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How to accommodate the rise of robots

We need a revolution in social thinking in which the gains from automation are distributed fairly, instead of benefiting only the rich and powerful

By Robert Skidelsky

Indeed, the days when we in Britain thought it was normal to have an unemployment rate of 2 percent have long since passed.

It was considered a great achievement of the last government that it brought unemployment down to 5 percent at the height of an unsustainable boom, and it only succeeded in doing so by subsidizing a lot of unnecessary jobs and useless training schemes.

No doubt some of the claims made for robots replacing human labor will prove as far-fetched now as they have in the past. However, it is hard to resist the conclusion that “technological unemployment,” as John Maynard Keynes called it, will continue to rise, as more and more people become redundant.

The optimist may reply that the pessimist’s imagination is too weak to envisage the full range of wonderful new job possibilities that automation is opening up, but perhaps the optimist’s imagination is too weak to imagine a different trajectory — toward a world in which people enjoy the fruits of automation as leisure rather than as additional income.

During the Industrial Revolution, working hours increased by 20 percent as factories replaced feasting. With our post-machine standard of living, we can afford to shed some of the Puritan guilt that has, for centuries, kept our noses to the grindstone.

Today we find a great deal of work-sharing in poor countries. It is the accepted means of making a limited amount of available work go around. Economists call it “disguised unemployment.”

If escape from poverty is the goal, disguised unemployment is a bad thing. However, if machines have already engineered the escape from poverty, then work-sharing is a sensible way of “spreading the work” that still has to be done by human labor.

If one machine can cut necessary human labor by half, why make half of the work force redundant, rather than employing the same number for half the time? Why not take advantage of automation to reduce the average working week from 40 hours to 30, and then to 20, and then to 10, with each diminishing block of labor time counting as a full-time job?

This would be possible if the gains from automation were not mostly seized by the rich and powerful, but were distributed fairly instead.

Rather than try to repel the advance of the machine, which is all that the Luddites could imagine, we should prepare for a future of more leisure, which automation makes possible.

However, to do that, we first need a revolution in social thinking.

Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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