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I.K.bot

Ivan Kirigin's views on Robotics & Culture: future. perfect. progress.

Monday, August 15, 2005

The under-reported good news about productivity

This might not seem related to robotics, but a common concern is that robots will "replace us". In the short term, this is to mean that they will "take our jobs". The meme is based on the idea that if a job takes fewer people to perform, those unneeded are left unemployed.

This is not just false in theory, but wrong empirically as well.

As there is no limit to human desire, there is always a push to do more. Gains in productivity should free resources such that those whose skills would be wasted making widget X are better-used providing service Y or widget X.2.

In addition:
There will always be some pessimists who think that productivity growth is a bad thing, reasoning that if one person can do the work of two, the unnecessary second worker will become unemployed. The record of history on that hypothesis is extremely clear, however. U.S. workers today produce more than three times as much per hour compared with their counterparts 50 years ago, and even so, the unemployment rate today is the same as it was in 1950. Instead of putting people out of work, what productivity growth has always meant in practice is a rising standard of living for everyone. No other statistic may be as important for determining long-run economic welfare as productivity.
This makes sense. People can produce more (or machines can do more for people), in a given amount of time, and more things get made.

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By the way, in the long term, I think "embrace us" or even "embrace them" is a more appropriate description than "replace us" for the 30-50 years from now when human-scale artificial intelligence is developed.

2 Comments:

Anonymous CarlR said...

You're forgetting that the classic idea of a robot is a mechanical man that can do all we can. If such robots existed and they were cheaper to own and maintain than humans are to employ, why employ humans?

3:05 PM  
Blogger Ivan said...

This is a difference here that I have already highlighted.

Robots can't do everything we can do. They won't for quite some time.

While we have increasingly capable robots that can do many things, society will we the better for it.

Once you have a robot that can do just about anything, you have an AI which brings up a host of other issues. Firstly, I think by then humans will have enhancements, both biological and electronic, such that "what a human can do" is greater. Secondly, don't assume that, like software, there is almost 0 marginal cost for a fully functional humanoid robot. Just because they can do many things, doesn't mean you would want to pay the price.

Also, don't just think about being "employed". It's also about creativity and entrepreneurship.

7:06 AM  

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