Fear of robots has been rising: not just fear of the sci-fi killer kind but also fear that robots will take our jobs.
But this Labor Day we should celebrate the fact that robots free us from the need to perform certain tasks, make our labor more valuable, and could usher in new age of prosperity and human flourishing.
Robots are special types of machines. They’re programmed electro-mechanical devices that perform various physical functions, ideally better than humans. They range from the types that have been in factories for decades or that now roam the planet Mars to the more human-looking types that still are not in wide use. Artificial Intelligence (AI), which involves making computers—including those in robotic form—perform the higher-level cognitive functions that so far are only the capacities of humans, is now generally lumped in with robots.
In recent years the fear that robots will take all our jobs has been on the rise. Demonstrators in Austin, Texas held signs reading "Stop the Robots" and "Humans are the future." In Britain, 40 percent of people fear robots will take their jobs. Even in India, where labor is cheap, robots are becoming even cheaper and causing concern about the future of that country’s economy.
So should workers be concerned?
The fear of machines and technologies, of which robots are a subset, goes back to the Industrial Revolution. Two centuries ago the Luddites in Britain sabotaged weaving machines fearing, for example, that textile factories would throw out of work skilled artisans making cloth by hand. And factories did just that! Was this bad for workers?
Karl Marx thought it was good in the long run because machines made production more efficient; more and more goods could be produced. But he believed that increased productivity would mean factory owners would be able to fire many of their workers and cut the wages of the rest. The very few rich—the one percent!—would become richer, and the poor would become poorer as their ranks swelled. Eventually, the workers would revolt, overthrow the system, and distribute wealth from each according to his ability to each according to his need.
But that didn’t happen. A prosperous middle class emerged in Britain and elsewhere. Where was Marx wrong?
Ask this: If an owner’s factory could produce 1,000 shirts a day, driving out of business a cottage workshop that could produce only ten, what would happen to those 1,000 shirts? If most workers were destitute, there would be no customers for those shirts and no revenues for the owners.
In fact, there are always uses for human labor and a competition for labor. The ten cottage workers would have to find other employment. This was a tough adjustment in the class system of Britain. But individuals learned to be entrepreneurial. And as they found new work, indeed, created new roles for themselves, they could buy the necessities of life at lower cost thanks to increased productivity. That’s where the 1,000 shirts went!
In general, as productivity rises, workers might have to go into different fields or industries but they can trade their labor for more purchasing power and acquire clothes, food, automobiles, TVs, and everything that makes up our modern world.
Today no one can doubt that technology makes our lives better. Entrepreneurs have given us a plethora of new consumer goods and services. Ten years ago there were no smartphones. Today every manual laborer at a construction site seems to have one as they chat with friends and check email and websites during their breaks. Five years ago there were no iPads. Now all kids seem to have tablets of one kind or other.
Robots and AI are now saving labor that until now has been the purview of only the smartest of humans. For example, AI is providing better diagnostics and treatment recommendations for certain ailments than do flesh-and-blood physicians. Are they just throwing doctors out of work? Or are they freeing doctors for other tasks while improving health care for all?
Part of the fear of robots, AI, and technology is that they might help the economy overall but eliminate the need for particular individuals to do particular jobs. Lots of folks will have to find different work. America in the past has had the greatest job turnover rate but also the greatest job creation rate, but this fact might be cold comfort for some.
Here is where having a day for “labor” obscures a fundamental truth. There is no real dichotomy between labor on the one hand and managers, investors, and entrepreneurs on the other. All workers are managers of their own time. All workers are investors in their own skills and capacities. All workers are entrepreneurs, deciding what fields they should go into and watching for opportunities in a fast-changing economy.
And here’s where robots can’t replace something humans can and should do. We can and should strive to be the entrepreneurs of our own lives. We should take full responsibility for ourselves, think independently, set our own goals, devise strategies to meet them, and take advantage of every opportunity that allows us to reach our goals. Technologies, including robots, offer us such opportunities. And such technologies are the result of the most human of all attributes: our rational capacity; Ayn Rand called machines the “frozen form of a living intelligence.”
So on Labor Day, let’s celebrate the fact that technology frees us to do more and have more. And let embrace, indeed, let's work for the coming age of robots and AI that will give us all the opportunity for a more prosperous and flourishing future.