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Don't Fear the Robots: Automation is a Good Thing

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Uncreative minds are at it again, riding that ancient saw telling us innovation will put us all permanently out of a job. Admittedly, automation and innovation will eliminate certain jobs, and at times it can appear hopeless, but the computer revolution is but the fart of a gnat when compared to the industrial revolution. We've weathered far more drastic revolutions of labor and capital in the past, for the better, and this time isn't different.

In the 1700's, a group of people called Luddites, decided that the power loom was the very end of their livelihood, and that the best course of action was to destroy the looms and return to weaving cloth by hand. What they didn't realize was that people were perfectly happy to spend the same amount of money on clothing and fabric, but buy ten outfits instead of one. If the Luddites had kept their way, you could count on a shirt or pair of pants costing upwards of a thousand dollars apiece.

Every step of the way, from the days when 97% of us were subsistence farmers, til today, when 97% of us have never worked a day on a farm, people have tried to stand in the way of progress in hopes of preserving their existing job, never seeing the greater opportunity on the other side. Mankind discovered wants (sometimes calling them needs), that had never before existed. Electricity, while it put a few windmill-builders out of business, created ten thousand other industries and occupations in its place. Engines, while they put the horse-breeders out of work, created a hundred-thousand fields of work for the first time. If the farmers of the 19th and 20th century found ways to repurpose 97% of the work force, no doubt we can find a place for the few percent that are made obsolete by computer programs, robots and automation.

Far from a sea change, of the type we experienced when muscle power was replaced by machine, the computer represents a small, incremental improvement in efficiency. Jobs that used to take 4 people might take one, while a single 200 horsepower electric motor replaces the entire day's effort of 1800 people, working as hard as they can. The effect of the computer is perhaps one tenth or one hundredth the effect of the fossil-fueled engine or electric motor.

Consider an email, versus a hand-delivered letter. An email is basically free, while a letter costs 50 cents to deliver. The computer replaced 50 cents of labor in all of its glorious power. Compared to the impact that engines and airplanes have on mail delivery (imagine what it would cost to mail a letter using horsedrawn carriage), the computer is scarcely noticeable.

The cost-saving effect of the computer on giving a presentation is negligible, as drawing slides by hand isn't terribly more time consuming than drawing them in Powerpoint. The effect on information distribution is large, but when compared to the effect of mass printing, the effect is once again a drop the in bucket. 25 years ago, a person still had access to more information than they could possibly consume, and this is still the case today but to a larger extent. Handwritten books would cost $10,000 to pay for the labor, while printed books cost $10, and electronic books might cost a dollar or two. While the first industrial revolution brought us a factor of 1000 in cost reduction, the computer revolution brings us only a factor of five or ten.

Automation might enable each labor hour to produce five times as many cell phones, five times as many cars, five times as many tires. As was the case with the industrial revolution before, this will result in people using five times as many cell phones, five times as many cars, and five times as many tires. This may seem implausible, but as the cost of goods is reduced by the multiplied power of human labor, people will drive for the first time, use cell phones for the first time, and people now dressed in rags will wear fine clothing for the first time. In a world where billions cannot afford clean drinking water, there is certainly room for several more factors of ten before we can even begin to believe that there is a decreasing demand for labor and production. In spite of all the improvements we have made so far, life's necessities remain out of reach for a large fraction of humanity.

Already, in the last 200 years, every occupation has been made obsolete, and somehow all of this labor has been repurposed in order to create modern life. To imagine that the relatively negligible effect of computerization will bring society to its knees is uncreative at best. Surely, the robots will leave some people out of a job, as the combine left cotton pickers by the wayside, and the power loom left the Luddites without customers for their costly handwoven cloth. But, the people of the future will laugh at our concern, the way that we laugh at the Luddites today. No one wishes today that clothing were so unaffordable that each of us owned a single suit of clothes, no one wishes today for the production of food to consume every waking hour of nearly every person. Likewise, the people enjoying the cheaper, better products of the future will not yearn for the costlier, more labor intensive methods of the past.

We can depend on humanity to consume every shred of surplus that results from improved methods, and continue to search for better, faster means of producing and consuming. The robots are only a temporary stepping stone to an easier, better life for everyone that people today can scarcely imagine, much less appreciate. Looking back to where we began, this latest development of computer automation seems barely noteworthy by comparison to the revolutions we have already weathered so well.

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Richard is an engineer by day, and a political activist by night, fighting would-be totalitarians and government busybodies everywhere.

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