Rise of the Machines

I love talking about robots. They are really the future of our society. They will also destroy us. Damn robots.

Robots are amazingly awesome. They assist us in all sort of things that we don’t even think about anymore. If we generalize the concept of “robot” to “machine”, then we probably can’t even imagine life without them.

For example, if we took away cars and busses and airplanes and pretty much any form of non-animal transportation, life would be radically different. I live about 15 miles away from work now. It takes me 20 minutes to get to work using my car. On my bike (still a machine), it takes me 60 minutes. If I were to use a horse, it would probably take a couple of hours. I could run there in maybe 2.5 hours (but wouldn’t be able to get home, and would have to sleep the rest of the day). This relatively simple invention has allowed us to spread out significantly, and has allowed us to have significantly higher productivity than even 100 years ago. On the downside of this, there are not too many stable hands around anymore to take care of our horses. Which is probably ok (unless you really wanted to be a stable hand!)

Let’s look at a couple more modern examples that are a bit more “robot-y”. I almost never interact with a human when I buy airplane tickets. I log into a website, search around for my perfect flight, then buy them using my credit card. I have tried calling into the airline phone number to buy tickets within the last couple of year, and they really try to dissuade this significantly. I think that most people like not having to wait on the phone, or interacting with another human (yuk!), and picking out “exactly” what you want. At the airport, you can check in at a kiosk (or over the web, again), and not have to interact with a person. This is a good thing, right? We win and the company wins. They don’t have to pay nearly as many people to interact with us customers (yuk!), so their profit margin goes up (and/or ticket prices go down). The only losers are the travel agents and people who worked at the airport and are no longer employed. But, they probably found jobs in other places, right?

One of the most obvious places to look for a more disruptive robot invasion is the auto industry. Robots have replaced humans left and right. They can work longer, put things together more precisely, and don’t complain at all. You don’t have to pay the robot retirement or health care. If you think about how much an auto company invests in a single worker over a 25-year work life, it is pretty amazing. Say the person made an average of $50K per year over the 25 years. If you add on social security, health care, vacation, sick leave, etc, then the cost to the company is probably closer to $100K per year. Over 25 years, this is $2.5M invested in them. Then when they retire at the ripe old age of 55, they may live at least 20 more years with a pension and health benefits. Let’s call that $50K per year. Over 20 years, that is another $1M. So, the employee costs the company $3.5M, and the company gets about 25 years of work (with vacations and sick days sprinkled throughout those years). A robot, on the other hand, is a huge one-time investment, plus maintenance costs. You can imagine that this might be significantly cheaper than the number of employees that it displaces. Further, if you have robots working, you can simply turn them off if demand for cars goes too low, or have them work more hours if the demand increases. You don’t need to layoff or hire people at every turn in the market. They have already been laid off and replaced by robots!

In this more obvious example, the winner is the car company and the consumer (again!). The company has more profit, and doesn’t have to worry as much about worker satisfaction, while the consumer gets cheaper cars that are more uniform in their build quality. You could make an argument that the worker is better off also, since they aren’t doing a horribly repetitive job that may be dangerous. But, of course, they don’t have a job. Which is a downside.

Another obvious example is the driverless car. While having a personal driverless car seems amazing, since we can all text and read e-mail on the way to work (another win for industry!), having driverless cars take over for truckers and taxi drivers is a pretty mixed bag. We, as consumers, would benefit greatly. The price would drop significantly, and we wouldn’t have to interact with any of those pesky humans. But, we would put something like 3,000,000 (1% of the US population) people out of work quite rapidly.

What is the problem here?

In the past, when new technologies have come on line, workers have been displaced and we have absorbed them into society. They have found new occupations. The amount of time that this takes is quite dependent on the number of people displaced. If it only a few people, then they can find jobs relatively easily. If it is a significant portion of the population, then there could be issues.

Further, robots typically replace relatively unskilled labor. These people need to be retrained to do other, more complicated, jobs. To do this, it takes time and money. Education costs are increasing dramatically, so it doesn’t seem hopeful that we will magically become a land in which education or retraining is free and routine. We therefore are taking jobs away from (some would argue) the most vulnerable people, and making it quite difficult for them to find jobs in similar sectors, since those jobs have been taken over by robots too.

In the last recession, we experienced this as a nation. The unemployment rate when way up, and took a very long time to come down. This is partially because companies replaced people with machines. Why would a company want to hire someone back when they could replacement with a robot? Then, industry has the upper hand, so they can hire real people for significantly reduced wages. Wages stagnate and profits at companies soar. The only losers in this game are the large swath of people who are underemployed, or have a paycheck that is too low for them to survive.

A large section of the media celebrate the coming of the robots. They argue that as robots take over more and more of the jobs in our economy, it will give people a large amount of leisure time in which they can do more creative things (never mind that robots can now paint and compose music). I call bullshit on this for two large reasons.

The first is that we in the United States of America do not value leisure time. If you have leisure time, then you are lazy and should not be paid. So, if no one is being paid for sitting around while a robot does his or her job, what is going to happen? Well, it is clear that the unemployment rate will either rise dramatically, causing people who are employed to pay huge taxes to provide “leisure time” for people who don’t have jobs, or people will be hired to do stupid (government) jobs for not much money, and we will have a “Player Piano” (Kurt Vonnegut) society (while people who make more money will still have to pay huge taxes).

The second thing that could possibly happen is the absolute best-case scenario. Let’s assume that one day all jobs are taken over by robots and we are free to do whatever we want. Interestingly, this is a horrible idea. Studies have shown that in countries in which the retirement age is lower, the happiness of the older population is less. This means people with a large amount of leisure time (retirees) don’t really enjoy their lives. They need some purpose in their life. Work is typically that purpose.

On a side note, I would like to point out how silly the idea is that we in the USA would all live in harmony with each other with no jobs. How could I beat my neighbor? How would I show the world what an awesome person I was if I was given a government provided car and a government provided house. Oh, you see where I am going here, right? We are talking about socialism! The ultimate, best-case-scenario endgame in our robot development is socialism! Which is the opposite of capitalism, obviously.

We as Americans believe that the robots are only going to take over other people’s jobs. We don’t think that they are coming for us. But, ultimately they are coming for us all. Even me, a college professor, will one day be gunned down by the robots. Ever hear of the Kahn Academy? Or massive on-line classes? With people screaming about rising costs of education, these options are coming. It may not be tomorrow or next year, but some day college professors will fall to the robot horde and the efficiency machine. Then what will I do? Learn to repair robots? Maybe in my leisure time.

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About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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