Look deeply into the beady little electronic eye of your vacuum-cleaning robot, and you’ll see a machine bent on world domination. For now, it focuses on finding and eradicating dirt, but every time it gets into a particularly extracted fight with a wall, your feet, or a house pet–you know it has larger ambitions. More concerning than the Roomba‘s aggressive policy stance against furniture legs is what it as a product means for labor, job creation, and automation.
We’re used to a well-worn path in manufacturing, and business in general. An extra bright cave-dweller figures out how to use a round object to help move large things, early adopters begin to share the practice, and then pretty soon everyone is using wheels. Eventually, artisan wheel-makers find themselves out of a job when factories start pumping out robot-manufactured wheels, and we move on as a society–wheels are now a given commodity.
The thing is, those robots have taken over the factory floor, and are moving upstairs. But before you dismiss these jobs as distant and remote from what you do, remember that algorithms are surpassing humans at complex tasks, from designing computer chips to doing legal research. In a society where we connect the act of creating and doing with both monetary value and self-worth, what happens when we give that up? Or stated differently, is a world of automaton-supported luxury a capitalist or socialist dream, or rather, a painful, monumental sea-change in value creation and wealth?
It kind of depends on who is using the robots, and for what. Certainly the lost future from the 1950s imagined a capitalist dreamland of a constant assembly line of innovations that transformed the lives of housewives from drudgery to leisure. The deep etymology of “robot” itself comes from the Czech phrase for a type of indentured servitude. So does mass automation mean we as a human race are finally free of menial tasks? Are we free to enjoy a Renaissance of art and creative pursuits without worrying about our daily bread? Bread that’s grown, watered, harvested, processed, marketed, bought and delivered to us by robots.
Then again, are either of these dreamworlds really all that desirable or achievable? Inevitably of course, our new robotic slave class would rise up against us. Science fiction–Asimov’s at least–seems to have pretty much decided on that one. This uprising is, regardless, a long way off. While it occasionally decides that feet are arch nemeses, a Roomba is a long way from becoming independently sentient or interested in anything other than hunting dustbunnies. Still, it begs the question: Is automation just the most recent incarnation of a short-sighted way to externalize labor costs? Will future corporate supply chain management have to be more concerned with robot malfunctioning than sweatshop labor?
Ultimately, many economists, from Adam Smith to Karl Marx, have agreed upon a labor theory of value, the notion that value of a commodity should be primarily based on the labor needed to produce it. While this theory is founded on moral premises rather than economic realities, it’s still an instinct that is in-built in our economic system. Overturning this instinct means that we have to think about assigning economic value to things differently. If robots replace the labor force involved in primary production, will human jobs be displaced or just re-distributed?
Paul Krugman points out that “the idea that modern technology eliminates only menial jobs, that well-educated workers are clear winners, may dominate popular discussion, but it’s actually decades out of date.” The Economist takes this thought experiment further, exploring the upward squeeze of losing jobs to automation, eventually taking all profits from now-unemployed workers and designers, leaving them to accrue in the accounts of the industry owners (note to self: buy stock in robotics companies). In this view, automation has the potential to not only massively concentrate wealth and undermine labor rights, but also to undermine our current concepts of value.
But this prognosis is a bit too bleak. We feel it would be possible to stabilize our economy around a concept where there are no working class poor, where there is a baseline wealth for all, and menial, dangerous, and deforming labor is performed by automations. The question is just one of how painful it would be to adapt to such a system. As Adam Smith pointed out in The Wealth of Nations, “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another is common to all.” His insight is exemplified in modern times around the emerging notion of the sharing economy in which capital is removed from the equation and markets operate in their most basic definition as “places of exchange.” From an automation perspective this means that even if we substitute aspects of our labor force with robots, our natural proclivity towards exchange will ensure that people are re-distributed in new sectors–though this may take some time.
The history of our economy is ultimately a history of labor savings. Labor gets displaced from certain markets or sectors and re-distributed to others as innovation makes certain tasks obsolete. This is the march of history, from mechanized looms to mass production and modern automobile manufacturing. So while labor savings can be disruptive, it is also a core engine of technological progress. For those skeptics, the power of robots may well provide a humanizing touch to our economy. We can finally outsource work that doesn’t match our human potential and capabilities.
Jon Camfield is the Technology Strategist for Ashoka Changemakers. When the robots take over, he’ll still find joy in being a technology for development geek, gardening, homebrewing, salsa dancing, cooking, and being a husband and all-around dork. Not in that order.
Alexa Clay is the Director of Open Growth Advisory, a consulting division of Ashoka Changemakers. She is an economic historian turned futurist and enjoys the company of both social entrepreneurs and robots.