Why I For One Welcome Our New Robot Underlings

Imagine a world where the robots did all the work.  They tend the crops, sew the clothes, cook the food, drive the trucks, and work on all the assembly lines in all the world’s factories.

In this world, everything would be a lot cheaper because labor costs would drop to zero. In fact, there’d be a startling abundance of stuff. And people would be freed up to do things other than work. We could use our time to explore, create, perform, craft, mingle, and so on because we wouldn’t have to work to produce the necessities or luxuries of life; the robots would be taking care of that.

I think most people, given the choice, would choose this hypothetical robot-powered world over the one we live in now. After all, it’s free of drudgery, toil, sweatshops, on-the-job injuries, stingy vacation policies, horrible bosses, and all of the other dysfunctions of today’s workplace.

Yet a lot of people seem unhappy with the steps being taken to bring us into this world. When I was a guest on the KQED show The Forum last month most of the questions and comments from listeners were about the evils of robotics, and how to keep them from taking jobs from people. And a survey just released by the Smart Manufacturing Coalition found that, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “When asked to describe the impact on the economy of modernizing factories with advanced technology and automation, nearly two-thirds of respondents said it either made no difference or actually hurt the economy.”

The reason for this hostility, of course, is that robots are perceived as taking jobs from workers today. And they are, just as the steam drill took John Henry’s job and countless other technologies have substituted for human labor.

In the past there have always been other jobs waiting for displaced workers and technological progress has not let led to mass unemployment. But today’s anti-robot sentiments spring from the fact that this time feels different. It feels like robots, AI, and other modern marvels are encroaching quickly and deeply into human territory, and reducing the need (and hence the demand) for human labor full stop.

As I’ve been arguing for a while here and elsewhere, I believe this is in fact the case. But I don’t resent the robots, or want to unplug or smash them. I want them to hurry up and finish taking over all the work so we can enter the hypothetical world described above. I want us humans to enjoy an abundance of both stuff and time, and the robots are the only way we’re going to get there.

I know there will be serious challenges along the way. In our book Race Against the Machine Erik Brynjolfsson and I included Voltaire’s quote that “work saves a man from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.” We’ve got to figure out how people are going to pay for things (even when things are abundant and cheap, many of them are still likely to have prices) when their labor is not needed and hence has no value. And we’ve got to figure out what a meaningful and fulfilling life consists of when it’s not dominated by jobs and work as we currently think of them.

I don’t pretend for a minute that these are trivial matters. But they’re the inevitable challenges we’re going to face as we move from today into the bright future described at the top of this post. So instead of resenting or fearing the machines that are going to take us there, let’s start talking about how we want our future to look, and how to make that future a reality.

Resisting the robots is futile; they’re going to keep improving, and companies are going to keep buying and deploying them. And more fundamentally, resistance is deeply misguided because it’s exactly the same as resisting progress toward a post-drudgery, post-sweatshop world.

And isn’t that the world we want?