I’m late to the party, but I wanted to weigh in on the vital question of whether the human race (specifically, unskilled workers) are in danger of being rendered useless by robots. Greg Clark says yes. Ryan Avent says no. Tom Lee says yes.
Ryan is right, and makes some excellent points, in particular that machines consume raw materials and energy, which will continue to be expensive. But I think all these guys are missing what is probably the most fundamental advantage people have over machines: that people like to interact with other people. Tom makes an argument that I think actually illustrates my argument pretty well:
Certainly some subset of tasks currently performed by humans will be difficult to automate for a long time yet. But not only will technology improve, as Ryan acknowledges, but we can simply eliminate many tasks that are resistant to automation. A computer can’t have a conversation with a person the way that a customer service representative can. But instead of resigning themselves to this fact, businesses have simply moved to eliminate this class of commercial interaction, substituting for it with websites, IVR systems and brutal indifference.
Remember that the story here is that highly-skilled workers and the holders of capital are rapidly growing wealthier, leaving unskilled workers behind. But if it’s true that machines will continue to be unable to handle phone calls as well as unskilled workers, and I think it is, then at some point the gap between skilled and unskilled wages will grow large enough that customers are willing to pay extra for products and services that come bundled with human beings answering the phone.
Similarly, notice that one of the most important difference between a mid-range restaurant and an upscale one is how labor-intensive it is. The mid-range restaurant might have just two or three overworked waitresses. The upscale one probably has a Maître d’, several waitresses, a couple of people going around refilling water glasses, somebody scraping crumbs off the table, etc. Having more people wait on you makes the dining experience more pleasant; the reason most of us don’t do it very often is that human labor is too expensive.
There are lots of other examples like this. There are, for example, millions of couples that would hire nannies if they could afford to do so. Similarly, there’s lots of room for growth in the demand for masseuses and pedicurists, security guards, tour guides, and the like. And a little higher up the skill spectrum, there will be a virtually unlimited demand for nurses, executive assistants, interior decorators, wedding planners, lifeguards, personal trainers, and so forth.
Indeed, I would make a stronger, albeit much more speculative, claim: the market for low- and medium-skilled labor is likely to remain robust even if the “strong AI” problem is solved some day. True, a strong AI robot would be able to perform many of today’s common low-skilled tasks, such as truck driving and construction work, far better than any human being. But people are never going to want robots to serve as nannies or
nanniesnurses. People are hard-wired to have strong emotional reactions to other people, and as a consequence, they’ll always have a strong demand for labor that involves human contact and interaction. And that means that there will always be jobs for people willing to work, even if they lack formal education.