Welcome the Robot Revolution, but Beware
Comment of the Day

March 07 2013

Commentary by David Fuller

Welcome the Robot Revolution, but Beware

This is a good editorial from Bloomberg on a theme which has long been of considerable interest at Fullermoney. Here is the opening
Robots are evoking some deep economic anxiety these days. They're routinely mastering human tasks -- driving cars, trading securities, diagnosing diseases - - that not long ago appeared permanently beyond their capabilities. And as automated technology advances at an exponential rate, more and more jobs, in more and more fields, will be done by intelligent machines in the very near future.

This transition will involve some scary trade-offs. Growth and productivity will probably accelerate, and low-cost, high- quality goods will probably proliferate. But many workers will find their skills obsolete and their ability to compete diminished. Unemployment could be exacerbated. Wage stagnation for the middle class could persist or worsen. And inequality seems likely to widen.

For all that, we remain optimistic. Throughout history, technology -- from the steam engine to electricity to the computer -- has upended old ways of doing business and created useful and edifying new fields of human endeavor. This long cycle of creative destruction suggests, however, that the robot revolution will be a time of significant turmoil. And that the more we prepare for it now, the better off we'll be.

As the digital economy churns through old industries, workers will need to become increasingly creative and open to change, and governments will need to grow more nimble in encouraging innovation and cushioning the blow for those left behind. As Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue in their book "Race Against the Machines," the guiding principle for revamping public policy as this revolution unfolds is flexibility.

David Fuller's view Good articles on this subject have the potential to both excite and terrify us. They are also relevant in terms of our lives and therefore no longer confined to the realm of science fiction.

I have been talking about an accelerating pace of technological innovation for many years. It is a creation of the human intellect. Consequently, it has always been part of our history, dating from the earliest cavemen and women.

However, at the dawn of mankind's history progress was infinitesimally slow, as primitive humans first discovered tools, starting with the club, and then gradually invented and developed others. Centuries probably passed before our earliest ancestors learned how to create fire, and that was a massive technological innovation.

Fast forward to a few hundred years ago and the pace of technological innovation had increased dramatically. Nevertheless, it was glacially slow relative to what we see today. Most people benefited from social rather than military inventions. Moreover, their pace of development and utilisation was sufficiently gradual to create far more job opportunities than unemployment.

Fast forward to our era and anyone in a developed economy is very aware of technological innovation's accelerating pace. Vastly more people have benefited from this progress but they are also struggling to keep up, at a national, corporate and especially personal level.

Nevertheless, I maintain that we are still in the foothills of technological innovation. Moreover, its rate of development is exponential and only limited by our imagination.

This process is very exciting but it can also be stressful because the flip side of innovation is obsolescence. We see this at a corporate level, not least in the fascinating technology sector. In recent decades there has been an increasing tendency for tech shares to surge dramatically on an innovative breakthrough, only to fall back sharply a few years later as competition develops and eventually moves ahead.

However, the more serious problem concerns unemployment because there are very few jobs that cannot or will not be replaced by robots and software that is smarter, more flexible and more durable than humans. No doubt new forms of employment will also be created, but usually at a far slower pace than the rate of technological innovation.

Meanwhile, the biggest beneficiaries of technological innovation in its various forms will continue to be corporations especially those that are best able to utilise superior technologies.

(Search Comment of the Day separately for - technological innovation - robots or robotics - to see some earlier comments on these subjects.)

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