Are robots going to put us all out of work? That seems to be the question on every click-bait economic article’s mind. On this particular issue I’m taking a firm position: NO! Emphatically, NO! Robots are not going to take our jobs in any permanent sense that would entail a total reworking of basic human economics.
How can I be so certain? Because we’ve been through this before on an even greater scale and not only survived but largely thrived. I am of course talking about the industrial revolutions, both first and second, and whatever atomic / space / computer / information revolution we might be in right now.
When speaking of the first and second Industrial Revolutions, we don’t refer to them as “robots” but instead call them machines and equipment. Still, they are all kith and kin, part of the larger category we refer to as “tools”. And when it comes to tools, we’ve been at this for 2.8 million years, so chill out everybody. In fact, the first in line in the genus ‘homo’ was Homo habilis, “handy man/woman”, or ‘tool user’.
However, it’s not the Olduwan flaked stone tools that I’m entering into evidence here, but instead the machinery of every shape and kind that filled the first factories and furnaces of the industrializing West, displacing and disrupting the craft guilds and the farmers, but not resulting in the economic extinction of the species. Prior to the start of the Industrial revolution roughly 80% of Europe’s economy was agrarian. By 1900 agriculture still accounted for 40-50% of the West’s GDP, and by WWII it was down to 15%. Today those numbers hover around 2% for Europe and less than 1% for the U.S.
When it comes to the trade guilds, yes, the coopers, cobblers and colliers are long gone, and slightly more recently we’ve seen the demise of lamplighters, ice cutters, milkmen, bowling pin setters and switchboard operators. And yet here we are. Read More