The robots are coming. Or are they?

This morning I warmed up for work by reading some intriguing articles that have been much linked-to in recent days: an interview with Jaron Lanier about his new book [amazon_link id=”1451654960″ target=”_blank” ]Who Owns The Future?[/amazon_link]; a Mother Jones article Welcome Robot Overlords, Please Don’t Fire Us; and an essay about how the intellectual left must re-engage with practical political economy.

[amazon_image id=”1451654960″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Who Owns the Future?[/amazon_image]

All three articles are inspired by the economic precariousness of the (former?) middle classes, the loss of jobs in the middle of the income distribution compared to the top and bottom, and the downward dip in real incomes in the middle too. We’re not scared about robots turning rogue and killing humans, but we are scared about them taking on the 9-to-5 grind, the commute, the office politics…. Robot angst has also shown up in economics with the excellent book by Brynjolfsson and McAfee, [amazon_link id=”0984725113″ target=”_blank” ]Race Against the Machine[/amazon_link], and in Paul Krugman’s blog posts.

[amazon_image id=”0984725113″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy[/amazon_image]

The underlying hypothesis is that the way robots substitute for humans today is different from the way machines have substituted for us in the past; that they can now perform cognitive rather than physical tasks and the technical change is therefore capital-biased. It will be good for capital but not people. The ‘therefore’ in that sentence is an assumption, which might turn out to be true. I have an open mind on it.

However, there are some questions I’d pose before we let technological determinism run away with us.

1. The pattern of shifts in employment and income distribution – the hollowing out of the middle – is common to all OECD countries but rates of robotisation differ widely. What’s the linkage?

2. Why has automation so far coincided with increases in returns to education but will from now on be linked to decreasing returns to education?

3. The debate tends to focus on creative and routine admin or manufacturing jobs but the most heavily-automated sector of the economy is finance, which has seen the biggest increases in real incomes. How has this happened and why would it be different elsewhere?

My alternative hypothesis is that the returns to any new technology, whatever its bias, will be determined by social and political factors. So that leads me to think James Harkin’s LA Review of Books essay challenging people to stop being distracted by ‘nudge’ politics and think about the classic political economy questions of social structure and income distribution is the most optimistic of this morning’s three reads.


3 thoughts on “The robots are coming. Or are they?

  1. Pingback: Robots v aliens | The Enlightened Economist

  2. Pingback: Going backwards: loving and fearing the crowd | Nick Reynolds At Work

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