Robots coming over here, taking our jobs

…building our utopias.

Robots are replacing workers. That's the conclusion a number of economists and economics writers have come to after looking at the ever-declining share of income which goes to labour. We touched upon the trend briefly in September, when we covered research which argued that America's "jobless recovery" was due to an above-average amount of lost jobs being replaced with automation, not rehiring. But since then, it's gone global.

The FT's Izabella Kaminska was one of the first people (with one rather important exception) to properly communicate how game-changing the idea might be. Take this, from last August:

Could the jobless recovery be signalling that technology has lead to the sort of abundance and productivity that leaves NAIRU — the unemployment rate below which inflation rises — with no choice but to recalibrate higher, if returns on capital investment are to be protected?

The rationale being, if NAIRU was unnaturally low in the 1990s — meaning everyone could have a job without there being inflationary consequences since productivity was deflating unit labour costs — did the buck break on account of capital, not low interest rates or inflationary forces? That’s to say, productivity had become so great, that the economy could no longer afford to keep hiring workers without pushing unit labour costs to a point where goods and output would infringe on profitability directly?

During previous periods when jobs have been replaced by automation, there's been a temporary shift to unemployment, and then other, growing, sectors of the economy have taken up the labour. Mechanised threshing machines destroyed one type of labour at the same time as the rise of the factory created another type.

But that coping mechanism may not always work. Kevin Kelly writes for Wired:

It may be hard to believe, but before the end of this century, 70 percent of today’s occupations will likewise be replaced by automation. Yes, dear reader, even you will have your job taken away by machines. In other words, robot replacement is just a matter of time.

70 per cent of jobs going in a century would be an unprecedented structural shift. It might settle down eventually — with an entirely new class of un-automatable jobs — but there's just as much chance that it wouldn't. Once a robot can do 70 per cent of jobs — and "robot" here covers things like algorithms which can write news stories or perform basic paralegal work as well as simple physical labour — it's hard to conceive of a class of jobs which would be so innate to humans as to enable a large proportion of people to be employed in them yet still impossible to automate.

That may be the trend we're seeing now. Currently, robots are depressing the labour share of income by being expensive, ensuring that workers have to lower their wages for fear of being replaced by a machine. But eventually, even that won't work; and then the wages of the few jobs which aren't automated will also be depressed, as a large pool of people compete for them.

Noah Smith, in the Atlantic, has some suggestions on how to cope. Here's the first:

It should be easier for the common people to own their own capital - their own private army of robots. That will mean making "small business owner" a much more common occupation than it is today (some would argue that with the rise of freelancing, this is already happening). Small businesses should be very easy to start, and regulation should continue to favor them. It's a bit odd to think of small businesses as a tool of wealth redistribution, but strange times require strange measures.

What's stranger, though, is what happens when we take a step back and look at this problem critically. With fewer people working than ever before, we can still make enough for our quality of life to carry on unchanged. Over the next century, 70 per cent of people could stop working — or the same number of people could work 70 per cent fewer hours — and there would be no material difference. Consider Smith's "ultimate extreme example":

Imagine a robot that costs $5 to manufacture and can do everything you do, only better. You would be as obsolete as a horse.

That's not a nightmare. It's a utopia. To turn it into a nightmare, we need the addendum: "Imagine that robot is owned by an individual who reaps all the rewards from its existence." In other words, imagine the possibilities of a utopia conflicting with the ugly practicalities of capitalism.

There's a reason Kaminska was only one of the first to address this problem if we ignored an important exception. It has strong roots in Marxist theory. And if we do encounter this "problem" in reality, it may be that the best solution has its roots in a similar area.

A bomb disposal robot takes part in a police graduation ceremony in Tripoli. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.