But Wouldn’t Robots Take Over?

Man, Economy, and Robot

Man, Economy, and Robot

Economists agree that the accumulation of labor-saving capital is responsible for the great growth of wealth experienced in recent centuries. It has allowed the productivity of the public to soar, which has in turn improved wages and working conditions.

Yet parallel to the phenomenal betterment of the life of the common man have always been vocal cries against the job-destroying machines. The robots, as it goes, are taking our jobs! [1]

It is curious that the opponents of the accumulation of capital are always drawn from the present generations. Many men and women today wax eloquent about the jobs this or that industry will have to shed because the machines are simply better than the humans. However, they hardly decry the capital accumulation of the past. If the machines that are being employed today destroy so many jobs, why not also speak out against and destroy the machines of the past? Instead of only fighting against the greater use of capital in today’s world, why not try to turn the clock back further? Instead of the steam shovel, reach for the old-school shovel. And before grasping it, pick up Milton Friedman’s spoon [2]. Finally, drop it and use your bare hands to dig in the dirt.

“what if robots become so good that they are better than humans at everything?”

Regardless of this logical conclusion, fashionable futurist philosophers of today ask the question “what if robots become so good that they are better than humans at everything? Wouldn’t we all lose our jobs, and hence our livelihoods, while the rich have their corporations run by robots and retain all their profits?”

At first, this appears a daunting critique – after all, without jobs, how will we survive? As the old saying goes, “The rich will get richer and the poor, poorer” [3]. However, upon a closer inspection, these fears turn out to be unfounded.

http://foter.com/img/photo/91/olocausto_l.jpg

And then there were none.

The misunderstanding arises because of the failure to see the market as a dynamic, responsive mechanism, but rather as a fixed and machine-like device existing outside the realm of human desires. The situation presented first of all disregards the fact that people use means toward ends. How is this relevant? Because of the fact that businesses produce not merely because of some inner desire to produce stuff, but because they would like to sell said stuff to consumers. As influential classical economist David Ricardo said,

‘No man produces but with a view to consume or sell, and he never sells but with an intention to purchase some other commodity, which may be immediately useful to him, or which may contribute to future production.” (1817)

Instead, the Robot Theory implies that businesses produce for the sake of producing.

http://foter.com/img/photo/103/n-a-5152_l.jpg

Toss the poor out!

Let’s see how the proposed doomsday scenario would play out. Robots become better and better at performing the tasks of man, and they (supposedly) replace humans more and more. This means (supposedly), that more and more people lose their jobs. But for some reason, the businesses continue to produce an ever-increasing amount of goods, because the robots are more efficient. Taken to the limit, the corporations will be made up of only the owners and the robots, while the rest of the masses are poor and jobless. I wonder – why are the businesses then continuing production? If no one can buy their products, why do they continue making them? The proposition that increased automatization will lead to mass unemployment is, therefore, preposterous.

Yet there are other objections to be brought up to this theory. If the robots are so efficient, why does the public not begin employing them as well? Assuming that we have such marvelous technological progress as to make factories completely autonomous, is it not likely that this technology will also, at least on a smaller scale, be available to the masses? If so, then we really enter a stage of utopia instead of disaster – where each man is able to produce what he needs by himself and hence have his material needs satisfied [4]. As economist Walter Block notes,

“[J]obs are nothing but a means toward that end… [I]magine a world where radios, pizzas, jogging shoes, and everything else we might want continuously rained down like manna from heaven. Would we want jobs in such a Utopia? No, we could devote ourselves to other tasks—studying, basking in the sun, etc.—that we would undertake for their intrinsic pleasure.” (1988)

The last desperate objection to be raised to capital accumulation could be “but what will we do when we need not labor to survive?” I propose we worry about that when we get there – we’ll have nothing else to do!

- Wheylous

—————–

Footnotes:

[1] The title of this essay is a play on Robert Murphy’s “But Wouldn’t the Warlords Take Over?”, a great reply to the idea that private defense agencies would wage constant war on the public.

[2] It has been passed down in economic mythology that Milton Friedman went to China and saw that at their digs they were using shovels instead of modern tractors and earth movers. Upon being told that this was to “create jobs,” he shook his head and told them they should be using spoons instead.

[3] Tom Woods addresses this platitude by asking how in the world the poor can, over a long period of time, get ever poorer and poorer. At some point, you have to hit subsistence level, and there’s really nothing more to “steal” from the poor.

[4] To not clutter up the article, I will note here that lastly, one might argue that the robots will work on huge robot plantations to only serve their masters. In this case, it must be recognized that the structure of production will be very different from what it is today – in the current world, companies generally mass-produce goods for which they themselves have no use. It would be difficult to argue that Ford makes all those cars because they just want to own millions of cars. Hence, if said robot plantations exist, then the CEOs must necessarily only be producing for themselves – specific goods, and in limited quantities at that. Assume, then, that all the rich would care for is making jets to fly around the world. In that case, it is true that no people would be hired to work the jet-producing machines. Yet it’s also true that the rich would have no use of the massive amounts of other land and capital that is only useful in providing mass-produced goods such as tooth-brushes, food, toys. Since they would see no value in the land, they would not bother owning the land, which opens it up for the public to use as before, and employment and general welfare exists once again. Of course, it could again be pointed out that even if the rich produce only for themselves, the advances in technology would likely also be available to the masses.

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15 thoughts on “But Wouldn’t Robots Take Over?

  1. Rollo McFloogle 12/01/2012 at 19:16 Reply

    Excellent job.

    The robot disaster theories beg the question that we’ll suddenly start operating against our own self-interest, which just doesn’t make sense.

  2. Etjon Basha 12/01/2012 at 19:23 Reply

    Reading this article made me see that the recurring theme of a robot uprising we often encounter in pop culture may be a reflection of the fear that the lengthening of the structure of production will leave us all unemployed.

    Indeed, taken to its proper logical extreme, this view accounts for scenes in The Matrix, where whole plantations of humans are run to provide robots with energy so that they can…do what exactly? The same goes for the Terminator franchise: what is Skynet doing all day long in the future? What are its goals?

    The silliness of a society in which robots either harvest or fight humans just to survive must expose this whole idea as ridiculous, and drive an intelligent laymen to understand that automation will boost, and not hurt, average incomes.

  3. Millioneigher 12/01/2012 at 20:24 Reply

    “Man will never be enslaved by machinery, so long as the man tending the machine be paid enough.” – Karel Capek, Czech Sci-Fi author and creator of the term “robot”.

  4. egokick 12/01/2012 at 20:51 Reply

    Consider a world where the A.I.s have goals and wants to be satisfied and are also cheaper to employ than humans and can be reproduced for trivial costs and time. Production would then be geared towards satisfying the wants of A.I.s because they’d be the ones with the resources.

  5. AristippusofCyrene 12/01/2012 at 23:59 Reply

    Another important point, I think, is that if robots are simply labour-saving devices, they could to an extent supplant man’s labour capacity, but they could not supplant his entrepreneurial capacity. That is to say that the grunt labour which could be performed by a robot is only one function that man can serve on the market, and perhaps not his most important one. The dynamism of a free vs. a slave economy demonstrates as much. (As a side point, the economics of running slave plantations vs. free market firms also speaks in favour of the latter)

    This is just part of the broader point that labour-saving devices do not necessarily save all labour. What is lumped together under the umbrella term ‘labour’ is in fact a vast array of different services, i.e. labour is heterogeneous. Should we assume that all those tasks could be performed more efficiently by robots? Or would humans necessarily be cheaper or better at certain tasks, rendering them more efficient than robots?

  6. Neodoxy 12/02/2012 at 01:54 Reply

    I think it’s also relevant that if we reach this state that we would practically be post scarcity. All it would take would be for you to find some change on the street corner, or a single factory owner would just have to decide to give some money to everyone and everything would be fine.
    A world where robots are literally better at everything and where humans can undercut them would be a world where any amount of income would put the past to shame. Indeed if this were the case I think you might see one or two of us gravitate towards the Venus Project! :P

  7. Daniel 12/02/2012 at 17:05 Reply

    I think what many find frightening about such a world is that there will be fewer and fewer jobs for those who are unwilling or unable to think or to be creative about how they will produce products or services at a profit and sustain themselves. In effect, in a world with automated manufacturing, there will be no (or very few) mindless jobs in which you can be employed and risk someone else’s capital; you will have to risk your own.

    Great article by the way.

  8. […] I recently found an article on the blog called The Voluntaryist Reader discussing just this.  For this edition of Required Reading, please read “But Wouldn’t Robots Take Over?” […]

  9. Ben NCM 05/13/2013 at 16:57 Reply

    This article seems unrealistically optimistic. Firstly it doesn’t consider the fact that humans and machines will merge. Humans won’t simply remain humans. Those that do will be massively negatively impacted. And why do humans HAVE to exist at all? Why is not feasible that machines themselves can tend to other machines. When machines come to resemble humans so closely, to the point of no distinction whatsoever then corporate bosses will have no qualms in keeping their nearest and dearest alive and forgetting about the rest of us; a decision that will result in a neo-luddite revolt which humans will ultimately lose. Machines making machines will be the turning point at which our days become numbered and for some reason it remains a goal humankind is determined to reach.

    • wheylous 05/13/2013 at 21:26 Reply

      “Firstly it doesn’t consider the fact that humans and machines will merge. Humans won’t simply remain humans. Those that do will be massively negatively impacted.” – Perhaps, but I don’t seem why it’s too relevant. The human body is an awesome natural display of power, manifested in various degrees across individuals. Adding machine to the mix (especially when it becomes relatively inexpensive and available to the public) would not change the equation too much.

      “And why do humans HAVE to exist at all? Why is not feasible that machines themselves can tend to other machines.” – Why would robots necessarily come to resemble humans? Seems quite inefficient…

      “then corporate bosses will have no qualms in keeping their nearest and dearest alive and forgetting about the rest of us;” – corporate bosses don’t really have to care for us. In fact, the great thing about capitalism is that it results in a near-optimal social environment even despite human pitfalls.

      Furthermore, I don’t see how it follows that when robots look like humans, corporate bosses will kill off humans. And why assume that only corporate bosses will have access to this technology? In today’s world the poorest people in the US have a greater computing power in their pocket than all supercomputers in the world did in the 60s (correct me if I’m wrong).

      “Machines making machines will be the turning point at which our days become numbered and for some reason it remains a goal humankind is determined to reach.” Yeah, probably not.

      • Ben NCM 05/14/2013 at 03:42 Reply

        Adding machine elements to humans wouldn’t change themix too much because humans are already awesome as they are? That seems terribly premature don’t you think? Especially considering how machines doing specific tasks are immeasurable more efficient and powerful than humans in nearly all conceivable ways. And that’s at this present time, never mind what’s to come. I’m also in awe of what we are, but this dawn of improving upon what we’ve inherited is only just beginning. You are seriously underestimating what is about to transpire, which seems very surprising that you should be so conservative in your projections at a time like this.

        -Why would robots necessarily come to resemble humans?

        What?? When did say that? I said machines will be able to tend to machines. Not machines will come to resemble humans. They clearly don’t have to at all.

        – the great thing about capitalism is that it results in a near-optimal social environment even despite human pitfalls.

        And is this for everyone or those closer to the top of the pecking order? Near optimal? I think you’re tripping a bit. I’d agree that it’s the best system so far without a doubt but to say that its near-optimal indicates to me that you know what optimal means and I’d love to learn what that is exactly. What tweakings have to be performed in order for optimal performance to be achieved?

        The argument about the smart phone in the average kid’s pocket costing a trillion dollars back in the 60’s is quaint and you prematurely misread that I stated only corporate bosses would have access to this technology. Clearly, as you point out from history this is a nonsense argument to put forward. Who cares whether the poorest people have technology that supersedes that of those in the 60’s??? The 60’s has been and gone. We’re not living in the 60’s so quit with the nostalgic soundbites designed to calm the masses that the future will be bright for everyone. You need to say, well if I have a smart phone now and I’m poor, what in the world does a corporate boss have at his disposal?

        • wheylous 05/15/2013 at 10:52 Reply

          “I said machines will be able to tend to machines.” – Quite likely. Now my question is why the capitalists would need to kill everyone else, in that case. Furthermore, rich people aren’t just clustered around evil authoritarianism. Assuming for a second that leftists are the “nice” people, there are rich people on the left as well.

          I don’t think most CEOs wake up thinking “man, I wish I could kill everyone, but I need them to run all these machines…”

          But even disregarding this, I think you missed the main point of this article. Production doesn’t happen for the sake of production. Production happens to satisfy a consumer. If all the rich people had machines which tend to themselves and fire all the non-rich people then who the heck are they producing for? They most certainly cannot consume all they produce…

          “And is this for everyone or those closer to the top of the pecking order?”

          Everyone, if it’s pure capitalism and not corporatism. We hardly have capitalism today. To argue this would be quite absurd. For some examples, see “Pro-business or pro-market?” at http://thelibertyhq.org/learn/index.php?articleID=256&parentID=32

          Unfortunately, today we have government favoritism of selected firms, as well as massive distortions which tend to centralize economic power.

          “to say that its near-optimal indicates to me that you know what optimal means and I’d love to learn what that is exactly.” – Optimal from an economic and moral standpoint. For the economic side, if you’re acquainted with the jargon, I recommend reading “Toward a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics” – http://library.mises.org/books/Jesus%20Huerta%20de%20Soto/Toward%20a%20Reconstruction%20of%20Utility%20and%20Welfare%20Economics.pdf

          If you’re not, here’s the gist: On the market, no exchanges are coerced. As such, both parties to a trade benefit, or else they would not have engaged in the trade. Hence, in free trade “society” is better off, because both people are better off and neither is worse off. When you introduce coercive, non-voluntary elements, on the other hand, it is impossible to tell whether society is better off. Since it is not even theoretically possible to do interpersonal utility comparisons, if one person is better off at the expense of someone else who would rather not have engages in the trade but was threatened with violence if he didn’t, then this interaction is not a net gain for society and human welfare.

          To see some examples of why government regulation, even in the case of “market failure,” is likely to be counterproductive, check out http://econfaculty.gmu.edu/bcaplan/compet

          And if you’d like some background before reading that, check out http://thelibertyhq.org/learn/index.php?articleID=257&parentID=32

          Essentially, the market has its participants’ incentives structured in a much better manner than government does. Moreover, the market is better at using information than government is (as Hayek explained). Check out

          and

          And no, I can’t tell you what the specific “perfect” societal order is. No one can. This order is approximated through voluntary, spontaneous societal processes, like the free market (others are the free market in ideas [free speech], the freedom to practice non-violent religions, etc).

          “Who cares whether the poorest people have technology that supersedes that of those in the 60′s??? The 60′s has been and gone.” – Alright. Compare technology today to technology 10 years ago. How many 1MB floppy disks line your walls today? Or maybe you carry at least 4GB in a device half the size of a pen (flash drive)? How many people had GPS technology 10 years ago, compared to today’s free map services in smart phones?

          “You need to say, well if I have a smart phone now and I’m poor, what in the world does a corporate boss have at his disposal?” – What do they have? Tell me.

  10. […] And if Anissimov has an issue with some people driving down the cost of labor, he had better brush on his knowledge of how economies grow.  If he’s against cheap labor, then he had better be against technological advancements that automate labor. […]

  11. […] As I was perusing the liberty networks, I came across an article from The Economics of Liberty called “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Robots.” The article explains how automated labor can replace human labor and how that leads to economic development. It is similar to the excellent piece by the Voluntaryist Reader, “But Wouldn’t Robots Take Over?” […]

  12. […] As I was perusing the liberty networks, I came across an article from The Economics of Liberty called “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Robots.” The article explains how automated labor can replace human labor and how that leads to economic development. It is similar to the excellent piece by the Voluntaryist Reader, “But Wouldn’t Robots Take Over?” […]

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