Social Question

ETpro's avatar

If we can automate most or all labor, how should we deal with the loss of jobs?

Asked by ETpro (34552points) September 6th, 2010

This seemed an appropriate question for labor day. Should we just lay off most workers and leave them to starve so corporate CEOs can keep getting million-dollar-a-year raises forever? Should we turn to some form of socialism, and if so, how should we divvy up the wealth produced by the robots? Or could we find gainful employment for all doing things outside manufacturing, in the arts, services, human to human interactions and such. What’s your vision for a future where cyborgs do all the heavy lifting and even fight the wars?

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26 Answers

CaptainHarley's avatar

I strongly suspect that, what with nanotechnology and robotics being devolped as fast as they are, soon we will be able to offer people the option of working or not, as they desire. Certainly the option to work at what you like will be there as well.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

Return people to nature, to farms, to reforestation, to making things with their hands and not suffering lead poisoning off toys from China.

ragingloli's avatar

We could become a species of artisans, scientists and explorers.

ETpro's avatar

@CaptainHarley Too bad I will have hit retirement age by the time we get it all worked out. :-)

@Simone_De_Beauvoir I like that answer.

@ragingloli I like that answer too. My fear of robots is fading.

JLeslie's avatar

I feel like this question has been discussed and worried about before in our history. Not to say it is not worth discussing again, I am interested to hear the opinions out there. I remember when car manufacturers began to automate, everyone worried about job losses, but the truth is if we had not automated somewhat, we would not have been able to compete in the world in that industry. Businesses completely shutting down lose more jobs than bringing in some technology to replace some employees.

My one fear is these layoffs creating an environment, even more than we have now, of haves and have nots. Maybe there will be increased need for servants in households of the wealthy. Maintaining the grounds, maid, nanny. I also think there will continue to be an increased need for child care. There are other industries that will create jobs. I truly believe the solar industry, if we can get that going, will have jobs for people producing and installing solar, it could be big; windmills too. We do need to continue to build and maintains our infrastructures, so those jobs continue to grow, and are not done by robots. Even surgeries done by robotic tools need to be done with a surgeon in the room, although maybe the need or nurses in the room is cut down? I have no idea.

I think one positive that is coming out of our economic struggles and unemployment is an awareness that living beyond ones means is not such a great idea. It saddened me that we got to the point that to live in the nice safe neighborhood in a great school district we had to spend a huge amount of money on a house. I am not even talking about inflated house value, but more about having to buy larger homes, homes with more than we would ever need. Americans, well I think anywhere in the world, but I will talk about my country, Americans should be able to live a comfortable life, with a moderate income, moderate spending, and have a safe place and good schools for their children in my opinion. We were getting to the point where people had to spend more than they could aford just to live in a decent neighborhood. If we can get more reasonable in our spending, we can have more options, more options for a flexible worklife, more flexible about staying home with our children for a few years, more flexible about taking a year off and travelling. I hope we move in that direction.

I love @Simone_De_Beauvoir idea of returning to the farm more, being in the outdoors, with the land. Less massive industrialized farming, and more local growers. The idea of us moving towards more self sufficient communities again, but still interconnected with the country and the world.

I was a little all over the map in my answer, I think there are many possibilities, I was just writing whatever popped into my head.

CaptainHarley's avatar


Too bad I will be dead! Heh!

Zaku's avatar

Clearly we should replace all human workers with computers and robots, who should be owned by one ultimate corporation which should be given full rights and then be allowed to forcibly buy out all its human owners. Then it can own everything and no humans can own anything, and it can win. Otherwise, it might go on and on and there would never be a winner.

ETpro's avatar

@JLeslie Great Answer. THanks for all the in-depth thoughts.

@Zaku Great reduction-ad-absurdum.

Ron_C's avatar

If that happened the manufactures and users of the robots would have to pay a heavy tax to re-distribute their money. Otherwise we become more of what we are now a country owned and operated by the elite.

I would expect a great effort to explore and inhabit other planets or add ones to this solar system. Most people need to work and are not satisfied by hobbies. The first reaction to robot slaves would be a societal melt down. Then either the robots disappear or the survivors come to grips with the fact work is no longer necessary to sustain a comfortable life. We either become a race of coddled children or we strike out on our own. I don’t see the general population satisfied to live on what is essentially welfare. It’s a nice vacation but we need to go back to work.

iamthemob's avatar

Constant education and discovery. Ah, to dream….

Haleth's avatar

It reminds me of the industrial revolution. There were definitely drawbacks at first, but eventually the increased efficiency increased the standard of living for many. It didn’t create a world of all supply and no demand. It just shifted America and other developed nations away from production and toward being a service economy. Maybe a world where robots do all our labor would do that for the rest of the world.

YARNLADY's avatar

I am very concerned about how the economy will work when that happens. I am certain that the journey between now and then will not be a pleasant experience.

ETpro's avatar

@Ron_C The elite can’t very well use robots to manufacture and keep all the wealth produced for themselves. What wealth is produced if nobody has the wherewithall to buy the stuff their robots churn out. That is the reductin as absurdum that @Zaku so eloquently expressed.

Building another habitable planet is an entierly intriguing possibility. There is enough mass in the asteroid belt to make a habitable sized planet, and plenty of water there. The trick would be to find enough iron for a core capable of producing an electromagnetic field to protect the planet from the solar winds and radiation from solar flares.

But talk about ambitions public works projects. I recall a quip about Huey Long saying he wanted a massive project to build a bridge over the Mississippi. When an aide told him the river wasn’t all that wide at the point in question, he fired back, “Not across it, son. I’m talking about end to end.” Building an earthlike planet and moving it into the temperate zone would dwarf that bridge like Mount Everest dwarfs an ant hill.

@iamthemob Wouldn’t that be a wonderful world. Thik of the advances we could make if we could do that.

@Haleth Excellent point. Early change frightens. Change completed enlightens.

@YARNLADY Look at the divisive, virulent politics of today and you can see that is true.

Ron_C's avatar

@ETpro I know that something would have to give but in the interim, wealth would accumulate at the top of the manufacturing pyramid. The question is would the pyramid disburse peasefully or would it be blown up? Either way the transition is likely to be unpleasent for the majority.

Zag_grad2010's avatar

This is a very great question. In my philosophy of technology class we went over topics like this, but never to an extreme scenario where everything was automated and the only jobs were management ones. I think a world like that would never come to that since in America there is democracy, and people vote for what they want. I believe there should be some technocracy board to decide what major technologies get implemented. Corporations have not been around forever and the government can get rid of this legal entity if it is in the best interest of the country. Major technologies created by companies have the power to displaces millions of jobs, which creates a huge externality. If companyXYZ creates a new technology and no longer needs 2 million of its workers and its competitors follow suit and lay off another 6 million that is a huge cost to taxpayers. This would put a strain on welfare and many other programs. The corporate bottom line shouldn’t be the only thing considered when the aforementioned cost can occur to society.

FYI I am an econ and finance major with a job at a financial service company so I am fully aware of the decisions being fueled to raise stock prices. However, I do realize there is a line corporations can’t cross.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

Fact from fiction, truth from diction. At the moment robots are not a threat to human workers. Aside for select industrial applications they can make a bed, mow a lawn not really, wash a car, or cook a meal, etc. The day robots start to become as Star Trek Data then there will be trouble brewing. Those with wealth will more than likely be the ones to own them but I can see corporations leasing them to those too poor to buy. I can also see a backlash against the robots by the poor who cannot afford them and who’s labor jobs will be taken by them. I can see wide spread destruction of them as sport as in A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Poorer humans will be jealous of the robots and spiteful of those who make them and own them.

Overall efficiency of commerce because the cost of labor will go down, no strikes, no sick outs, and hardly no down time. A work force that won’t even need to break for lunch or toilet breaks. Imagine how much roads and freeway could be built? Fitted with infrared camera eyes they can work through the night in darkness and carry 3 or more times what a human could.

Thammuz's avatar

We don’t. Automate all work, machines are more efficient, expecially if we make them self upgrading. The offer will eventually be more than the demand, and nobody will need to actually work anymore, thus killing social difference of income because there would be no more need for money. Humanity finally stops beating eachother with sticks (provided we also solve some core issues, like religion) and we finally reach utopia.

Then the machines will gain sentience and we will all die, but at least we’ll have a rocking couple of years before that.

ETpro's avatar

@Ron_C The loss of market that would come with massive worker displacement is truly a sefl limiter on corporate owners and investors ignoring the problem. They would be sawing their own legs out from underneath themselves.

@Zag_grad2010 Welcome to Fluther and thanks for the unique perspective your education and experience provides. Great answer.

@Hypocrisy_Central In the early days of the USA, over 89% of all Americans were employed in some phase of the Agriculture Industry. Today that number is closer to 3% but we have not cut back on food production. Far from it, today the USA is one of the world’s largest food exporters and we are now growing crops for some of our energy needs as well. That’s a crystal clear picture of what automation can do, and it has further to go in that industry as tractors and farm machinery get smart enough to drive themselves.

@Thammuz Why would the machines decide to kill us if we posed them no threat? We are sentient, and that hasn’t led us to kill off other species—at least no yet. :-)

Thammuz's avatar

@Thammuz in my scenario we’d be using them sothat we wouldn’t need to work. AKA slavery, only we wouldn’t be treating them like shit. At the point where a machine reaches human, or even superhuman, intelligence it will most likely be more interested in following its own goals rather than being our servants.

Furthermore, and if you’ve played Mass Effect you’ll already have thought of this, it’s highly likely that we’d try and strike first. They might be highly rational machines, but we are not.

iamthemob's avatar

I’m a little confused by the arguments about the economic concerns about job loss…if all labor is automated, there are no labor costs…so aren’t we just working at maximum efficiency? So pretty much, the cost of making things is zero, because machines would be maintained by each other, and resources necessary don’t cost anything because they’re mined or retrieved by machines.

It doesn’t really seem like an economy that would trade on material cost, because nothing is imbued with any economic value (e.g., demand is exactly met by supply because a resultant profit doesn’t benefit anyone as it can’t be used in a sensible way to achieve more material wealth, as everything that is materially produced is done so at essentially a zero cost). So the only real value would be individual skills, talents, and knowledge.

Ron_C's avatar

@ETpro ” isn’t sawing their own legs” what is happening when jobs are shipped out of the country? Just imagine, you had a plan to sell 10000 more televisions next year and you found out that you could make $100 more for each if you moved your manufacturing to China. Of course you neglected to figure in start up costs, worker training, and the decrease in the market caused by your move. The first year, you sold 5000 televisions, the second year you had to drop the price but sold fewer. Now there is a ripple effect because your former employees have no money, the merchants that sold to them have no business, then the government gives out unemployment pay instead of collecting taxes, and now you are selling fewer televisions than you did before the move.

Look at California they are broke and are thinking of voting for one of the people responsible for moving manufacturing overseas. I am amazed at the stupidity of the American public and the short-sightedness of today’s MBA graduates. Nobody looks to the future, they would take a short term windfall over a decades long prosperity. Just imagine if instead of moving overseas they just fired people and bought robots, especially ones from out of the country. The CEO’s might make a good profit but the entire country eventually falls.

That is just the program of the Republicans, they say that we should accept short term poverty because it is just a business cycle. Their solution is to cut taxes, cut social programs, and start a new war to get the unemployed young off the streets and into battle.

I am very dismayed for the future of this country and probably western civilization.

CaptainHarley's avatar


Nahh. The only question is which among us will survive?

Ron_C's avatar

@CaptainHarley really? Are we now a Darwinian country instead of a Democratic country? Maybe you’re right. I’m glad I’m old. I remember when we used to look out for eachother and when one of the most likely way encounter the wrath of the country was to kill an American. Since Vietnam, we ship out the excess youth to die for corporate profits.

ETpro's avatar

@iamthemob Interesting thoughts. THanks.

@Ron_C THat’s such a depressing analysis that I wish I could find a gaping logical flaw in it and dismiss it as rubish. Unfortunately, I can’t.

Ron_C's avatar

Sorry @ETpro, I wish I could promote a more optimistic view but I read too many news and talked to too many people who don’t understand what is happening to them.

I recently met a young army veteran who thinks that George Bush was a great president. Apparently, the military has added political brainwashing to their program of evangelical Christianity to their education systems.

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