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They’re coming!

from David Ruccio

As everyone knows, robots and artificial intelligence are coming. The question is, what effects will they have on us? In particular, will they replace workers and lead to massive unemployment? And what about the other workers, the ones who manage to keep their jobs?

According to Moshe Vardi [ht: ja], in a speech to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “AI could drive global unemployment to 50%, wiping out middle-class jobs and exacerbating inequality.”

Unlike the industrial revolution, Vardi said, “the AI revolution” will not be a matter of physically powerful machines that outperform human laborers, but rather a contest between human wit and mechanical intelligence and strength. In China the question has already affected thousands of jobs, as electronics manufacturers, Foxconn and Samsung among them, develop precision robots to replace human workers.

Martin Ford, author of Rise Of The Robots: Technology and The Threat Of A Jobless Future, also foresees dire consequences for workers. Here are some excerpts of an interview with him by National Geographic:

An Oxford University survey suggested that 47 per cent of the world’s jobs will be taken by robots in the coming decades. What’s involved and which jobs are most at risk?
This is a big issue that is not science fiction and is happening already. It involves what we call narrow artificial intelligence, which can do relatively routine, predictable things. By predictable, I mean you can predict what a person doing a job is going to be doing based on that they’ve done in the past.

Like flipping burgers?
It could be flipping burgers or a lot of factory and warehouse jobs like stocking shelves. One of the most dramatic impacts isn’t going to involve actual robots. It’s going to involve software. Some of the people most threatened are what we might call office drones: people who sit in front of computers doing relatively routine, formulaic things. If your job is to produce the same kinds of reports again and again, software is getting smarter and better at doing that. We already have lots of examples, even in journalism. There’s smart software that is able to write basic news stories. Lots of white-collar jobs held by college graduates are going to be threatened.

What will the effect on the world economy be?
In the long run, it could have a dramatic impact and I think we are already beginning to see that. As you eliminate workers and people become unemployed or their wages fall, consumers will have less purchasing power to buy the products and services produced by the economy. As a result, there will be less and less demand. Economists all over the world are talking about this issue. In Europe, for example, there are concerns about inflation because there is not enough demand for products and services. If you project this forward, there are going to be a lot of people who are either unemployed, underemployed, or struggling financially, who simply won’t have discretionary income to spend.


Massive unemployment is one problem associated with the increased use of robots and artificial intelligence. The other concerns workers who, for whatever reason, are able to keep their jobs.

Think about the current situation at AT&T, which is seeking to retrain its workers and, at the same time, threatening to layoff up to one third of its workforce.

Eboni Bell, 24, a product manager for smartphone software in AT&T’s Atlanta office, sees the Vision 2020 retraining as the chance of a lifetime. The company provided tuition assistance for much of her two-year Udacity/Georgia Tech master’s degree in computer science, which it says cost $6,600. Single and childless, she doesn’t mind the hours it takes.

“I leave the office at 7 p.m., work at home until midnight, and Saturdays and Sundays are committed to school,” she said.

What we have, then, is a situation in which, as a consequence of robots and artificial intelligence, its’s quite possible that many workers will be made redundant, while workers who retain their jobs are going to face lower wages, increased work loads, and longer hours.

There’s nothing inevitable about these effects. It’s not robots and artificial intelligence per se that are going to negatively affect workers. What matters is how the robots and new kinds of software are created and utilized within the current set of economic institutions—as a way of increasing profits and exacerbating inequality.

We can, of course, imagine an entirely different set of effects—ways that robots and artificial intelligence might serve to eliminate onerous tasks and lessen the amount of work we all have to do.

But that’s going to require fundamentally changing the existing set of economic institutions. That, and not robots and artificial intelligence, is the real challenge facing us.

  1. February 16, 2016 at 4:00 pm

    Here’s another kind of robot, it pays the rent for people. I was once a young university trained economist. Where did I spend my research time? One early subject was the house that pays the people to live in itself.

    What kind of economy is it when cheap, passive robots house people for free?

  2. February 16, 2016 at 4:50 pm

    Again with the damned robots? What will humans do? What will economists say?


  3. Rhonda Kovac
    February 16, 2016 at 5:40 pm

    The issue is the ownership of wealth. The fruits of these technological advances are owned, essentially in perpetuity, by the corporate and investor elite. There’s nothing wrong with those who create new technologies being compensated for their contributions. But very quickly thereafter the beneifts generated need to belong to the public at large.

    It’s not only that such an arrangement is fair. It’s also that without this principle there is no way to prevent any of a number of advancements and structural changes in economies from disproportionately benefiting the rich while punishing the rest of us.

    • February 16, 2016 at 8:08 pm

      “The issue is the ownership of wealth.” Yes indeed. And “ownership” is a status conferred by the State and legitimated by contradictory natural law and utilitarian arguments.

  4. February 16, 2016 at 7:52 pm

    You know the monthly pay of a Marine Lance Corporal? It’s $1,950/month, even after 40 years of service. I choose Lance Corporals because they are the lowest rung on the Marine leadership ladder. Their job is almost unbelievably stressful, requires courage and creativity on and off the battle field, and can obviously get them killed. The average hedge fund employee’s (not senior management) salary is about $35,000/month. I see a big problem here. So robots coming or not is not the issue. The issue is how we choose to organize our economic actions. Or more accurately how we are told these ought to be, must be organized. It’s not the “robot” problem we need to address. It’s the way our economic actions are arranged that we need to look to. Right now justice, fairness, and human limitations play little part in those arrangements. We need to put them in. After that any robot problems that threaten become solvable.

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