Everyone’s talking about robots these days, and there’s plenty to discuss. While there’s a sense of excitement about the Next Big Thing – especially in the tech community – there is also an emerging sense of fear. The worry is that these shiny new machines and automated processes will displace workers en masse. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has voiced such concerns, and CBS’ 60 Minutes examined the issue. Earlier this year, public radio’s Marketplace program ran a week-long series titled “Robots Ate My Job“.
Moira Herbst has some good thought on this in The Guardian:
The question, though, should not be whether humans can compete with robots for jobs. Instead, it should be who owns the robots, and who gets to profit from the wealth and leisure time they help create?
In our current system, the answer is clear: investors and the corporate class own the robots and other systems of automation, and they reap most of the rewards. If replacing masses of humans with machines will boost their profits, then masses of humans will, indeed, be cast out into the unemployment line. But if we reorient our economy and society so that our goal is ensuring that everyone can lead a fulfilling life – and not maximizing short-term profit for a few people – robots can actually become humans’ best friends.
That won’t happen unless we force a fairer distribution of the spoils of both man-made and robot-enabled productivity gains. As long as a handful of people own and control the robots (and other means of production), the rest of us won’t be able to access their liberating potential. Instead, wages will continue to sink or stagnate as corporate profits balloon, and working people’s share of the national income will remain at its lowest point in recorded history.
It’s critical that we look at the socio-economic system the robots are operating in, rather than assume that robots are competitors. Robots don’t kill jobs; imbalanced capitalism kills jobs.
Ensuring that capitalists run amok won’t replace our jobs with robots won’t be easy, but learning the right way to embrace the machines is well worth the effort. Once we seize control of the robots, we can put them to work for all of us. Unlike the Luddites, who smashed new textile machines in the 19th century to preserve their livelihoods