The Robot Revolution Will Not Be a Rerun of the Industrial Revolution


Eliezer Yudkowsky asks Tyler Cowen today why he thinks the coming robot revolution1 will be a problem for employment. After all, the Industrial Revolution automated a lot of work too, and it worked out fine for employment. The answer to this, I think, is simple: the robot revolution will automate cognitive work, not just manual work. A machine that can literally do anything a human can do will certainly boost economic growth, but it won’t create more human employment in the process. It will just create more robot employment. For a little more detail on this, you can read a short version of the argument here and a longer version here.

But Cowen suggests that you don’t need to buy this to believe that robots are going to create big employment shocks anyway. You just need to look at the history of employment during the Industrial Revolution in a little more detail than we usually do:

I would challenge the notion that it went fine. Think of the machines of the industrial revolution as getting underway sometime in the 1770s or 1780s. The big wage gains for British workers don’t really come until the 1840s. Depending on your exact starting point, that is over fifty years of labor market problems from automation.

….A second point is that now we have a much more extensive network of government benefits and also regulations which increase the fixed cost of hiring labor. Insofar as automation creates short-run adjustment problems, those problems are more likely to show up in the form of decreased labor force participation than they did in previous eras. We are living in a time where the long-run trend is for labor force participation to fall in any case, and that was not in general the case during those earlier episodes.

Extrapolating a bit from Cowen’s point, the problem here is that the robot revolution is likely to be a lot shorter than the Industrial Revolution. Back then, we endured 50 years of employment problems and then things started to get better. But 50 years from today, the robot revolution is likely to be all but over. By the time we might start to expect wage gains, robots will be advanced enough that no more than a tiny percentage of human work is still relevant.

What this means, of course, is that we’d better start thinking about how we’re going to divvy up all the goods and services we produce when virtually none of them are the result of human labor. Call it Economics 3.0. We aren’t there yet, but we might want to start getting ready for it.

1Assuming that it really does come, of course, which we’re assuming for the purposes of this blog post.

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. It's our first time asking for an outpouring of support since screams of FAKE NEWS and so much of what Trump stood for made everything we do so visceral. Like most newsrooms, we face incredibly hard budget realities, and it's unnerving needing to raise big money when traffic is down.

So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate