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Our new robot masters  

7 February 2014 By Martin Hutchinson

A world of ubiquitous robots will produce few jobs for humans. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies” looks at the age of robotics, which is finally arriving. The problem: when robots do everything, how will humans find jobs? The authors suggest some useful directions, but their answers are mostly unconvincing.

The most interesting part of the book is the explanation of why robots may now finally be becoming viable, closing in on a “singularity” in the way we live. The move to a world of robots has been slower than was expected in the 1950s. Moore’s Law – that the capacity and speed of computer operations double every two years – has operated since that time, but many operations which are easy for human beings are difficult for robots. For example, according to “The Second Machine Age” it currently takes a robot fully 24 minutes to fold a towel.

Moore’s law suggests a 32-fold increase in processing power over a decade and as computers do more, barriers fall. In 2004, a DARPA race for self-driving cars was a fiasco; ten years later Google self-driving cars are buzzing around Silicon Valley, although they may not work right in extreme driving situations.

Harried homeowners can look forward to more mechanical help. If the pattern continues, by 2034 the robot will fold a towel 1,024 times faster than now – 1.4 seconds. Problem solved: the towel closet will no longer be a baffling intellectual Matterhorn for the robotic household help.

The authors believe that robots will gradually replace people in many tasks that provide substantial modest-skill employment, such as car and truck driving, food service, low-end retail, and domestic and landscape work. People will have jobs helping computers, since the combination of machine and human is often more effective than machines alone. In 2011, IBM’s Watson computer was able to beat the reigning champion on American TV quiz show “Jeopardy!” but Watson lost to humans working with fast PCs.

The authors contrast the “bounty” from robots’ advancing capabilities with the “spread” of greater inequality that in the authors’ view is likely to accompany it. However, their economic prescriptions for dealing with a robotized world are disappointing.

They call for higher taxes on the rich, handouts to the unemployable and more immigration, the last in spite of their assumption of massive low-skill unemployment. In effect, they offer a bleak future in which much of the population subsists on welfare while the rest pay taxes at high marginal rates to support them.

One area where more analysis might have been helpful is the major productivity lift potentially available from robotic medicine. IBM is already attempting to turn Watson into “Dr. Watson,” capable of undertaking medical diagnosis. Once diagnosis is possible, one can imagine robots undertaking surgery. This could bring a really major economic advance, whereby medicine, currently in the United States costing an extortionate 18 percent of GDP, could become much cheaper, perhaps descending to the 5 percent of GDP it cost in 1960.

If markets are allowed to allocate resources, robots may disrupt our lives less than the authors think. The internet’s support for “long-tail” products, whether minority-interest books or obscure crafts or hand-made furniture, allows many more people to make a living from their abilities than was previously possible. If robots provide our necessities, humans may survive by providing the art-objects and fripperies that make life interesting.

Robots look like revolutionizing our lives. But they won’t abolish the laws of economics and they won’t make a society tolerable in which mass welfare handouts are combined with high taxes. Fortunately human ingenuity will probably come up with a solution to this conundrum. From “The Second Machine Age” we can conclude that it needs to get its skates on.


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