Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Robots are Coming

Good column by Matt Miller: The Robots Are Coming (Washington Post):
“The Robots Take Over!” cries this month’s cover story in Wired Magazine. “They’re coming for your job – and you’ll be glad they did.” The piece, by Kevin Kelly, chronicles the amazing roles robotic technology is poised to take on – from warehouse worker and waitress to artist, musician, therapist and even comedian. It trumpets the news with the breezy optimism that characterizes most talk of technology’s impact on society.

And why not be breezy? One of the core tenets of economics is that technological advance is the wellspring of human betterment. Yes, new technologies disrupt old arrangements and devastate industries and workers they displace. But, over time, such innovation spawns new industries and jobs whose scale vastly exceeds the losses suffered by technology’s “losers.”

It’s the nature of economic change. The Luddites, as we learned in school, were wrong. Or, to put it more precisely, no one could blame them for fighting the machines that eliminated their skilled textile jobs. But the broader notion – that technological advance could destroy more jobs than it creates or cause widespread economic harm – is a fallacy.

Well, what if the Luddite Fallacy was a fallacy only for the first 250 years of modern capitalism’s existence? What if we’re entering an era of geometrically accelerating technological advance in which artificial intelligence, robotics and nanotechnology will together pose much more profound threats to jobs, wages and social stability than has commonly been imagined? And what if it’s not just the “unskilled” who are at risk, but most of us?

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