Robots, we are told, will replace us. Then, according to one’s political persuasion, we will experience either:
1. Utopian idleness, supported by the government in the style our politicians have promised, or
2. Impoverishment and starvation for lack of productive work for human beings.
Pick your preference.
Let’s get real. Obviously, no government will support us all; robots will not pay the taxes needed. So we will all starve, right? Hint: How long will a government that starves everyone likely endure? Yeah.
That’s how first, political propaganda and second, real economics, work. So what’s with robots, really?
Consider for a moment: Our ancestors added horses and oxen to plowing to free them (and their wives) for more productive labors. That was a long time ago. Now, it’s computers and machines replacing human labor, a more advanced product of human ingenuity. More advanced, not new. A continuation of an ancient process.
The process has always produced major dislocations: remember the Luddites when machines began to make cotton and woolens? The industrialization of the United States produced the Civil War between the industrial North and agricultural South, but also the ongoing Progressive political movement in response to the surplus labor created by the industrialization and the war’s end. Technology has always resulted in surplus labor and that has always had political effects. But technology has, producing ever-increasing wealth, proceeded regardless. It has proceeded because while it has always produced winners and losers, the former have outlasted the latter. Very human, no?
Hordes of folk who once would have spent their lives using shovels now spend them using computers instead. But a lot of folk caught between those two situations endured hard times, fought wars (and died in them) or met crime, disease, and desperation in their lives. It requires time to adjust masses of populations to such changes. Folk caught in the middle, suffer. That’s the system, like it or not. And it’s notable that no politician has ever ameliorated it, regardless of any promises. But most of us don’t wish to hear that, we prefer the promises.
The shift from a labor-intensive to a machine based production system is a result of political distortion of the production process. Democratic political systems produced politicians obligated to promise unionized labor a larger share of the rewards of production. That opened opportunities for competitors from less democratic societies. What happens when a high cost producer competes with a low cost producer? Eventually, the high cost source dies and the low cost st source faces the same pressures that raised costs for the deceased competitor. Governments may interfere for a time, controlling costs using political criteria but eventually, the market ends on top, maybe with a revolution needed first. Ask any ex-Soviet.
So, the robots will obsolete people, maybe a lot of people who have been voting themselves higher wages than the market would provide. Reality sucks, sure enough but it remains reality, like it or not. Those who replaced economics with politics will find that they have in the end, a bill to pay. Payment may require a decade or more. No fun. Eventually though, economic adjustments will sort things out with new forms of human labor with appropriate rewards, serving a human market much like the old, though more automated, no doubt. Our species will continue to eat, clothe itself, travel, study, reproduce, war, etc. None of that is or will become, free. And the universe is calling us to explore …
We will not find Nirvana on earth; always cycling between the last and the next crises. That’s the human condition. But the trend has always been upward and that will continue. Best we be satisfied with that. The rest is delusion, fraud and political promises.
So it remains the best of times and also the worst of times as the novelist pointed out. And it always will.