Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is all over the news with his statement that drones will sooner or later be delivering packages to your home. Predictably, this has generated two types of buzz: what about the inevitable mishaps, and what about the poor displaced UPS workers?
For me, the first is a wee bit scary. Of course, you now have the prospect of being run over by a UPS driver whose workload has already been increased so much that he doesn’t have the time to drive carefully. With the coming of drones we’ll have to constantly scan the sky for incoming errant flights and packages falling to earth. I suppose the drones are scarier than the trucks.
However, it is the second worry that is getting most of the attention: What are we going to do as robots increasingly replace human workers? That sort of apocalypse has been featured in science fiction from time immemorial. Not only do we have the worry of rising unemployment of humans, but also the growing intelligence of robots as they realize they don’t need no damn humans any more. Ahhhnold Is Baaaack! Open the Bomb Bay Doors, Hal!
An interesting piece in Salon addresses these latter issues. Indeed, the title tells it all: “Amazon, Applebee’s and Google’s job-crushing drones and robot armies: They’re coming for your job next.”
Andrew Leonard lays out the issues nicely:
Nobody knows how it will play out, but one thing seems certain: We won’t have to wait too long to find out whether a robot apocalypse is going to ravage society. The sense of increasing momentum toward a more robot-infested future is undeniable. No matter what the regulators say, I find it impossible to imagine that there won’t be more drones in our skies, more tablet menus replacing human beings, more jobs accomplished by automation. Whether this transition is driven because it delivers true convenience for consumers, or whether it simply makes economic sense for the masters of capital, the logic of this technological evolution is inexorable….
Panglossians believe that robots will perform the world’s drudgery, ushering in an era of affluence and leaving humans free to nurture their creative instincts. Whether our creative instincts will be able to generate the capital necessary to purchase the products of robot labor is as yet unknown. I’ve noted before that the big difference between the current technological revolution and the Industrial Revolution is that the initial technological advances of the 18th century created jobs for unskilled workers, while today’s robot armies are increasingly replacing the jobs of unskilled workers…
When the warehouse and the delivery and the waitress and taxi driver jobs are gone, where do those workers go? Will our education system be robust enough to keep them ahead of the rising technological curve?
The typical economist’s take on this, however, is that by filling the lower-skilled jobs with robots, we will be able to move human workers into the higher-skilled work. Of course, as robots get smarter (or as we continually reduce complex processes to a series of simple steps—which has been the basis of automation since the days of Adam Smith), humans will be funneled into ever-higher-order tasks. Not to worry, say the economists, because we’ll need more and more robots, too. Hence, the final refuge for human workers will be to make the robots that do everything else.
Economist Joan Robinson (who should have been the first woman to win the Nobel for Economics—but was disqualified for taking the winning side of the “Capital Controversy” debate; note all the losers of that debate did get a Nobel, presumably as a consolation prize for losing to Robinson!) saw all this coming long ago when she wondered “But what do we do when robots make the robots?”
Back in 1991, I wrote about all this in a journal article: continue reading…