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Will robots or won’t they take our jobs?

RUR KapekIn 1920 the Czech author and playwright, Karel Capek introduced the word “robot,” in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Robot in Czech means “forced labor” or “drudgery.” (A “robotnik” is a peasant or serf.)

The play opened in Prague in January 1921. The Robots are mass-produced at the island factory of Rossum’s Universal Robots. According to the play ‘Robots remember everything, and think of nothing new.’ Domin (the factory director) says: `They’d make fine university professors.’

Every now and again a Robot will throw down his (they were male in the play) work and start gnashing his teeth. The human managers treat such an event as evidence of a product defect, but Helena [who wants to liberate the Robots] prefers to interpret it as “a sign of the emerging (robotic) soul.”

Capek wrote in a newspaper article in 1935 that he “refuses any responsibility for the thought that machines could take the place of people, or that anything like life, love, or rebellion could ever awaken in their cogwheels.”

Eighty years later we can read almost on a daily basis that robots will take our jobs – Bill Gates says they will; others say they won’t…

James Albus, a leading researcher in robotics, who created an economic concept known as People’s Capitalism in which he imagined: “a world without poverty, a world of prosperity, a world of opportunity, a world without pollution, a world without war, and includes a detailed plan for achievement of these goals.” Albus believed that robots would help companies grow and employ more people. In 1983, for example he stated:

“There is no historical evidence that rapid productivity growth leads to loss of jobs. In fact quite the contrary; in general, industries that use the most efficient production techniques grow and prosper, and hire more workers. Markets for their products expand and they diversify into new product lines.”

Could this be the case with Amazon? Despite its $775 million cash acquisition of Kiva Systems, a warehouse automation robot, Amazon added 20,000 jobs to its fulfillment centers last year and continues to add more in 2014.

On the other hand, those who argue that the more advanced forms of automation (such as robotics and AI) will cause increasing unemployment have several reasonable arguments on their side. In 1983, the same year Albus was optimistic that automation would not kill of millions of jobs, but in fact create many more, Nobel Prize-winning economist Wassily Leontief said:

“We are beginning a gradual process whereby over the next 30-40 years many people will be displaced, creating massive problems of unemployment and dislocation. In the last century, there was an analogous problem with horses. They became unnecessary with the advent of tractors, automobiles, and trucks… So what happened to horses will happen to people.”

We are now at the point were Leontief’s prediction could said to be coming true. As more and more jobs are performed by inexpensive hardware and software combinations people who used to get paid for those jobs will have to find new jobs, retrain or risk being jobless.

In his book Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation, Joseph Weizenbaum, pioneer of the ELIZA psychotherapist machine, argued that “there is a difference between man and machine, and there are certain tasks which computers ought not be made to do, independent of whether computers can be made to do them.” James Albus believed in this human – machine symbiosis and that full employment is possible for humans and robots:

“The problem is not in finding plenty of work for both humans and robots. The problem is in finding mechanisms by which the wealth created by robot technology can be distributed as income to the people who need it. If this were done, markets would explode, demand would increase, and there would be plenty of work for all able-bodied humans, plus as many robots as we could build.”

I personally do not believe we are likely to see “full employment,” certainly not within the next generation. But I do believe that as individuals we should be taking note of what is taking place in the robotics and automation domains – many jobs WILL be displaced by robotics, we are all personally responsible for ensuring our own well-being is taken care of by a) saving and investing prudently ‘just in case’ and/or b) retraining to stay abreast of the new skills that are required as part of this next phase of commercial evolution.

Picture credit: RUR by Karel Capak

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3 Comments

  1. […] In 1920 the Czech author and playwright, Karel Capek introduced the word “robot," in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). Robot in Czech means “forced labor" or “drudgery." (A “robotnik" is…  […]

  2. Larry says:

    Yes, new jobs do get created. However, since the tech crash in 2000, the only major new US job growth has been in health care and in fossil fuel production.

    Here’s a thought experiment. Compare the change in productivity of your average robot and compare it to that of your average worker. Which one is growing faster?

    At some wage, everyone can be employed. But increasingly, those wages are insufficient to support a family. We’ve compensated, with EITC and now heavily-subsidized healthcare and education. The compensations will only increase from here.

  3. sleicest says:

    In my view, as desktop engineering lands on our workstations, our design expertise, not our production time, will (have to) pay for the lifestyle we want. With the (relentless) rise of the machines, doing clever design keeps our skin in the game.

    And lastly, being a designer or innovator shouldn’t be viewed as a special talent. It’s a fundamental part of what makes us human.

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