Who owns the future, robots, humans, both or neither?

Martin Wolf wrote last friday: “…does it not make sense to combine shorter working weeks for many with redistribution of incomes from the small number of winners to everybody else?” Missing from the quote is the start of the sentence: “If there really is a robotic revolution on the way…” It was from his blog http://blogs.ft.com/the-world/2014/01/davos-question-technology-and-productivity-statistics/ in response to what Eric Schmidt said at Davos:  “A broad range of jobs that once seemed beyond the reach of automation are in danger of being wiped out by technological advances” http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/206bb2e2-847f-11e3-b72e-00144feab7de.html

Google today is heavily investing in robotics and artificial intelligence. It just bought a small AI company (50 employees) for $500m http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/f92123b2-8702-11e3-aa31-00144feab7de.html Eric Schmidt more than anyone else knows what he is talking about.

One wish more people did. There was another article last week striking a far more positive note http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/e8448366-81cd-11e3-87d5-00144feab7de.html that many of your commentators myself included found lacking in analytic depth. Another post was http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/5929ed26-83bf-11e3-86c9-00144feab7de.html which also seemed to lack in appreciation of what is likely to happen. But obviously many seem to think the issue isn’t as alarming as Eric Schmidt thinks it is. Who is right?

Many jobs in Europe and the US were lost to low wage countries, that trend is continuing. But jobs have been replaced by automata since the invention of the plough which liberated/forced many farm workers to flock to the cities. Most take comfort in history: people found something else to do.

They did, but few of these transitions happened without incident. Nationalism traces back to the demographics created by the plough, fascism and communism were the result of the industrial revolution.  Is the current trend different? Increasingly smart software and robots are replacing humans in the assembly lines at car manufacturers. That trend is accelerating. But people need to create value in order to earn wages. If almost the entire logistical chain that creates cars is automated, then that value is not created by humans and yet wages must still be spent on buying them. No workers means no consumers and nobody to buy the products of a robotic economy. And robotics is capable of replacing virtually all labour including creative and health care tasks the next if not this century. Those jobs that somehow manage to survive are impossible to predict and will be far too few.

The current crisis is a result of this trend already. “Jobless recovery” is such a keen description of what is going on. And a recovery cannot persist if demand isn’t going to grow as well, demand that ultimately has to be generated by human beings (unless of course Robots become sentient).

There is no easy answer; a minimum income guarantee for everyone may be one option. But these could ruin our drive to create and achieve as individuals. Still if everything we do can be done better by robots then this drive and the premises of capitalism need to be reevaluated. What individuals are going to receive the vital jobs within the robotics economy and what is the rest going to do? How are they going to feel ok about themselves in relation to the world around them; what is of value and meaningful?

It’s hard to see how we’re going to generate jobs for the new generation. I’d think my 5 year old had best study programming and mechanical engineering. Jobs in that field will be many for decades to come. Gaming and creating virtual immersive worlds will be another field of growth: virtual reality is more appealing to many than the real one. Television will probably be absorbed into that realm as well. The unemployed may find meaning there.

The answer may be to have a responsive political union in place that can create policy on a large enough scale to make sure that people who don’t have jobs have enough income to participate in whatever society is evolving into. It may well mean milking robotics corporations of much of their profits in order to pay for that mega redistribution of income. Such a constellation certainly has dystopian and potentially most illiberal overtones. On the other hand, robotics could lead to a humanity freed from survival needs, one that can imagine new frontiers. If it can perfect the robotics economy that sustains it.