The short answer is yes. Most economists think the answer is no, because in the past automation hasn’t caused lasting unemployment. They call it the Luddite Fallacy because the Luddites, the people who went around smashing up weaving machines during the Industrial Revolution, were wrong about the effect of automation – at least to the extent that they were making a broad economic argument.
I think the economists are guilty of the Reverse Luddite Fallacy, which is to say that because automation hasn’t caused lasting unemployment in the past it can’t do so in the future. It’s different this time because in previous rounds of unemployment machines have replaced our muscle jobs while in future rounds they’re going to replace our cognitive skills.
The Kismet robot was created in the late 1990s to recognise and respond to social cues in humans (Photo: Jared C. Benedict)
To be honest, it’s a judgment call. There are some arguments, too long to go into, why in this next wave of automation we might continue to create new jobs. My judgment is that whatever human they bring to the job the machines are going to replace them. I call it the Economic Singularity and I think it’s coming in 20 to 40 years; that’s the time period within which most people will be unemployable. That could have a very good outcome or a very bad outcome.
The good outcome is that we live in a post-job world where machines do all the boring stuff and humans get on with all the fun bits of life, which are playing and socialising and learning and exploring. The bad outcome is that we fail to address the coming changes and fail to plan for a new economy. We’re going to need to get money to people so they can avoid starvation, and we’re going to need to find meaning in our lives, which I don’t think is going to be a problem but we need to give licence to politicians and business leaders to start thinking about it publicly.