Our New Robot Overlords

Technological progress doesn’t have to be a job killer

Because a Republican House of Representatives hell-bent on dismantling the safety net apparently wasn’t enough to worry about, liberals wonks have decided to freak out about robots.

In a column a few weeks ago, The New York Times’ Paul Krugman noted that technological progress won’t just threaten manufacturing jobs and other low-skill labor, but white collar jobs as well. Lawyers, for example, are less in demand as artificial intelligence has enabled software to sift through legal documents at a rate humans could only dream of. Radiologists could see themselves put out of work by software capable of analyzing medical scans.

This seems like a scary prospect at first, not least to the demographic of people who read Krugman (or The Crimson, for that matter). But it needn’t be. For one thing, technological progress allows less boring, repetitive work to be done by humans. As Krugman notes, computers are good at work that involves following explicit rules. That means the sort of menial paper pushing that law firm associates complain about, as well as menial assembly line jobs. Computers aren’t good at all boring tasks; Roomba vacuums aside, housekeeping isn’t going to be done by robots any time soon. But the change favors interesting work.

More fundamentally, talk about “losing jobs” to robots is overly simplistic. Technological progress requires humans to do less work, but it does not require fewer human workers. The same number of workers could just do less work per person. Robots could increase leisure, not unemployment.

This has long been a utopian dream of the left. As Chris Bertram noted in a response to Krugman, the late Marxist political philosopher G. A. Cohen argued for a form of socialism in which the population spent less time creating wealth and more time pursuing other interests. John Maynard Keynes, as well, believed that once basic human material needs are met, pressure for economic growth should slow and people should spend more time living for living’s sake. Technological progress could, in some respects, eliminate the dichotomy between leisure and economic growth Cohen and Keynes presuppose. It could allow us to leave the job of economic growth to the robots and let the rest of us enjoy its fruits.

As pleasing as this future is to imagine, it’s still a ways off. While the developing world’s extraordinary economic growth suggests that a world free of poverty could emerge before the century is out, we’re not there yet. More to the point, while technological progress could enable such abundance with less human effort, humans’ basic material needs won’t necessarily be met once that level of abundance is reached. If technological progress leads to economic growth that’s concentrated in the hands of a few, then the rest of us will just be left with less work for less pay.

In that respect, we should tackle a future economy where technological progress has rendered obsolete numerous kinds of human work the same way we should tackle the current economy, by using tax policy and social programs to ensure a more equitable distribution of resources.

However, some new policies should be pursued as well. Currently, the link between a high employment level and human wellbeing is pretty strong. Work is generally necessary for humans to attain basic goods necessary for survival, and work in developed countries, in particular, allows higher levels of consumption that can enable poor countries to pursue export-based growth.

But if technological progress allows economic growth to continue with less human effort, the link between employment and wellbeing becomes weaker. If economic growth and consumption can grow in developed countries even as hours worked fall, then developed country employment is less needed as a means of pulling developing countries out of poverty. Residents of rich countries could make enough to live comfortably while working less.

The word “could” is important there. While desirable, this shift toward leisure is not inevitable. Luckily, we have some idea of what policies can enable such a shift. Workers in European countries currently enjoy much more leisure time than those in America, and most economists agree that this is due to government interventions.

To be sure, there is disagreement on which interventions are responsible. The Nobel Laureate Edward C. Prescott credits Europe’s greater leisure to its higher taxes on labor income, while Harvard professors Albert F. Alesina and Edward L. Glaeser and Dartmouth professor Bruce I. Sacerdote believe the difference is due to Europe’s labor market regulations. Either way, the point stands that policy changes can allow a shift away from work toward leisure.

Technological progress’ displacement of human labor, then, need not be a catastrophe. Instead, it could lead to a society where economic pursuits are less central to human lives. To quote Keynes, “It will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.”

Dylan R. Matthews ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is currently studying abroad at the University of Cambridge. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.