MIT Technology Review has published an excellent series of articles about the effects that general-purpose disruptive technologies will have on our economy. This link is to their latest piece, “Who Will Own the Robots?”
It is a well-written and balanced overview of the subject and a great introduction to where thinking on this subject currently stands. I have only a few comments to make in review of it.
To start, as I’ve stated, it is a well-balanced overview. The author(s) do a good job of representing the views on both sides of the debate. But I was struck by how often the arguments that this Rise of the Robots is really nothing new or won’t be such a big deal are tempered by qualifiers such as “so far”, “as of today”, or “in the past we have seen”. Isn’t this exactly what’s at issue here — the fact that these changes may not play out along familiar lines? That the future may not look like the past, and it is what’s coming, not what’s already here, which is our true concern?
The article mentions chemist Richard Smalley’s belief that because of “the way that atoms bind and react with each other” there will never be a technology such as molecular manufacturing. I would love to see Smalley debate Neil Gershenfield on this subject. Gershenfield, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, believes a Star Trek-like “replicator” will be a reality in about twenty years. (Watch Fareed Zakaria’s interview of Gershenfield here).
One last thing which should be cleared up. The author(s) include the idea of a guaranteed basic income as a means of dealing with the shocks of technological unemployment. But the idea is proposed in terms of our familiar residual liberal-model welfare state; as a means-tested safety net. I do not know if this approach is set forth by Martin Ford or if it is simply the result of ideological blinders. To be effective any form of basic income must be universal, not means-tested; lest we all be reduced to penury to qualify. And even at that it may still be dangerously wrong-headed if capitalist property relations are not also addressed. A much better approach is mentioned in connection with Harvard economist Richard Freeman, a man whom I had not heard of before reading this article, but whom I will be following closely now. Freeman hits the nail squarely on the head when he writes: Workers need to own capital rather than rely on government income redistribution policies.
Finally, someone who gets it!
Here is a brief excerpt from the closing paragraph:
Whoever owns the capital will benefit as robots and AI inevitably replace many jobs. If the rewards of new technologies go largely to the very richest, as has been the trend in recent decades, then dystopian visions could become reality. But the machines are tools, and if their ownership is more widely shared, the majority of people could use them to boost their productivity and increase both their earnings and their leisure.
I hope you will take the time to visit their website and read this piece.