The Scary Moment When Robots Take Our Jobs

 Posted by on 10 August 2003 at 3:29 pm  Uncategorized
Aug 102003

Frank Foreman posted this comment to the psychology list on

There’s a subject I’d love to discuss, and I promised Joshua to bring it up, and that is Ayn Rand’s theory of virtue. She lists them in the Galt speech as being “rationality, independence, honesty, justice, productiveness, pride.” (The three values are reason, purpose, and self-esteem, in case you need verification.) Galt gives brief definitions of each virtue.

What I am wondering is what will happen to the virtue of productiveness when half the population will be unable to do productive work, that work being taken over by machines. That this will happen is convincingly argued by Marshall Brain in “Robotic Nation.”

He sent the text of that essay to the list, along with the convenient link to the web version. Basically, the argument is that robots are going to become so capable, cheap, and ubiquitous that by 2050, they will occupy half of all jobs in the US. With half of all people unemployed (note that big logical leap), “a significant portion of the normal American population [will be] permanently living in government welfare dormitories.” The implication of Brain’s closing comments seems to be that we need to structure society so that people don’t have to have jobs in order to live. Ah, socialist heaven, as repackaged by robots!

Anyway, I was surprised, to say that least, that anyone with any knowledge of economics or history would take this argument seriously. So here was my response, admittedly dismissive:

Marshall Brain’s argument is nothing more than the broken window fallacy all dressed up in Sunday best for The Scary Moment When Robots Take Our Jobs. (BTW, that’s supposed to be after The Scary Moment When Those Damn Hardworking Immigrants Take Our Jobs.) It focuses only upon jobs lost and ignores the vast new opportunities created by technology.

These sorts of arguments are not just absurd on a theoretical level, but also on the basis of everyday experience. Are we currently facing massive unemployment due to ATMs, self-service gas pumps, vacuum cleaners, washing machines and automobiles? Those technologies put many hundreds of thousands of people out of work. But, duh, the economy hasn’t collapsed into a third world welfare state yet. The reason is not mysterious.

And as for the possibility of computers replacing human brain power, well, that’s idle (and philosophically suspect) speculation. When computers become something more than very big crows for massive data processing, I might show a vague glimmer of interest in such issues. Maybe.

This argument is just another apocalyptic vision dressed up in the garb of science. And, to paraphrase Julian Simon, I’m not dressed for church.

Y2K was my one and only foray into apocalyptic visions; it was quite enough for a lifetime. Others can feel free to scare themselves into a perverse sort of comfort by thinking of the myriad of ways the world as we know it might end. The worry is that too often their proposed (statist) solutions are far worse than the problem would likely ever be… and they want to impose those “solutions” upon the rest of us. Now that’s something to worry about.

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