Robots are already replacing manufacturing workers. Industrial robots have advanced to the point at which they can do the same physical work as human beings. The operating cost of some robots is now less than the salary of an average Chinese worker. And, unlike human beings, robots don’t complain, join labor unions, or get distracted. They readily work 24 hours a day and require minimal maintenance. Robots will also take the jobs of farmers, pharmacists, and grocery clerks.Shortly after World War II, United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther riposted, upon being shown a bank of cylinder-boring machines going into some car plant, that the machines wouldn't buy any cars. No income from labor, no disposable income: what next?
How are policy makers going to grapple with entire industries’ disruptions in periods that are shorter than election cycles? The industrial age lasted a century, and its consequent changes have happened over generations. Now we have startups in Silicon Valley shaking up bedrock industries such as cable and broadcasting, hotels, and transportation.Yes, if people can earn enough in ten hours to support consumption over the remaining 158, that's one possibility. On the other hand, might we be looking at the scenario anticipated in Marx's Capital, in which modern industry is capable of producing more stuff than the proletarians and the bourgeois are able to purchase at prevailing prices, and under prevailing conventions governing the ownership of the returns to capital. And there's yet a third possibility: recall that the Luddites were skilled operatives rendered redundant by the development of factory machinery that could be operated by anyone. Yes, the big rewards currently go to the software writers with highly specific skills: the arbitrage profit is in breaking those tasks into manageable pieces that can be done by anyone, exactly as the Fordist-Taylorist time and motion tradition of industrial management would have had it.
The writing is clearly on the wall about what lies ahead. Yet even the most brilliant economists—and futurists—don’t know what to do about it.
In his debate with me, [Ray "Singularity'] Kurzweil said: “Automation always eliminates more jobs than it creates if you only look at the circumstances narrowly surrounding the automation. That’s what the Luddites saw in the early 19th century in the textile industry in England. The new jobs came from increased prosperity and new industries that were not seen.” Kurzweil’s key argument was that just as we could not predict that types of jobs that were created, we can’t predict what is to come.
Kurzweil is right, but the problem is that no matter what the jobs of the future are, they will surely require greater skill and education—robots can do all the grunt work. Manufacturers who want to bring production back already complain that they can’t find enough skilled workers in the U.S. for their automated factories. Technology companies that write the software also complain about shortages of workers with the skills that they need. We won’t be able to retrain the majority of the workforce fast enough to take the new jobs in emerging industries. During the industrial revolution, it was the younger generations who were trained—not the older workers.
The only solution that I see is a shrinking work week. We may perhaps be working for 10 to 20 hours a week instead of the 40 for which we do today. And with the prices of necessities and of what we today consider luxury goods dropping exponentially, we may not need the entire population to be working. There is surely a possibility for social unrest because of this; but we could also create the utopian future we have long dreamed of, with a large part of humanity focused on creativity and enlightenment.
Regardless, at best we have another 10 to 15 years in which there is a role for humans. The number of available jobs will actually increase in the U.S. and Europe before it decreases. China is out of time because it has a manufacturing-based economy, and those jobs are already disappearing.
But there's a further pressure on manufacturing: institutions evolve to conserve on transaction costs. And car-sharing services, currently becoming more convenient with wider participation in social networks, are responding to an ancient radical complaint, namely the enforced idleness of a lot of private property (individual automobiles! lawn-mowers! washing machines! backyard swimming pools! Heck, for all I know, martini mixers!) To the extent, though, that people can voluntarily share in large capital investments such as those automobiles, there's less work for existing manufacturers to do.