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During previous periods when jobs have been replaced by automation, there's been a temporary shift to unemployment, and then other, growing, sectors of the economy have taken up the labour.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
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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