Friday, December 27, 2019

About that AI Apocalypse

Well, about AI taking all the jobs and why I don't really buy into that idea.

The simplest explanation is in an observation by Wernher Von Braun, the German rocket scientist who came to the US after WWII and essentially birthed the space program of the '60s.  Von Braun was once questioned about the '50s version of the “AI is going to take all the jobs” idea; just substitute the word computers for AI in that phrase. Von Braun said,
The best computer is a man, and it’s the only one that can be mass-produced by unskilled labor.
We already have an existing equivalent of Artificial General Intelligence.  We just call it Natural Intelligence because it's found in some humans, and as Von Braun noted, it's the only kind that can be mass produced by unskilled labor.

What got me thinking along these lines was an article on Cafe Hyak called, “I'm Still Not the Least Worried About AI Causing Lasting Unemployment.”  Long time readers might remember this, but I'm influenced by the companies that manufacture robots.  Three years ago, I posted an article about the sales of industrial robots and how the relationship between robots and employment isn't what most people think it is.  If robots were replacing workers on massive scales, employment would be going down as robot sales were going up.  In fact, the trend is that robot sales go up in step with employment.  Allow me to reprise the relevant graph:

Although it's a busy plot, the most important parts are the two lines: linearized (smoothed) trends in both US nonfarm employment  (orange) and robot shipments (green).  They're not crossing at all; in fact, they're almost parallel, with a weak tendency to converge.  As employment goes up, robot sales go up.  The irregular red curve and the gray bars represent the raw data series, without smoothing.  When looking at the raw data, there only seems to be only one period when employment behaved the way we thought, when robot sales went up as jobs went down, (2003) but the rest of the time, robot sales go up as employment goes up.

Looked at this way, robots are just another tool in the race for companies to remain competitive.  Sure, as other labor costs go up it shifts the incentive to robotize different jobs, but that applies to any shortage and any other manipulation in the market.  The mandate for a $15/hr minimum wage is guaranteed to push the economic incentives for companies to replace humans with robots or other mechanized tools.  The government interference in setting the wage instead of the market setting wages is what pushes the economic incentives to robots.

It turns out that author Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hyak sees things much the same way as I do.
First, robots are tools that conserve human labor. As Deirdre McCloskey notes, by using robots today we humans do nothing that differs fundamentally from what we’ve done for millennia; conserving scarce labor by using robots is economically no different than conserving scarce labor by using the likes of levers, pulleys, ropes, and buckets. If the adoption of labor-saving tools 10,000 years ago, or 1,000 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 10 years ago caused no lasting unemployment, I see no reason to worry that such adoption today and tomorrow will do so.

Second, as George Selgin points out, labor-saving tools and techniques are not adopted until there’s an economic impetus for doing so. And the principal economic impetus for saving labor is a rise in the cost of labor. Because in markets a rise in the cost of labor – that is, a rise in real wage rates – is itself evidence of an expansion and improvement in labors’ opportunities relative to the supply of labor, the adoption of robots and other labor-saving techniques is a result of labors’ increasing scarcity rather than a cause of its superabundance.

Third, as I myself have somewhere observed, no robot is more human-like than an actual human. Therefore, each and every one-person increase in the labor force is akin to the introduction into the labor force of one robot brilliantly engineered to possess all the dexterity, flexibility, and intelligence of a human worker. And so because the huge increase in the human labor force over the past few centuries has caused no lasting unemployment, I’m confident that the ‘birth’ of human-like robots will have no such baneful consequence.
The bane of prediction is that we base prediction on what we already have observed.  The slide rule industry thought they had a nice, secure little market of new students going into college and some upgrades or replacements, until the electronic calculator came along.  They're both tools but the new one was dramatically better and replaced all previous tools.  The same has happened in other industries.  The wild card in this prediction is that the new AI might be so much more capable than humans that we're all obsoleted - if not hunted down by Skynet for termination.  Based on how well autonomous cars drive, I don't see that happening anytime soon. 


  1. All good and insightful comments. I think that there are many jobs that will become redundant and will vanish (like barrel makers, gandy dancers on the railroad, and the choice of the iron horse over a personal automobile or a real horse to take you on a long trip). Don't get me wrong, I love steam locomotives and Model A Fords, but they are novelty items as are many other occupations. Lawyers are as odious now as they were in the time of Shakespeare. ("The first thing that we must do is kill all of the lawyers) The jobs that remain will change. Like me writing on a computer to comment on your blog. Change doesn't mean vanish.

    1. I'm sure you know that saying from Neils Bohr that "prediction is difficult, especially about the future." We know that some jobs will come and some will go; some people will lose their jobs, some will learn new jobs. The robot manufacturers are now pushing what they call co-bots - robots intended to work side by side with people almost like coworkers. It's tough to predict the fine details of what will happen, but it's not tough to predict the broad brush picture, like this post does.

      Throughout all of human history we've invented new tools and adopted them widely when they make work easier. From the Luddites at the start of the industrial age people have predicted that the new technology would eliminate workers and it always has shifted people from one thing to another. "Those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it."

  2. The issue with AI, mechanization, robots etc.etc is they won't replace ALL jobs....just the jobs that don't require a lot of IQ, specialized training or
    skills, which in the past made up an ENORMOUS percentage of the work force.
    As we have modernized and mechanized society we have made it possible for people with virtually NO useful skills to not just survive but to propagate...
    in LARGE numbers thanks to welfare and the wonders of mass production/mass consumption. And the majority of these new bodies lack the intellect and ability to function in a complex society that requires a high level skill set.
    THAT is the problem. We are breeding TOO many window licking paste munching mouth breathers and not enough people with a MENSA level IQ. The opening scene in the movie Idiocracy is the PERFECT commentary on modern live and evolution.

  3. Robots are cool and all that but I can't see one doing my job effectively until maybe late in this century, if then.
    Like you pointed out, humans are the ultimate robot.
    Able to combine all 5 senses along with fine motor skills and intuition?
    Did you know that a human can feel a surface difference of .005 inches with their fingertips?
    Try and build that.
    I do like your posts on these kinds of topics SiG.

    1. Did you know that a human can feel a surface difference of .005 inches with their fingertips?
      The coincidence is I'm dealing with this right now. I'm getting back to working on my Webster internal combustion engine and the inside of the cylinder is strangely rough. I've gotten it better but haven't gotten it smooth "like glass." I can still feel some ripples in the steel. Hmmm. That might be a post.

  4. The reason robots aren't taking all the jobs is that they tried that and found out that they don't want most of them.

    1. The robot world is awaiting the first pointy-haired robot in the corner office. To heck with doing the menial jobs, they want to be the bosses.

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