Don't Fear Job-Destroying Robots, Fear the Small Minds Who Fear Robots
All demand is preceded by the supply. To write what is so obvious seems a waste of words, but it’s necessary in the age of the robot. Economist Steve Horwitz sums up the previous point rather well: “If you are wise, you understand that supply is just demand in disguise.”
All of this rates restating in consideration of a viewpoint held by some technologists that increasingly sophisticated automation threatens to put most of us into breadlines. The witless supposition would be funny if some didn’t take what’s laughable so seriously.
In a recent essay for the Wall Street Journal, technologist Kai-Fu Lee comically asserted that “[I]f we allow AI economics to run their natural course, the geopolitical tumult of recent years will look like child’s play” by comparison. Lee’s unserious rant, one cloaked in closed-eye seriousness, is a reminder that high IQ doesn’t always correlate with common sense. If Lee had a little more of the latter he wouldn’t be associating his good name with arguments that will be so happily discredited in the future. Getting into specifics, Lee’s abundant self-seriousness has blinded him to the basic truth that “supply is just demand in disguise.”
The above truth is an inconvenient one for those like Lee who quite literally believe that when it comes to modern automation, “this time is different.” Seemingly forgotten by the alarmists is that technology by its very name is a job destroyer. Nearly all technology is about achieving greater and greater production outcomes with less and less in the way of human exertion. It’s called productivity, and every time technological advances automate away the work of the past, the endlessly adaptable human mind is able to focus on meeting new needs; the discovered needs often ones we didn’t know we had before. iPhone anyone? WiFi? Uber?
Along these lines, can Lee really not be aware that before primitive forms of AI like the tractor and fertilizer, most humans worked six days a week, from dawn to dusk, on farms? That the tractor and fertilizer arguably destroyed more jobs as a percentage of the global working population than any advance in history didn’t drive people into poverty as much as it freed them to cure disease, develop the automobile, the airplane, the computer, become coaches, teachers, entertainers, and generally do all sorts of things that humans didn’t have the time or means to do before automation of food production ended millennia worth of skill suffocation. Yet that’s a digression.
To simplify what’s simple, we need only consider the motives of the robot/AI developers whose wondrous advances will thankfully render redundant much of what we “do for a living” today. Stating the obvious, the supply of seriously advanced forms of artificial intelligence by technologists is screaming evidence that they have endless demands that they want fulfilled in the marketplace. They’re not investing their money and minds in automation just to get rich in dollars. Why would they? Dollars, yen, euros, yuan and pounds are only worth earning insofar as they can be exchanged for real goods and services. The creators of robots are loudly expressing a desire to get in massive quantities in return for their genius. In short, the automation that has all too many terrified of persistent unemployment ahead is the surest sign that jobs will be more abundant in the age of robots than at any time in history.
Lee warns that that in “the coming years, people will watch algorithms and robots easily outmaneuver them at tasks they’ve spent a lifetime mastering,” but it’s precisely what scares Lee that ensures the robots of tomorrow will be the biggest enemy of unemployment that man has ever conceived. We know this because no one would produce at great effort and expense for a world set to go on the dole. The creation of robots and AI are once again an expression of wants by their creators that will make today’s consumption by the richest of the rich appear small by comparison. It’s all a reminder of what I’ve argued in my last two books: robots will be the greatest job creators ever.
So while the work of tomorrow will thankfully in no way resemble the work of today, work we will do. For Lee to assume otherwise, and he does, is for the technologist to not just be blind to Say’s Law. It’s also for him to presume static qualities about humanity even though it’s human nature to progress.
To see why the above is true, readers need only consider that when the 20th century began, it was accepted wisdom among deep thinkers like Lee that man would never fly. The Wright brothers were viewed as the flakiest of flakes as they studied the wing movement of birds in Kitty Hawk, NC. But having made enough money at their Ohio bike shop to experiment with flight, the brothers were ultimately vindicated in ways that transformed the world. The latter explains why people should be so thrilled about robots.
Indeed, the automation of so much that we do today sets the stage for production at a level that will make today’s seem impoverished by comparison. That’s the case because robots won’t call in sick, won’t require days off, and won’t quit. That they won’t means that resource access in the future will be staggering. Let’s never forget that when we borrow money we’re not borrowing money per se. We’re borrowing money for what it can be exchanged for. Looked at through the prism of automation, credit will be stunningly cheap in the future on the way to experimentation and advance that will make the airplanes, smartphones and healthcare of today appear positively primitive relative to what replaces them.
What this means for jobs is anyone’s guess, but like all labor-saving advances the time saved will free up minds operating at a fraction of their potential to discover and develop new things that will boggle the mind. More specifically, it says here that today’s service economy will give way to the "entertainment economy." With automation rendering every worker exponentially more productive, the work week is set to shrink even more in concert with demand for entertainment that will skyrocket. Nowadays people literally make a living playing and coaching video game players. As automation speeds up, more and more people will earn a handsome salary by doing what they love.
All of this runs counter to what Lee naively presumes. Of the belief that the future is a grim one that will be defined by “a crushing feeling of futility and obsolescence” such that “guaranteed income may be necessary,” reality will surely intrude on this most static of thinkers. Automation won’t put us out of work; rather it will cause more and more of us to become enamored of it. As a growing number of automated “hands” save humans from all that’s miserable about toil, the result will be skyrocketing individual specialization. We’ll all fall in love again as robots free man to progress in mind-blowing ways that will lead to amazing jobs that will be blindingly clear expressions of our individual genius.
So while Lee is calling for a “Social Investment Stipend” that will amount to a “respectable government salary” for those who devote themselves to “care work, community service and education" (what Lee laughably assumes will be on the only jobs left), the on-the-ground reality is that automation will be the greatest enemy of handouts the world has ever known. That's true because automation promises to enable the very specialization that will have us increasingly approaching work the way Michael Jordan did basketball. Robots will make us superstars, not supplicants. Some of the superstars will cure cancer, others will fix the traffic problem, the advances of others will have us marveling at the limited qualities of the "old" Apple iPhone X.
In short, Kai-Fu Lee has it all backwards. If robots were set to neuter humanity on the way to prosaic make work, then there wouldn’t be robots. No one produces to get nothing in return. That robots are set to exponentially increase production is the surest sign that the workers of tomorrow will be the most engaged and productive workers the world has ever seen.