What Would the World Look Like If Half of All Jobs Were Held by Robots?

Illustration for article titled What Would the World Look Like If Half of All Jobs Were Held by Robots?

Numerous intelligent people have now claimed that within the next few decades, robots will automate half of all existing jobs. Whether or not that will pan out—or whether you’re in the luckless 50 percent— will only be determined by time. But either way, what would that world look like?

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The latest robotic prophecy comes from Rice University computer scientist Moshe Vardi. At a presentation this morning, Vardi delivered his prediction that by 2045, computers may be able to do almost any human task, and unemployment will sit close to 50 percent.

The greatest unknowns in that scenario wouldn’t be scientific or robotic; they would be economic and sociological. Conventional economics would have you believe that as technology increases, so does productivity, wages, and total output. It’s a theory that has held true since the industrial revolution, and seen the standard of living in developed countries go from mud hut to iPhones for all.

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But that theory is designed for technology complementing human labor, not replacing it altogether. What Vardi (and hundreds of other scientists and economists) are questioning is how the rise of robotics will affect our economy.

The questions are big, and the answers radical. In Rise of the Robots, Martin Ford argues that the answer lies in a full-on worker revolt: rather than letting the benefits of automation be captured by the Ubers and Amazons of the world, workers will band together to push for significant wealth redistribution, and ultimately a universal basic income guaranteed by the proceeds of machine labor.

Other people disagree: the underlying assumption with technology is that as machines automate jobs, those displaced workers will retrain, adapt, and shift to a field that hasn’t been taken over by robots yet, or a field that hadn’t even existed before—horseshoe making isn’t a big industry any more, but neither was IT in the 1930s.

Vardi doesn’t claim to have all the answers to how society will adapt to automation, but his questions are worth thinking about. He asks:

“Does the technology we are developing ultimately benefit mankind? A typical answer is that if machines will do all our work, we will be free to pursue leisure activities...[but] I do not find this a promising future, as I do not find the prospect of leisure-only life appealing. I believe that work is essential to human well-being.”

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At the moment, a robot takeover is mostly the topic of movie reboots, thinkpieces, and the occasional gag reel. But more than just thinking about what jobs robots are going to take over, it’s increasingly clear that people need to think about what an automated society will look like, how a political system will function, and the number of people who might starve on the streets. It’s a lot less fun than a Terminator marathon, but then again, Skynet isn’t the only apocalyptic future out there.


Contact the author at chris@gizmodo.com.

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DISCUSSION

“Others disagree and think that workers will just shift to other unautomated industries”... We’re talking about 50% unemployment. How the hell does anyone expect this to just work it’s self out.

The problem is that humanity is basically just another stupid animal that has nothing greater in it’s endeavors than trading shiny rocks for sex. People who’s actual business it is to look forward and understand how the world is developing are saying “We have to fix this, we have to do it now, and we have to do it quick”, while the people in power are busy doing everything they can to maintain their grip on wealth and power. And it’s not just financial, everyone wants to be the top fucking dog.

Do people really think that if you eliminated manual labor and gave people a universal basic income that people would just sit around all day watching tv and jerking off? How many people would spend all day crafting, creating, researching, exploring, simply for the love of the thing, if not for the fact that they can’t afford to do this, they don’t have time to do that. How many great novels were never written because their authors didn’t have time to write? How many cures to diseases were never discovered because the person they would have been discovered by couldn’t afford to go to college and is sitting somewhere flipping burgers instead of living up to their potential?

But more relevantly is the fact that we are driving head on into an economic wall. We have to do something different. We don’t have a choice anymore. We can either do something as a species, or face the collapse of society as a species, and not for the first time.

What’s really sad is that most of the people who read this will be quick to scream “no you’re wrong”, or “communist”, or what ever have you. I don’t care anymore. The reality is, humanity has to change, or go extinct. If it continues to exist as an overpopulation of primates, trading sex for shiny rocks, it doesn’t deserve to survive. Argue if you want. I probably won’t waste my energy reading it. I’m tired of listening to people who are brainwashed to defend an economical structure that honestly doesn’t benefit them. It’s not worth my time.