Wait? The Robots Aren’t Coming After All?


Over at Vox, Matt Yglesias laments that, contrary to scare stories in the media, robots aren’t taking away our jobs. In fact, productivity has dropped steadily over the past few decades. That wouldn’t be true if automation were taking away work while producing more goods and services.

True enough. But what about the future?

Of course, all this might change. The power of Moore’s Law — which states that the power of computer chips doubles roughly every two years — is such that the next five years’ worth of digital progress will involve bigger leaps in raw processor power than the previous five years. It’s at least possible that we really will have a massive leap forward in productivity someday soon that starts substantially reducing the amount of human labor needed to drive the economy forward.

But robots are never going to take all the jobs.

I have one question: Why not?

There are a couple of possible answers to that question. The first is that we’ll never manage to invent true AI, which will prevent robots from ever being able to perform a wide range of tasks that humans perform easily. The second is that we will invent AI, but….something something something. I don’t really understand the second answer. I’ll grant that humans might continue to be CEOs and legislators and a few other things just to make sure that we’re still ultimately in charge of the world ourselves. And who knows? We might even decide that we prefer human art even if we can’t tell the difference, the same way an original Rembrandt is worth a lot more than even a perfect copy.

But that would still mean robots taking over 99 percent of the jobs. If you don’t believe AI is coming anytime soon, then I understand why you think this will never happen. But if you do accept that AI is coming in the medium-term future, then why won’t robots take essentially all the jobs? What exactly is it that they won’t be able to do?