Comments: the bottom half

Your parents told you never to read the bottom half of a web page, but I have disregarded that by checking out all the comments on Tech Review article that I published two days ago.  It is not surprising to see a broad diversity of opinion about whether robots are fundamentally a new ingredient in the dynamics of business, or just the same as power nail guns and welding arms.  In the arguments made consistently, there are some tropes worth pointing out though, and many opinions center around the same basic flow of reasoning: (1) automation happened before and it was just fine; (2) the advent of new robotics is just more of the same, and so it will be just fine too; (3) no matter what happens, consumer demand and market dynamics is corrective and will ensure that things go well.

But the real world is messy, and these universals are not portraying that reality. Was the advent of automation fine each time it hit? If you pose the long-term question to an economist, sure. If you ask the daughter of a steelworker or auto worker, no; it was a disaster that no amount of retraining succeeded in compensating.  Impacts can be generational, and the concept of it all working out can take multiple generations even when trends point the right way. As for the equivalence of robotics and prior forms of automation, the disagreement I have with some Singularity proponents is more on ‘when’ than ‘if’ for concrete, social tasks that robots can eventually undertake. Sure, robots will always lie on a continuum of intelligence, with nail guns near the bottom (I hope). But the sensitivity that underemployment might have to where technology lies on that continuum is not established. We are turning dials that do not have well-defined labels, and that is my principal concern on this front.  Finally, there is argument (3)- sometimes stated in terms of demand: without a middle class, there is no demand for goods, and therefore the system of producing via robots will self-correct to ensure enough people consume enough material goods. While corrective forces may influence aggregate demand, it is important to note that such corrections do not necessarily influence social and economic inequity; the gap between classes can increase even with gross corrective forces in place.

Let the debate rage on- it is a healthy step toward building the awareness that has to predate any deliberate action.

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