Oct 6th 2014

The Rise of the Robots

by J. Bradford DeLong

J. Bradford DeLong, a former Assistant US Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration, is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley.

BERKELEY – For decades, people have been predicting how the rise of advanced computing and robotic technologies will affect our lives. On one side, there are warnings that robots will displace humans in the economy, destroying livelihoods, especially for low-skill workers. Others look forward to the vast economic opportunities that robots will present, claiming, for example, that they will improve productivity or take on undesirable jobs. The venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who recently joined the debate, falls into the latter camp, asserting that robots will save us from a future of high prices and low wages.

Figuring out which side is right requires, first and foremost, an understanding of the six ways that humans have historically created value: through our legs, our fingers, our mouths, our brains, our smiles, and our minds. Our legs and other large muscles move things to where we need them to be, so our fingers can rearrange them into useful patterns. Our brains regulate routine activities, keeping the leg- and finger-work on track. Our mouths – indeed, our words, whether spoken or written – enable us to inform and entertain one another. Our smiles help us to connect with others, ensuring that we pull roughly in the same direction. Finally, our minds – our curiosity and creativity – identify and resolve important and interesting challenges.

Thiel, for his part, refutes the argument – often made by robot doomsayers – that the impact of artificial intelligence and advanced robotics on the labor force will mirror globalization’s impact on advanced-country workers. Globalization hurt lower-skill workers in places like the United States, as it enabled people from faraway countries to compete for the leg-and-finger positions in the global division of labor. Given that these new competitors demanded lower wages, they were the obvious choice for many companies. 

According to Thiel, the key difference between this phenomenon and the rise of robots lies in consumption. Developing-country workers took advantage of the bargaining power that globalization afforded them to gain resources for their own consumption. Computers and robots, by contrast, do not consume anything except electricity, even as they complete leg, finger, and even brain activities faster and more efficiently than humans would.

Here, Thiel offers an example from his experience as CEO of PayPal. Instead of having humans scrutinize every item in every batch of 1,000,000 transactions for indications of fraud, PayPal’s computers can approve the obviously legitimate transactions, and pass on the 1,000 or so that could be fraudulent for thoughtful consideration by a human. One worker and a computer system can thus do what PayPal would have had to hire 1,000 workers to do a generation ago. Given that the computer system does not need things like food, that thousand-fold increase in productivity will redound entirely to the benefit of the middle class.

Put another way, globalization lowered the wages of low-skill advanced-country workers because others would perform their jobs more cheaply, and then consume the value that they had created. Computers mean that higher-skill workers – and the lower-skill workers who remain to oversee the large robotic factories and warehouses – can spend their time on more valuable activities, assisted by computers that demand little. 

Thiel’s argument may be correct. But it is far from airtight.

In fact, Thiel seems to be running into the old diamonds-and-water paradox – water is essential, but costs nothing, whereas diamonds are virtually useless, but extremely expensive – albeit in a sophisticated and subtle way. The paradox exists because, in a market economy, the value of water is set not by the total usefulness of water (infinite) or by the average usefulness of water (very large), but by the marginal value of the last drop of water consumed (very low). 

Similarly, the wages and salaries of low- and high-skill workers in the robot-computer economy of the future will not be determined by the (very high) productivity of the one lower-skill worker ensuring that all of the robots are in their places or the one high-skill worker reprogramming the software. Instead, compensation will reflect what workers outside the highly productive computer-robot economy are creating and earning.

The newly industrialized city of Manchester, which horrified Friedrich Engels when he worked there in the 1840s, had the highest level of labor productivity the world had ever seen. But the factory workers’ wages were set not by their extraordinary productivity, but by what they would earn if they returned to the potato fields of pre-famine Ireland. 

So the question is not whether robots and computers will make human labor in the goods, high-tech services, and information-producing sectors infinitely more productive. They will. What really matters is whether the jobs outside of the robot-computer economy – jobs involving people’s mouths, smiles, and minds – remain valuable and in high demand.

From 1850 to 1970 or so, rapid technological progress first triggered wage increases in line with productivity gains. Then came the protracted process of income-distribution equalization, as machines, installed to substitute for human legs, and fingers created more jobs in machine-minding, which used human brains and mouths, than it destroyed in sectors requiring routine muscle power or dexterity work. And rising real incomes increased leisure time, thereby boosting demand for smiles and the products of minds. 

Will the same occur when machines take over routine brainwork? Maybe. But it is far from being a safe bet on which to rest an entire argument, as Thiel has.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jul 5th 2022
EXTRACT: "Fortunately, I am not alone in claiming that the survival of democracy in the US is gravely endangered. The American public has been aroused by the decision overturning Roe. But people need to recognize that decision for what it is: part of a carefully laid plan to turn the US into a repressive regime. We must do everything we can to prevent that. This fight ought to include many people who voted for Trump in the past."
Jul 2nd 2022
EXTRACT: "The Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit described this succinctly in his book On Compromise and Rotten Compromises. In “politics as economics,” material interests are “subject to bargaining, everything is negotiable, whereas in the religious picture, centered on the idea of the holy, the holy is non-negotiable.” This, then, is why politics in the US is now in such a perilous state. More and more, the secular left and the religious right are engaged in a culture war, revolving around sexuality, gender, and race, where politics is no longer negotiable. When that happens, institutions start breaking down, and the stage is set for charismatic demagogues and the politics of violence."
Jul 2nd 2022
EXTRACT: "...EU enlargement is essentially a political decision by member states, based on a multitude of considerations that sometimes include dramatic events. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is such a turning point."
Jun 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "Most market analysts seem to think that central banks will remain hawkish, but I am not so sure. I have argued that they will eventually wimp out and accept higher inflation – followed by stagflation – once a hard landing becomes imminent, because they will be worried about the damage of a recession and a debt trap, owing to an excessive build-up of private and public liabilities after years of low interest rates." ----- "There is ample reason to believe that the next recession will be marked by a severe stagflationary debt crisis. As a share of global GDP, private and public debt levels are much higher today than in the past, having risen from 200% in 1999 to 350% today (with a particularly sharp increase since the start of the pandemic). Under these conditions, rapid normalization of monetary policy and rising interest rates will drive highly leveraged zombie households, companies, financial institutions, and governments into bankruptcy and default."
Jun 28th 2022
EXTRACT: "It is tempting to conclude that today’s central bankers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Maybe if they sit tight, they will ride out the storm. Then-Fed Chair Paul Volcker was Public Enemy Number One in the United States in the early 1980s, when he squeezed post-oil-shock inflation out of the system with double-digit interest rates. But in his later years he was revered, and became a national treasure, called on to advise successive presidents in any financial emergency. ----- But central bankers would be wise not to assume that their reputations will automatically recover, and that the status quo ante will be restored. We live in a more disputatious age than the 1980s. Public institutions are more regularly challenged and held to account by far less reverential legislators." ----- "Moreover, former central bankers have joined the chorus of critics. Former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, breaking the unwritten rule not to reproach one’s successors, has said that today’s Fed made “a mistake” by responding slowly to inflation. And Bailey’s immediate predecessors, Mervyn King and Mark Carney, have weighed in, too, with challenges to the BOE’s policy. The fabric of the central banking fraternity is fraying."
Jun 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "Public opinion in Belarus remains firmly against involvement into the war with Ukraine. Moreover, according to a Chatham House survey, 40% of Belarusians do not support Russia’s war, compared to 32% who do, while around half of those questioned see predominately negative consequences of the war for Belarus (53%) and for themselves (48%). The Belarusian military and security services are also aware of the determined and skilful resistance that Ukrainian forces have put up against Russia and the risks that they would therefore be running if they entered the war against Ukraine. This, in turn, means that the risk to Lukashenko himself remains that he might lose his grip on power, a grip which depends heavily on the loyalty of his armed forces." ---- "Ultimately, Belarus may not be on the brink of being plunged into war quite yet, but its options to avoid such a disaster are narrowing."
Jun 20th 2022
EXTRACT: "Russification (the policy of enforcing Russian culture on populations) appears to be being reinforced by ethnic cleansing. Last month the Ukrainian parliament’s commissioner for human rights, Liudmyla Denisova, informed the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, that 1.3 million Ukrainians, including 223,000 children, had been forcibly deported to Russia."
Jun 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "If Trump had his way, then Vice-President Pence would have also broken his oath to the constitution and derailed the certification of electoral votes. Our continued existence as a Republic might very well have hung on Pence’s actions that day. The mob’s response was to call for Pence to be hanged, and a noose and scaffold was erected apparently for that very purpose. What was Trump’s reaction when he was told that the mob was calling for Pence’s summary execution? His words were: “Maybe our supporters have the right idea.” Mike Pence “deserves” it."
Jun 10th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Speaking to journalist Sophie Raworth on the BBC’s Sunday Morning show recently, former war crimes prosecutor Sir Howard Morrison, now an advisor to the Ukraine government, highlighted the dangers posed by the negative – often insulting and dehumanising – statements made by some Russian politicians and media personalities about Ukraine and its people." ---- "The conditions and attitudes described by Morrison have existed for centuries: Russians have viewed Ukrainians as inferior since before the Soviet era." ----- "And, as Morrison said, stereotyping and denigrating a people as inferior or lacking agency makes atrocities and looting more likely to happen, as we are seeing in Ukraine."
Jun 9th 2022
EXTRACT: "Unless Russia realises that the west is willing and able to push back, a new, stable security order in Europe will not be possible. Concessions to Russia, by Ukraine or the EU and Nato, are not the way to achieve this. That this has been realised beyond Ukraine’s most ardent supporters in the Baltic states, Poland, the UK and the US is clear from German support for strengthening Nato’s northern flank and a general increase in Nato members’ defence spending."
Jun 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "Highly civilized people can turn into barbarians when demagogues and dictators exploit their fears and trigger their most atavistic instincts. Rape, torture, and massacres often happen when soldiers invade foreign countries. Commanding officers sometimes actively encourage such behavior to terrorize an enemy into submission. And sometimes it occurs when the officer corps loses control and discipline breaks down. Japanese and Germans know this, as do Serbs, Koreans, Americans, Russians, and many others."
Jun 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "Like Metternich, Kissinger commits the fatal error of believing that a few wise policymakers can impose their will on the world. Worse, he believes they can halt domestically generated change and the power of nationalism. Many years ago, this is what Senator William Fulbright termed the “arrogance of power.” This approach failed in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It is also doomed to fail in Russia and Ukraine." ------ "Not surprisingly, Kissinger misunderstands Russia. He appears to believe that, because Russia has been an “essential part of Europe” for over four centuries, it is therefore fated to remain so for the foreseeable future.The claim is completely at odds with history." ---- "Finally, Kissinger misunderstands the implications of his own analysis for Western relations with Russia. “We are facing,” he said, “a situation now where Russia could alienate itself completely from Europe and seek a permanent alliance elsewhere." ---- "But what’s so bad about Russia’s isolating itself from Europe and becoming a vassal state of China? "
Jun 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "According to the latest figures from China’s National Bureau of Statistics, China’s population grew from 1.41212 billion to just 1.41260 billion in 2021 – a record low increase of just 480,000, a mere fraction of the annual growth of eight million or so common a decade ago." ----- "China’s total fertility rate (births per woman) was 2.6 in the late 1980s – well above the 2.1 needed to replace deaths. It has been between 1.6 and 1.7 since 1994, and slipped to 1.3 in 2020 and just 1.15 in 2021."
Jun 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "Casualties are very high. A very conservative estimate of overall Russian losses is that they have lost more troops killed since February 24 than in ten years of fighting in Afghanistan. This implies well over 40,000 men taken out of the fight, including the wounded." ----- "Away from the cauldron of Donbas, Belarus has been rattling its somewhat rusty sabre by deploying troops to its border with Ukraine. This is unlikely to trouble Kyiv. The Belarus president, Alexander Lukashenko, is well aware that he may need them at home to shore up his shaky regime."
May 27th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Monetary policymakers are talking tough nowadays about fighting inflation to head off the risk of it spinning out of control. But that doesn’t mean they won’t eventually wimp out and allow the inflation rate to rise above target. Since hitting the target most likely requires a hard landing, they could end up raising rates and then getting cold feet once that scenario becomes more likely. Moreover, because there is so much private and public debt in the system (348% of GDP globally), interest-rate hikes could trigger a further sharp downturn in bond, stock, and credit markets, giving central banks yet another reason to backpedal." ----- "The historical evidence shows that a soft landing is highly improbable. That leaves either a hard landing and a return to lower inflation, or a stagflationary scenario. Either way, a recession in the next two years is likely."
May 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "No, I am not arguing that Powell needs to replicate Volcker’s tightening campaign. But if the Fed wishes to avoid a replay of the stagflation of the late 1970s and early 1980s, it needs to recognize the extraordinary gulf between Volcker’s 4.4% real interest rate and Powell’s -2.25%. It is delusional to believe that such a wildly accommodative policy trajectory can solve America’s worst inflation problem in a generation."
May 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "It will be critical in this context how China will act and whether it will prioritise its economic interests (continuing trade with Europe and the US) or current ideological preferences (an alliance with Russia that makes the world safe for autocracies)."
May 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "The document is full of embarrassing and damming stories of illegal gatherings and bad behaviour. There was “excessive alcohol consumption”, a regular fixture referred to as “wine time Fridays” and altercations between staff. Aides are shown to have left Downing Street after 4am (and not because they had worked into these early hours). Cleaning staff and junior aides were abused, and a Number 10 adviser is on record before the infamous “bring your own booze” party...."
May 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "But even a resounding Russian defeat is an ominous scenario. Yes, under such circumstances – and only such circumstances – Putin might be toppled in some kind of coup led by elements of Russia’s security apparatus. But the chances that this would produce a liberal democratic Russia that abandons Putin’s grand strategic designs are slim. More likely, Russia would be a rogue nuclear superpower ruled by military coup-makers with revanchist impulses. Germany after World War I comes to mind."
May 4th 2022
EXTRACT: ".....a remarkable transformation is taking place in Ukraine’s army amounting to its de facto military integration into Nato. As western equipment filters through to the frontline, Nato-standard weaponry and ammunition will be brought into Ukrainian service. This is of far higher quality than the mainly former Soviet weapons with which the Ukrainians have fought so capably. The longer this process continues and deepens, the worse the situation will be for the already inefficient Russian army and air force."