Friday, August 19, 2016

The Phony Robot Scare

By Robert Samuelson

We are such an anxiety-ridden society that we worry about problems that haven't happened, and, almost certainly, won't. Robots are an apt example. Even McKinsey and Co., the high-powered management consulting firm, professes to be concerned. We imagine hordes of robots destroying jobs, leaving millions of middle-class families without work and income. Relax. Unless we adopt self-destructive policies, this is one doomsday we'll avoid.

One thing that the U.S. economy excels at is creating jobs. You might doubt this listening to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, who promise personally to create millions of high-paying jobs. This is misleading. The overwhelming share of jobs are created by the private market, not government or politicians.

samuelsonYes, there are recessions. Two of them in the post-World War II era were quite severe (those of 1981-82 and 2007-09). We had scary levels of unemployment. But eventually the job creation machine reasserts itself. In 2015, employment totaled 149 million, up from 99 million in 1980 and 137 million in 2000.

What about the robots? In truth, they are not a new problem. There have always been new technologies and products that eliminate entire industries and occupations. But lost jobs and destroyed industries give way, over time, to new industries and jobs. Cars replaced buggies; smartphones are replacing landlines.

Robots are simply the latest chapter in this narrative. Sure, some jobs will vanish. But others will materialize. Often, increases occur so silently and slowly that they're only noticed when they've become a major part of the labor force.

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Just the other day, the Census Bureau released a report on "information technology" workers, a job category that didn't exist until 1970. Since then, their numbers have increased 10-fold, growing from 450,000 to 4.6 million. These are well-paying jobs; median earnings in 2014 were $80,665.

The same logic applies to robots. Someone has to design the robots, program them, sell them, service them and fix them.

Read the rest here.


  1. I generally agree, however, the idea of an era where robots achieve a higher level of intelligence than humans (and create ever more intelligent robots) and become sentient might indeed be the singularity feared by some people. There are lots of possible outcomes from that -- including human extinction (or, more likely, IMHO, human merging with robots).

    Regardless, there's no way to stop this, and it will almost certainly eventually happen, so there's no reason to worry.

    1. Is life itself not just self-replicating code?