Wed, Feb 27, 2019 - Page 9 News List

‘Rise of robots’ is not risking human jobs, it is risking humanity

By Robert Skidelsky

Surveys from around the world show that people want secure jobs. At the same time, they have always dreamed of a life free from toil. The “rise of the robots” has made the tension between these impulses palpable.

Estimates of job losses in the near future due to automation range from 9 to 47 percent, and jobs themselves are becoming ever more precarious.

Yet automation also promises relief from most forms of enforced work, bringing closer to reality Aristotle’s extraordinary prediction that all needed work would one day be carried out by “mechanical slaves,” leaving humans free to live the “good life.”

So the age-old question arises again: Are machines a threat to humans or a means of emancipating them?

In principle, there need be no contradiction. Automating part of human labor should enable people to work less for more pay, as has been happening since the Industrial Revolution. Hours of work have fallen and real incomes have risen, even as the world’s population increased sevenfold, thanks to the increased productivity of machine-enhanced labor.

In rich countries, productivity — output per hour worked — is 25 times higher than it was in 1831. The world has become steadily wealthier with fewer human-hours of work needed to produce that wealth.

Why should this benign process not continue? Where is the serpent in the garden?

Most economists would say it is imaginary. People, like novice chess players, see only the first move, not the consequences of it.

The first move is that workers in a particular sector are replaced by machines, like the Luddite weavers who lost their jobs to power looms in the 19th century. In David Ricardo’s chilling phrase, they become “redundant.”

However, what happens next? The price of clothes falls, because more can be produced at the same cost. So people can buy more clothes, and a greater variety of clothes, as well as other items they could not have afforded before. Jobs are created to meet the shift in demand, replacing the original jobs lost, and if productivity growth continues, hours of work can fall as well.

Notice that, in this rosy scenario, no trade unions, minimum wages, job protections, or schemes of redistribution are needed to raise workers’ real (inflation-adjusted) income. Rising wages are an automatic effect of the fall in the cost of goods. Provided there is no downward pressure on money wages from increased competition for work, the automatic effect of technological innovation is to raise the standard of living.

This is the famous argument of Friedrich Hayek against any attempt by governments or central banks to stabilize the price level. In any technologically progressive economy, prices should fall except in a few niche markets. Businesspeople do not need low inflation to expand production. They need only the prospect of more sales. “Dearness” of goods is a sign of technological stagnation.

However, our chess novice raises two important questions: “If automation is not confined to a single industry, but spreads to others, won’t more and more jobs become redundant? And won’t the increased competition for the remaining jobs force down pay, offsetting and even reversing the gains from cheapness?”

Human beings, the economist replies, will not be replaced, but complemented. Automated systems, whether or not in robot form, will enhance, not destroy, the value of human work, just as a human plus a good computer can still beat the best computer at chess.

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