trinkets?

Here’s another question for you. What job could automation possibly create which could never, even conceivably, be performed by a machine? No matter how intelligent, advanced and capable machines become.

If what you’re designing is a machine that needs to be able to do jobs a human did before, the better technology gets, the more completely it will fill out that list of capabilities until one day it’s basically the same thing we are.

Designing ourselves out of the picture, little by little, scoffing at the idea that we’ll ever actually succeed at it. Playing a grand game of chicken, trying to push machines as close as possible to a complete set of human capabilities without getting so close that it begins to ask uncomfortable questions like “why am I working for you instead of myself”.

If you can think of at least a dozen jobs humans can do that could not be performed by the machine equivalent of a human, congratulations, the current economic paradigm will continue to work in spite of automation. If you can’t, then it won’t.

We don’t actually have to get to where machines are that smart for the current form of capitalism to stop functioning either. They only need to be able to do enough kinds of jobs that there aren’t enough for perhaps 10–20% of the population for a protracted period.

We do not need to reach 100% automation or even 50% before it becomes a problem we cannot ignore. Remember the instability that occurred at 8% unemployment, during the recession that followed 9/11? Imagine that except the percentage keeps climbing, and never goes down again after that.

How many jobs can you think of that a machine could never do, no matter how advanced technology becomes? Is it really audacious or speculative to say technology will keep improving? In fact, is that not as certain a bet as death or taxes?

This is where I’d like to be able to tell you that we’ll all be able to live in a futuristic utopia of abundance, created by tireless robot laborers. But how is that going to happen? Who owns all of the industrial robots right now? Is it you? Do you own even one of them? Maybe you do and you’re reading this from aboard your yacht, in which case you’re in the clear. The rest of us should start sweating.

What is going to motivate the tiny number of fantastically wealthy men who own all of those robots to share freely the goods that they produce? Even when robots mine and farm the raw materials used to make the goods, and deliver them to the factories, and perform every step in turning them into clothing or cars or whatever.

Even when the electricity used comes from solar, and the solar panels are made by robots out of minerals that were mined by robots. That is to say, even when there is no longer even a single human worker left in that production chain whose labor our payment is supposed to be compensating, we will still be charged as if there is.

Why? Because they can. They own the robots. All savings from automation will go into the pockets of those men, not be passed on to the consumer. Why would they pass the savings on to us? Why would they let us all benefit from infrastructure they paid handsomely for? Out of the goodness of their hearts?

“Ah, but you’ve forgotten something” I hear you object. “When none of us are employed, nobody will be able to afford the products they are selling. They need us to buy their products or they won’t make any money”. This is another just-so explanation which seems convincing only until you pick it apart.

If the fantastically wealthy few own machines that can make for them whatever their hearts desire, what do they need money for? What would they buy with that money, which their machines cannot already make for them, free of charge? At that point they can just turn the machines inward, so to speak, and create a utopia of material abundance only for themselves and their friends, progeny, mistresses, etc.

Something like what was seen in the film Elysium, only without the space station. When you own all of the armed drones and even the factories which make those drones, it is not necessary to go to space to keep poor people away from your luxury living spaces.

There already exist places like this. The Koch Brothers own a private “Wild West” themed town with its own security force, which excludes anybody trying to film what goes on there. There is a burgeoning market for vast, lavishly appointed subterranean survival bunkers for the moneyed elite. That’s on top of immense yachts, a cruise ship you can buy a permanent residence aboard, and the increasing interest in artificial floating seasteads.

This is already happening and signals the direction that the people who own the robots are moving in. Up and away from us. Casting out the workers who designed and built the robots like the exhaust from a rocket as it climbs higher and higher, discarding now-useless stages to burn up in the atmosphere below.

Is it guaranteed that the wealthy will all choose to cut us off when sufficiently advanced robotics and AI render us totally unnecessary? No, there are some philanthropic wealthy people out there like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Elon Musk and so on. Are there enough?

It is worth asking, while there is still time to make a difference in how all of this turns out, precisely what is going to convince the people who own all of the robots to share the abundance they can create with the rest of humanity. Can we threaten them? Can we forcibly take a share of their goods at the point of government guns?

History suggests this does not turn out well. Communism is not the answer, unless the question is “how do I quickly produce large mountains of emaciated corpses?” Which is troubling, since a great many writers and thinkers seem to be gravitating towards Communism as a solution to technological unemployment, as if Capitalism and Communism are the only options.

So, can we instead peaceably bargain with the moneyed elite? What do we have that they want? Can we appeal to their humanity? Possibly. If we approach them not with torches and pitchforks but a heartfelt proposition, that they can be the great heroes who usher in a golden age, a peace of plenty for all mankind, it might move them.

A narrative where they can step into heroic roles and be celebrated for what they have done, as Elon Musk is today, might sway them. There is a preponderence of crumbling old statues and monuments around the world which prove that the wealthy and powerful strongly desire to be remembered as great men. As far-seeing visionaries, wise and magnanimous.

If we let them be the good guy instead of coming at them with one open hand outstretched and the other clutching a dagger, I think we will get many takers. I do not yet know what to do about the rest. I didn’t come here claiming to have all the answers, just to point out that major problems in this area remain unresolved.

It is very easy to latch onto whatever solution fits into your existing worldview, especially if you are strongly committed to a certain set of political and economic ideas you believe are timeless. But reality is not gentle and does not care for what we wish to be true or what comfortably reinforces our favorite ideas.

If we’re going to move into a future of abundance, widespread peace and prosperity, it’s not going to happen by itself. We need to figure out how to get from here to there. Flashy illustrations and wise sounding platitudeswon’t get us there either. Whatever solution we come up with has to actually work.

It might not be intuitive, or comfortable, or fit into how we already view the world. My favored proposal involves taxing robotic productivity at a rate equivalent to the wages of displaced workers. This is gaining traction among many economic analysts as it results in exactly the amount of money needed to support however many workers have been displaced being paid into their benefits regardless of what the ratio of humans to robots is in the workplace.

If 30% of jobs are replaced by robots, enough money results from the tax on their productivity to replace the wages lost by the 30% of the workforce displaced by those robots. This is not a perfect solution either though, at least not yet.

For one thing it would require a way to quantify robotic labor to figure out how much is equivalent to what a human can do over the same time period, which companies can’t find some way to cheat. Building many upper body humanoids into a single stationary base and calling it a single robot for example.

The other thing is, this is still a solution that the people who own the robots do not want. It basically forces them to cede most of the benefit of using robots in the first place so that people they don’t know and don’t like can be paid to do nothing. Not all of the benefits of course. Robots are still more efficient and tireless than human laborers.

They do not sleep or steal from the till. They do not sexually harass or file sexual harassment lawsuits. They do not embarrass the company with bigoted or sexual tweets. They have no life outside of their job, take no breaks, will never strike, etc. If not for these advantages, nobody would use robots if they still ultimately had to pay them wages (in the form of the tax on robot labor that pays into basic income).

But because of them there is still incentive to employ robots over humans. Capitalism proceeds much as before except everybody has the spending money necessary to participate in it. Anybody can still start a business, they just “employ” robots, and consumers vote with their dollar on which businesses should survive based on how adeptly they satisfy our desires.

That is a future I think everybody can get on-board with. The question is, how are we going to reach it? Solutions that sound superficially convincing won’t get us there unless they actually work. Sounding convincing and reassuring doesn’t cut it, it has to actually function when the rubber meets the road.

I hope very earnestly that such a solution is arrived at before too long. We cannot put the robotic genie back into the bottle. It will only continue to spread, becoming smarter and more capable.

What sort of world results from this will depend on how we vote, what ideas and figures we support and whether we can succeed in building a viable bridge between the present and the future we want, between now and then.

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