No, guys, robots will not take away your jobs

This is a reaction to your column in blog@cacm in the printed edition of CACM for December 2015. My apologies for the timing.

I don’t think anyone can predict what humans will do in a future where robots could displace gainfully employed humans.

What has happened in the past is a hint at the answer to such an advance. In my opinion the technology revolution of late and the information and communications revolution the technology enables are bigger in their impact on human living in the future, or can be, than most articles imagine. A recent article predicted complication for income equality solutions.

The Gutenberg Press caused some upheavals in society. We all know how it made writings accessible to many more people than before. It expanded the numbers of people who could peruse and study writings for themselves. Books were cheaper, but libraries were still not found in peasants’ huts.

Nonetheless, preachers and peasants alike began to get astir at finding out what the sacred books actually said and there was indeed, upheaval among clerical structures, schisms, and nations. The Reformation opened doors for the Enlightenment, however much Voltaire fans might hurt about it.

But the effect of books on discourse was such that those that were critical of kings and royalty got more widespread hearing. Offended kings began to require a license to publish a book, to grant a “right” to make copies of a book. Thus began the custom of “copyright”. it was later evolved and “democratized” to the control of the author.

The books were augmented by telegraphed news reports in the 19th century, and then broadcast and other communications and data storage technologies developed in the 20th century. The control of the means of such media seemed to devolve in big markets to a few big organizations.

Then came the Internet. Many people credit government with its “creation”, but an expansive and inter-connected communications network was inevitable given the advancing computing and communications technologies of the last half of the 20th century. Before the Internet, there was not only Compuserve, AOL, Paradox, and others, but there were hundreds and maybe thousands of home-office and garage-based “bulletin boards” set up by young tech-minded youth who among other things used them to save money for more goodies.

Meantime, the industry of manual copies of manuscripts fell to book printers after Gutenberg. We all know the comparison to buggy whip makers.

This is no different. The economic central planners who thought they could whip up economic and monetary policies and even technology trends based on their so-called economic models have failed miserably to do anything to improve our lives. Prediction is very hard to do, especially about the future. And predictions are crazy when it involves human behavior.

Income inequality is a red herring too. In the poorest barrios in my wife’s country of Hoduras there are thousands of youth with the latest iPhones and other advanced technology. Almost nobody in the USA has to do their laundry by hand or down in the river. Air conditioning, refrigeration, heating devices have improved life’s material conditions.


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