Should We Fear or Embrace Automation?

Should We Fear or Embrace Automation?

To sacrifice the potential prosperity of automation for the sake of short-term concerns is to relinquish the fastest route to the end of poverty.

Around 3000 BCE, written language emerged for the first time in human history. The rise of city-states engendered an ever-growing economy, and people could no longer maintain transactional records solely in their minds. Economic progress would halt unless someone found a way to solve the problem of our limited memory. Such is the genesis of writing, birthed as a solution to a problem, a pathway to progress. What about automation?

automation, science, technology, economy, economics, innovation

There is much anxiety around automation, understandably so. In the modern economy, humans are employed to the extent that the job at hand requires physical labor, cognitive ability, or both. Since human labor comes at the cost of wages, demand for automating said labor is inevitable. ‘Computers’ used to be people who ran calculations with pen and paper. Then-, inevitably, a device was invented that could perform the same tasks with productivity that far outstripped that of its human counterparts. Those individuals who were previously valuable found themselves unemployed. From their perspective, the invention of the modern computer was a negative. If they could have mandated their continual employment, they would have. The same goes for for the farmer, the milkman, and the elevator operator. Every employee has an incentive to maintain her job, whatever the cost to society. Imagine if the computers had gotten their way. It would have been a victory for a minority, and a devastating stagnation for the rest of society.

One issue of the anti-automation movement is the arbitrary decision regarding which technologies should be forbidden from invention. To satisfy every worker is to freeze the economy, preventing standard of living from rising, preventing problems from being solved. Few white collar workers would ever switch to physical labor. Their positions are the result of technological progress that automated more and more manual labor, until people were free and wealthy enough to satisfy cognitive demands, such as marketing, banking, and teaching, to name a few.

People often emphasize the cost of automation, namely, potential mass unemployment. But rarely do they weigh this against the benefits. Reduction in production costs translates to reduction in prices–everyone becomes wealthier. In imagining a world without employment, one sometimes projects the current economic paradigm onto the would-be jobless. This is a parochial error. Those disparaging technological progress must, if they are to give a fair assessment of the problem, take into account the vast increase in purchasing power that will benefit the poorest member of society. Taken to the limit, products will eventually cost no more than the raw materials needed to make them.

As seen with the computer, technologies are almost always exapted beyond their original purpose. Many anti-automation advocates claim that they care about the trashman, the IT assistant, the truck driver. They must concede that by protecting their jobs, they are not only preventing livings standards from rising, but they are also preventing paths to solutions heretofore unconsidered.

There is, admittedly, one serious point of concern regarding economic growth. In a 2007 study, Bettencourt and others studied the growth of cities as a function of innovation and economies of scale. Modeling cities as combinations of social and infrastructural adaptive networks, the researchers predicted how certain quantities should scale with size of the city, as measured in terms of number of people. For example, their theory predicts that the number of gasoline stations should scale sublinearly, while the number of new patents should scale superlinearly, each with city size. Sublinear scaling implies an economy of scale—bigger cities earn a “bigger bang for their buck” in that doubling a city’s size less than doubles the number of gas stations required. On the other hand, superlinear scaling suggests increasing returns such that doubling a city’s size more than doubles the number of new patents developed in the city. Because these predictions are backed by empirical data to a remarkable degree, we must take the theory seriously in all of its predictions. Unfortunately, one of said predictions is that when growth is driven by innovation, population size will approach infinity in a finite amount of time. Because resources are limited, this inevitably results in economic collapse unless further innovations are made to “reset” the timer to yet another potential collapse, which is predicted to come at ever-shorter timescales. Automation alone cannot save us from this accelerating treadmill. Creativity will always be required in the form of new innovations.

It may be that the life of a middle-class American today is the life of the most impoverished tomorrow. This is not controversial; in fact, this is already the trend, and has been since humanity’s first innovation. The fastest route to the End of Poverty is innovation. To sacrifice potential prosperity for the sake of short-term concerns of a minority is to relinquish the only tool that has ever succeeded in solving problems.

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