Welcome, Robot Overlords

How Intelligent Machines Let Us Enjoy Life

A surprising number of people seem to be freaking out about an imminent takeover by robots. It’s true that only at the fringe is anyone suggesting a Matrix-style dystopia where the machines rise up and enslave us. But the commonly-expressed conviction that technological innovation will immiserate broad segments of society is only somewhat less irrational.

A number of major news outlets and commentators have raised the specter of a doom-like “rise of the robots.” These alarmist speculations allege that technology will leave behind a large portion of the U.S. labor force. One recent piece goes so far to insist that taking on the robots “now poses the central economic dilemma of the Obama era.” The central economic dilemma? Does not compute.

There are two blind spots at work among the neo-Luddites. The first is the tendency to see economic stagnation or decline everywhere, which, it is said, will only worsen. The amount of economic insecurity—and the extent of its increase—have been greatly overstated, as I have argued in the pages of National Affairs. Median income has fallen notably since the onset of the financial crisis, but it was increasing before the recession, and it has been rising again for several months.

It is true that in recent decades, the rate of income growth has been much slower even in good times than in the Golden Age following World War II. However, CBO data indicate that during the expansion of the last decade median income growth rates were no worse than in the 1990s and better than in the 1980s. And as I argue in the latest issue of Breakthrough Journal, we get absolute economic gains today comparable to those of the 1950s and 1960s despite having lower growth rates, because we are so much richer than in the past.

Even if growth rates never return to their glory days, we are on the verge of realizing absolute annual gains that will be permanently larger than in the Golden Age. How those gains are distributed is an important consideration, but the situation is less dire than many believe. Median income has risen by at least one-third since 1979, and the evidence that the labor market is polarizing has been, in the words of Urban Institute and Georgetown economist Harry Holzer, “overblown.”

The second blind spot among the neo-Luddites is their failure to consider the gains we will receive as consumers from technological advances even as they misunderstand the reduced demand for labor technology may create. Technology makes us more productive—it allows us to produce the same stuff, but more cheaply. Too many people hear “producing the same stuff more cheaply” as “producing the same stuff with fewer workers” and see mass unemployment as our fate. Rising productivity actually means “producing the same stuff with fewerhours worked.” That can be achieved by having fewer workers do the same amount of work, but it is also consistent with the same number of workers all scaling back their hours.

It hardly seems worth arguing that most Americans would work less per week and for less of their lifetimes if they could. One hundred years ago essentially all men in their early 60s worked; today just six in ten do, and the typical retirement age has steadily declined (while life expectancy has increased). During their working years, men now have more leisure time than in the past. Work has increased markedly for women, but consistent with their rising education levels, longer delays in marriage and childbearing, and reduced fertility, this is mainly reflective of greater opportunities to balance work and family. Unpaid time doing housework has declined more among women than work has increased, meaning that they too have more leisure time than in the past.

Of course, people will only choose to work less if they can afford to. But technological advance will radically increase productivity—reducing demand for labor—only insofar as it also radically reduces the prices of what we buy. Ignoring this connection leads to absurd fears about the future. Some, apparently, believe we may have a robot economy down the road where machines produce everything, but few humans can afford the output.

Technological development will surely eliminate some specific jobs. But there is little reason to think that the future will look any different from the past in this regard. Productivity gains in manufacturing and other sectors will lower the cost of goods and produce more discretionary income, which people will use to pay other people to do things for them, creating new jobs. Mass leisure will also create other kinds of jobs, such as those devoted to entertaining and informing each other. To the extent that the least-skilled need help, we will be in a much better position to afford safety nets, and our main concern will be the age-old one of discouraging dependency. To the extent that technology increases inequality much of it will be to reward innovators for finding ways to drive our workweek and retirement age down or to induce some to keep working 40-hour weeks.

I, for one, welcome our future robot overlords.

Scott Winship is a Fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of “The Affluent Economy” in Breakthrough Journal No. 3. This was originally published at Forbes.

Photo credit: Top Design Magazine, Original by Klaus Burgle