As we noted in our previous post, robots are becoming a fact of life in many areas of manufacturing automation. When we concluded the first of our two posts here, we noted that robots are picking up much of the grunt work previously provided by humans, and more efficiently. While that’s a potential boost for overall GDP according to economists, it’s little gain to us if it only drives unemployment higher. In conclusion, we asked (in a question posed by Bloomberg BusinessWeek in its Dec. 7th issue): “What happens when labor is not just transferred from one group of people to another (outsourcing) but to machines?”
For one, since idle hedonism is not the best lot in life for humans, they note that “we excel when we are creative and productive.” So while we can’t ignore or prevent the growth of automation, we can use our creative resources to determine what that future might look like. Here, as in many countries, but especially in the U.S. it will require, as we’ve always done, innovation and entrepreneurship, as well as policies that foster those things, like immigration reform to retain high-skill workers, a corporate tax rate and structure that encourages investment in domestic, not off-shore production, and, may I add, an educational system that is geared toward producing effective, problem-solving, communicative workers.
And if the threat of robots taking jobs proves overblown, and automation is less “transformative” than predicted, then none of those efforts will have been in vain. They answer the threats to our jobs not just from robots, but from economic competition and the many other issues that challenge our economic potential.
As Northwestern Univ. economist Robert Gordon notes, “If you’re looking for new problems, it’s not robots.” It makes more sense to adapt to robots taking our old jobs (just as farmers now comprise only 2% of the population, versus 90% two centuries ago), than to fighting against it. Better we spend our economic and intellectual capital on finding new ways to work with them, and to solve our current challenges by increasing innovation and investment in U.S. jobs through better policy across the board.
And that’s going to be the biggest economic and political challenge for us in this (still) early part of the 21st century.