Science

Will The Robot Uprising Make Everyone Unemployed?

By Michael Mayday , May 19, 2013 11:00 AM EDT
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We created robots to be stronger, faster, smarter and more durable than us. We built them for both amusement and for brawn. Now, thanks to the combination of rapidly advancing hardware and software, we're building them to take our jobs.

Welcome to the economic robot apocalypse.

Writing for The Atlantic, Moshe Vardi, computer science professor at Rice University says the combination of robots and rapidly improving artificial intelligence software stands a good chance of putting the human workforce out on the street by 2045 thanks, largely, to us.

"In the 19th century machines competed with human brawn. Now machines are competing with human brain. Robots combine brain and brawn," Vardi writes. "We are facing the prospect of being completely out-competed by our own creations."

He isn't alone in his worry. Prominent pundits, such as M.I.T. researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew P. McAfee, along with Sun Microsystem's Bill Joy, are also concerned that robotics will push out human workers in industries from farming and factory work to selling ads and writing articles.

"You're going to put those people out of work, and then you're going to put out of work people whose work is more cognitively demanding, and it's going to go up and up and up until machines can do anything a human can do, and do it without human supervision," Kevin Drum, a political blogger at Mother Jones who has covered this issue in the past, said in an interview with The Washington Post. "They'll repair themselves, and manufacture themselves, and do all the work."

If such a prediction is realized, they worry, it would create a stark inequality of wealth and could pit the super poor against the super rich.

But there are problems when predicting this particular robotic future.

Robots and automation may not transform the world into one dominated by mass unemployment. Industries and jobs which were replaced by either automation or new technologies didn't just suddenly disappear. Instead, those workforces gradually bled over into new industries to create more jobs. Additionally, the consequence of automated workforces is a reduced cost of labor, helping to make more products more available than they would be otherwise. A high-end smartphone may cost $400 now, but a streamlined automated workforce could bump that number down to $100 or lower.

Finally, there's the human element. People like interacting with people and buying things people have made. And while automating common jobs, such as call centers, is always an option, it sometimes isn't the best choice for companies to make.

Technology may cause people to be out of work in some industries, but it may wind up being a short, cheap, venture.

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