The Economics of Robots

Ezra Klein worries that the dawn of robots will lead to mass unemployment at some point in the future. This theory has a long and distinguished history in our literature. Indeed, this is precisely what occurs in Karel Capek’s R.U.R., the play that gives us the word “robot.” Tim Lee retorts that this is demagoguery: “The more wealth there is in the world, the easier it will be for you to get some of it. Robots would only accelerate the accumulation of wealth, thereby increasing the amount of money a worker is likely to be able to get for a given unit of his labor. True, his wages might shrink relative to the overall economy, but he’ll only get more productive as technology improves, so in absolute terms his wages will only go up.”

I think it’s a little more complicated than that. As in Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel the key issue in the case of a vast robot-driven increase in the labor supply is the availability and distribution of limited capital resources like land. On the Spacer worlds where you have a relatively egalitarian distribution of capital, you get a kind of utopian existence. On Earth, resource constraints have led to the creation of a kind of socialist economy based on the world government’s control of the food supply and the inordinate cost of housing. That seems unlikely for various reasons, so I’m not too worried.

The real risk here is that if you saw very rapid advances in robotics, the dislocations thereby caused could be extremely destabilizing, leading to anti-robot rioting and all manner of trouble that would ultimately stifle growth.