Robots, Unemployment and Wishful Thinking

10/19/2010 03:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I've been blogging here about the likelihood that various forms of automation will eventually create significant technological unemployment. Advanced robotics will certainly play an important role in that once it becomes cost-effective to replace even low wage service workers with machines.

I find it interesting that very few other people seem to be particularly concerned about this issue. Here are two recent articles that seem quite enthusiastic about the robotic future, but give no thought at all to the possibility that robots might someday contribute significantly to unemployment:

Scientific American: "Robot be Good" assumes we'll soon have autonomous robots interacting directly with humans in environments like nursing homes for the elderly. The article concerns itself with the problem of ethical behavior among robots.

Technology Review: "Why Japanese Love Robots" looks at how Japanese culture tends to favor robots and see them as helpful and friendly, while Americans are more likely to see them as menacing.

A Google search will bring up plenty of other articles on the coming robotics revolution, and you'll find quite a few similarities:

  • Unless you've happened upon one of the relatively few articles that deal specifically with robots creating unemployment, you'll find little or no mention of this issue. The negative side of robotics nearly always involves physical threats: robots that will hurt people, take over, get out of control, etc.
  • Personal robots will eventually do all kinds of useful things around the house. Someday, we'll all have robotic personal assistants. This is often touted as a huge new consumer market.
  • Robots will do some jobs but they will invariably be dangerous jobs (police and military) or jobs that no one wants or where there are worker shortages due to low wages (caring for the elderly).
The thing is that for a robot to autonomously run around the house doing a variety of tasks requires a very sophisticated level of technology. If that technology is developed and becomes affordable then it will certainly make its way into a variety of commercial applications -- in fact, it may well be deployed there first.

It seems to me that if we have affordable personal robots that are actually capable of doing anything useful, then that technology implies that millions of jobs will be at risk in areas like:

  • Stocking shelves in supermarkets and other retail stores
  • Moving materials in stores and warehouses
  • Providing security in a variety of settings
If the technology is there and if it is cost-effective, then businesses are not going to pass up the opportunity to deploy it. The standard response from economists is that we don't need to worry because new jobs will be created in other areas. I really wonder what kinds of jobs the economy would create for these workers.