32 votes

Robots will steal our jobs...Really?!

Just a week ago, I had a lengthy conversation with someone claiming robots will "steal our jobs", and to my surprise, the same arguments thrown at me then have been showing up here on the DP.

Time for a full-post rebuttal...

So the argument I'd like to refute goes something like this:

As Robots (could just as easily be "tools", "machines", "factories", "technology", "automation"...the premise is the same) get more advanced, human work won't be needed to produce goods and provide services. This means:

a) humans won't have any jobs
b) humans won't be able to afford any goods because they have no income

I'm going to start with debunking (b), because it's the easiest to understand and once it's debunked, the concerns from (a) are no longer concerns...

At the heart of (b) exists a paradigm that goes something like: work => income => buying stuff. The best way to bust up this paradigm is to ask three questions:

1. How many hours did you work last year to afford electricity?
2. How many hours did you work last year to afford food?
3. How many hours did you work last year to afford gravity?

I know exactly how many hours you spent on No. 3: ZERO, just like every other person on the planet. So what's different between gravity and electricity/food? The difference is your use of gravity doesn't require any other human work to create it or supply you. The same is true for daylight, air, sunsets, clouds, etc. And just like gravity, we all spend exactly zero hours of work to afford those things.

Now in this robot world in which robots can produce everything with no human work, everything becomes just like gravity, free in the literal sense. That's not a world in which we "can't afford anything"...it's a world in which we don't NEED to afford anything.

When you "buy" something, you're exchanging the productivity of your work for the productivity of someone else's. But if the things you want didn't require anyone else's productivity, you can just have it without exchanging your own productivity...because there's no one to exchange with...like gravity.

It basically boils down to a trivial statement: when work is no longer required (to create), work is no longer required (to have).

Now on to (a)...

If you define "jobs" something like "the work needed to sustain ourselves by producing goods and providing services", (a) is absolutely true...to which I say "GREAT! Where do I sign?"

Since work is not needed to "afford stuff" that requires no work to produce, getting rid of "jobs" frees up our time and efforts for other more enjoyable pursuits: creativity, art, exploration, entertainment...the pursuit of happiness.

Where people go wrong is to assume that if we don't need to work, there would be nothing to do...maybe sit around and eat grapes all day.

First off, we already have the technology to do that right now...and we don't because that type of life isn't enjoyable.

More importantly, that assumption stems from the premise that there is some limit to the ways in which we can use our skills and efforts to make the world better. I just don't buy that at all. I don't even think we've scratched the surface of the possibilities of ways we can make life better...on THIS earth. When I look up at night and consider the entire universe, it becomes clear that we haven't even scratched the first piece of dust off of the surface of possibilities.

Ironically, it's exactly the increase of technology that expands our ability to serve each other in new and creative ways. There was a time when basically everyone was born a farmer. Thanks to agriculture equipment "stealing" those jobs, people now have way more options of how they apply their skills and efforts. Again, the benefit not being the "work" created by technology, but the ever-increasing amount, variety, and quality of goods and services created by the work.

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tasmlab's picture

Does the argument change with low-cost labor?

Does the argument change much if we replace "robots" with "cheap immigrant labor"? Both replace jobs and make things cheaper. I'm not sure it does.

Having a government that has voting and benefits and such cocks it up a bit, but that's a problem with the government, not the labor.

Currently consuming: Morehouse's "Better off free", FDR; Wii U; NEP Football

What about

What about the costs of building and maintaining the robots? Whoever accepts the upfront cost of this will almost certainly expect all the subsequent profits to flow toward themselves.

Without significant changes to our economic structure, it wouldn't work the way you say. It would be more similar to Internet bandwidth. Companies charge more, not because it costs them anything, but because they can.

I think your theory is on, and it could work that way, but do you have any plan for circumventing this road bump?

Not sure I get your internet

Not sure I get your internet bandwidth point. I have been paying about the same price for internet for 20 years and the bandwidth keeps climbing. Plus, ISP's have a significant investment in infrastructure and constant upgrades, so it does cost them quite a bit to run that operation.

Robots are strong, and their

Robots are strong, and their arms are made of metal.

Southern Agrarian

Michael Nystrom's picture

That is an excellent point.

This context doesn’t just make Google’s voice interfaces usable—some day, it could make them even better than humans. “Today, automatic speech recognition is not as good as people, but our ambition is, we should be able to be better than people,” says Huffman. In order to achieve that, Google will leverage the intimate knowledge it has of its users.

What if robots, with those strong metal arms, and silicon brains that are a quadrillion times faster than ours, and with a quadrillion times more data at their disposal, simply displace us?

To the OP: Just because something works out for a while doesn't mean the relationship will always hold true. This much should be obvious. There are breakpoints in the development of any natural system. Things develop a certain way for for a while and suddenly there is a phase change and new rules apply.

If computers / robots, or what Kevin Kelley calls 'The Technium' in his book What Technology Wants, learn to fix themselves, and to make more of themselves - i.e. to reproduce - then what we have on our hands is a new species. Then we're not talking about robots stealing our jobs, but stealing our niche.

In evolutionary terms, there is a word for what happens when a stronger competitor moves into your niche. It is called extinction.

He's the man.

fear mongering over technology

I wonder how many are fear mongering over technology but defend patent laws?

If suddenly all human jobs were converted to robot jobs

Then your debunking holds true. But if a robot were invented to do my job today, I'd be out and still need to work to provide for my family.
The other thing that is flawed in your robot scenario is a failure to look at the incredibly wide spectrum of jobs people have that are impossible to automate. Fully-automated society should be tried by believers in their own little town. I'll come visit.

So your sticking point is the transition?

You can see it working (robots and no human jobs so everything is free) but you can't see how to get there. That's a problem I worked on for a number of years. It was actually the free market discussions here on DP that solved the how for me.

The only obvious solution is for wages to rise exponentially as robotics takes over. This will have lots of short term consequences but long term, it will result in earlier retirement ages. As those ages recede faster, families will return to the single income "bread winner" model which supports much less social problems. This accelerates the rise of the poor and the equality of all. While this too has many short term consequences, the real long term result is that goods and services required to support a family for their lifetime will no longer require more than a decade or so of single income work. Some will choose to save more. Others will choose to work sporadically to match a small income and small expenses to some job that needs only minimal highly experienced attention.

In the end, the final result is that money will become so ubiquitous and prices so low (in hours worked) that people will lose the necessity of even keeping track. Money will become insignificant. At that point, most jobs will be more a charitable labor of love or a hobby and your transition will be complete.

I've been thinking about this all day and there's no way

without significantly lowering standards of living and quality of life; and without an all-powerful central government.

Think of all the jobs that are uniquely human and how odd or boring life would be without them. Would it be much fun to watch two robots drag race? Would it feel the same to get a bouquet of robot assembled flowers? How about a cheesesteak with just a touch of hots from a robot. I can see it now, all over the world millions of times a minute: "I'm sorry I didn't get that. Could you please repeat? I'm sorry, I still didn't get that. Please try again later. Next!"
I saw a guy hanging out of a second story window fixing the soffit on a roof today and wondered how a robot could do that job. There's millions of things people do and want that robots and robo-world just can't account for. I'll use myself as an example:
I want a boat. Actually, I want a boat AND an addition to my house, and I like to get a couple of donuts at 7-11 now and then. In robo-world, I can't imagine that a guy could have his very own boat and decide to make his house big just because he wants to. But, in the human world, I can trade my creative and productive value for things that I want. Some human will build my boat and some other humans will help me build my addition because I will give them something they can then trade for their own boats or robots or whatever they want. Things couldn't possibly work that way in robo-world. The central controller or a democratic process (i.e. minority loses) would have to decide what people can have.

No, the robot world of free everything is a pipe dream dreamed by the young and inexperienced.

You have 3 issues, as I see it

You say that there are too many jobs that a robot can't do (or that we wouldn't want them to - the flowers, etc.)? Well, there's nothing that says you can't do some things for yourself. There's nothing that says you can't have a good old fashioned barn raising and pick your own flowers from your own garden. As far as the boat is concerned, I don't see any reason why you couldn't have a boat (as long as it didn't overburden the planet's resources - a stretch for a single boat inquiry) but at the same time, there's another alternative. If you've heard of crowd-sharing, as in cars or bikes, you might decide you don't want the hassle and limitations of having your own boat because you can just go to the lake and hop in an unused one. That way you don't have to maintain it (big hassle), store it or move it from one lake to the next.

You imply that only democracy or a powerful central authority would be able to handle this type of society. I see it exactly the opposite. The reason is that yours is based on a world of scarcity while mine is based on a world of abundance. How do I get that viewpoint? We currently waste 95% of all goods we make today within 6 months. If we made goods to last generations (not that every single one would) we could supply 10-15 times the goods to people around the world and still use less than we are today. If all that came from a sustainable practice (recyclable, etc.), then that basically stops all new resource depletion. If we also incorporate other techniques, like the crowd-sharing and many others, no one would ever be denied a boat.

If we then looked at this from the person's POV during the transition, we would see them progressively paying off their material goods earlier and earlier in their adult lives. Once that "everything is paid off for life and we have retirement savings full" date reaches an early enough age, people will begin to retire earlier and earlier. As they leave their jobs, they free them up for the next worker. As this trend continues, automation will be not only an option but will be forced to make up the difference. This puts the workers in the driver's seat for wages. This solves your third issue of lowered standard of living/quality of life.

Cyril's picture

The Broken Window. The Evil ruled and still is.

The bottom lines are that if it were not for the collectivist plunder initiated in 1913 in America, in the footsteps of miserable, suicidal Europeans fools of the 1850s, as Bastiat and others had finally unleashed their reflections against that sort of infamy, we would ALREADY live today in a much better world where the offsprings of the 1800s America would be counted by dozens in many cultures, all over the place, and without the memory of a WWI, then WWII, then today's undiscontinued wars.

We are still barely scratching the surface of the full potential of the sparkles of progress made in the 19th and 20th century despite the utter evil that ruled and still is.

The Broken Window.

"Cyril" pronounced "see real". I code stuff.


"To study and not think is a waste. To think and not study is dangerous." -- Confucius

we MUST abandon a monetary policy that demands growth.

we humans cannot keep growing at even a 3% rate. that is the evil that besets us.

not robots.

Cyril's picture


BURN TO THE GROUND the central banks, to start with, then.

For, that's where the master SPREADSHEETS and formulas are edited, updated, behind closed doors, regarding the "growth" ... "variable".



Save some rope for after the leeches' trials, btw, that might come in handy, if the people come to fully realize what they have put up with for a century... with their BLOOD.

"Cyril" pronounced "see real". I code stuff.


"To study and not think is a waste. To think and not study is dangerous." -- Confucius

Too many are beholding to those banks

or at least think they are. If you tried to go after them, either physically or legally, it would be a war against our own. It would only work after a massive and successful awareness campaign.

Another alternative would be to out compete them. Create businesses or services that do everything the people want but with more convenience, privacy and security. Then watch those big banks whine and complain as their efforts to save themselves drain their last FRN from their personal savings.

This is the real power behind bitcoin. My only hope is that some creative person will find a way to make a new version of bitcoin that addresses the remaining issues with it. If that was possible and a switchover was possible without people losing faith in the original (equal swaps???), then it really would put banking in a death spiral.

And the villagers would rejoice.

The whole system you propose is central-authority

or democracy. What if I don't want to crowd share my boat? I could crowd share a boat now if I wanted a bunch of people all over my stuff. What would have to happen in robo-world is a central authority or democratic process would HAVE to decide what things are "abundant". I live in a world of abundance and don't want a world of scarcity, which is exactly what robo-world offers. If the central authority or majority doesn't want me to have my very own boat, then I don't get one. It's only a world of abundance once it is decided what things the robots will provide and which things are not "sustainable". Right now, I can buy just about anything I want if I save up and get it. In robo-world there are probably all kinds of things I like that wouldn't be produced at all, and would therefore become scarce.

I see this whole idea as something that young city-dwellers can gravitate to because at times it can seem that everything just magically appears and it sucks that you have to pay for it. In real life, human society requires human effort. In free human societies, people can trade their effort for anything their heart desires.


Why would you infer that you would be forced to crowd-share your boat? In reality, you could choose to or not to, but the choice would be on a different set of givens than you have today. For example, say you lived 'near' only one lake and say there was already 2-3 extra boats left unused by crowd-sharing almost any time you wanted to go to the lake and say those were equal or better than the boat you were considering. Would you still choose to work extra to buy your own if you could almost always just head to the lake sans boat? It wouldn't make much sense but it would still be your prerogative.

However, if you had grown up in this world (as the next generations might), you might be more prone to making the sharing choice because you hadn't grown up in a world of boat scarcity.

Extend this to every decision and you can begin to see what genuine abundance would look like. No central authority making your decisions and no community taking democratic votes. Just individuals making personal choices. If you remember what led to this, it was that prosperity grew so well that money became so easy to come by so that becomes the social norm.

As far as being resource limited, I have two comments. First is that having less boats in the world would seem to the people as though we had more. Each boat would be used much more and sit around rotting on a trailer much less. What's the utilization of a privately owned boat anyway? I'm guessing it's about one-hundredth of one percent. That doesn't make one bit of sense from a resource or individual perspective and it's certainly not good for the boat. BTW, cars are only 1-3% utilized too. Gotta be a better way.

The second point is not so fun on resources. It's a sort of a tragedy of the commons, technocratic answer. I'll first ask you a question. If some resource was truly going extinct, say black rhino tusks, is it ok for one person to be allowed to waste it? Even if they pay extreme amounts for it or if it was free, is it something that should happen or not? If you say yes, then you're not playing well with others and by ending their rights to see such an animal, you're actually harming them and should be sued (ala the libertarian solution for harm).

If you say that resource should be preserved, then how does a non-authority entity stop that person? There are only two ways. You suggest that it would have to be by authoritarian power but there is another way. If it became public info number one that Joe Blow was about to kill that rhino and his reason was just that he wanted another head on his wall, I'd hate to be him!

This may sound extreme but picture the situation scaled down to a single family. If son #2 wants to turn the back yard into a bike track but all others want it for volleyball, how would they handle it? No bikes, right?

Now, let's take it to a critical issue. When (NOT IF) helium becomes critically short in supply, how will it be handled today? Without considering the fairness aspect, it will first be rationed away from balloons for parties. At that point, the problem will be gone and the critical medical and industrial needs will continue using it. (Balloons waste most of it and it's rapidly going away and not replenishable.) How is this any different from simple peer pressure waging an info campaign advocating non-helium balloons? The only way is who benefits. The former makes helium producers rich at the expense of medical and industrial customers, even as he tries to expand distribution, while the latter has no financial (prosperity) losers.

If you want to take the last leap and talk boats... they're made of some plastic, rubber, metals, oil and glass. If done efficiently, we have the resources for a few thousand years' worth of boats.

Here's how it works.....

With automation, fewer people are needed to work productively, so then they can become bureaucrats, or NSA spies, or work for the military industrial complex, etc, etc.

And then they rob us of our money, which means we have to keep working long hours, despite the promises of ease from automation.

So, supposedly our productivity keeps going up, but any excess is taken from us.

So we never get ahead, and we're still working 40+ hours a week.

While I do appreciate the improved working conditions and ease of work provided by automation, I think that can go too far. Sometimes we outsmart ourselves. Now we are beginning to suffer from lack of use of our bodies - obesity, diabetes, etc.

I once read that horses have behavior problems when locked in a stall because they are wired to be grazing up to 14 hours a day. That is what makes a horse.

Now we lock humans up in a stall, instead of using our natural survival skills, and I don't see it as healthy. I live on a small farm, and had my kids digging up a garden with a hand shovel. My boy reported years later on a job he was the only one who knew how to use a shovel.

They Took Our Jobs!

Energy is the root of

Energy is the root of everything. Energy is why everything costs money. It could be energy you expend doing labor. It could be food intake. It is the energy required to cultivate and make the food. Time is energy. Fuel is energy. Et cetera. Even free energy is a fool's dream.

Please come join my forum if you're not a trendy and agree with my points of view.

I'm really happy that you debunked

the robot-caused economic apocalypse theories on the DP. To think that greater capital efficiency is going to result in a poorer society is a ridiculous deduction.

I also would like to ask the defenders of the killer robot theories how they would plan to stifle the advance of robots taking over the work force? Would they try to enforce laws and regulations on employers that would keep them from making their production processes more efficient? This might be my fault as I have not given enough credence to the idea to watch the lectures which I would imagine lay out some sort of a solution.

it might not be possible to

it might not be possible to stop or even delay something. that is a far cry from showering praise on it. something can be inevitable and one can still have misgivings about it, realizing it is not all rainbows and butterflies. the truth is, none of us know what the political consequences of future technological change will be. namely, because no one accurately knows what future technological change will be to begin with, let alone the far reaching consequences of each advance. technology could with equal likelihood lead to the annihilation of humanity, or the colonization of space. the absolute autonomy of individuals or their absolute enslavement. it is a giant X with a question mark on either side, and all attempts to predict the path of technology and its social impact have been in vain.

But we are talking about technology taking jobs

Not new weapons tech or anything else. The only reason that robots would replace a human work force is because they are more effecient. If they were not more efficient, the company that did not replace its work force with machines would out compete the ones that did. That means that whatever goods the robots were producing would be cheaper, thus saving money and resources that the consumer can invest elsewhere.

The annihilation of the human race is a different subject entirely. Though, humanity is already capable of eradicating itself in a very short amount of time and it has not happened. What this thread is discussing is the ridiculous premise of economic prosperity being hindered by technological advancement. I would say that new advances in the production of goods, be they technological or otherwise, should most certainly be showered with praise.

you're assuming that the loss

you're assuming that the loss of income from being replaced by a robot will be made up somewhere else by the displaced worker. maybe not, maybe he just becomes of zero economic value, or negative economic value.

there is no law that says people's labor should have economic value, especially not in a world where a robot can do anything more efficiently than an average person. belief in such a law is faith, not science.

perhaps it is inevitable, but it is not necessarily 'good,' unless we define 'good' as the same as what's 'necessary' and 'inevitable.'

however, if we define good (at least for arguments sake) as that which advances the individual's liberty and political clout against the state, than technology can be good or bad. just because something advances economic efficiency does not mean it contributes to the advancement of a social system of individual liberty and political rights.

the era in history in which people (very small segment of them, worldwide) had a serious conception of their "political rights" was brief indeed, peaked at least a half century ago if not earlier, and is a fleeing faster than ed snowden on rollerskates.

classical liberalism is a fleeting moment in history, and if plotted on a graph would be showing a worrying, well established down-trend with occasional upward blips. bear market, any way you look at it.

to think greater liberty it is an inevitable consequence of technology is naive and without basis in fact or experience.

The individual laborer

that loses his job does not have to make his own loss up. Society will be made more wealthy through access to cheaper goods. The worker that drops out of the work force is not just going to shrivel up and die, he is going to continue to consume and will find a way to afford to do it. The machines are going to be working to produce goods for him and the rest of the masses at a price they can afford. Just examine the level of comfort that has been achieved as a result of technology in society today where nearly all Americans, even those living in poverty, have televisions, cell phones, access to food, etc. This is a direct result of streamlined production, which is done almost entirely by automated equipment already, at least in the factories in the United States. Technology is not going to add to poverty as a result of replacing workers. It might be used by government to enforce greater encroachments on our liberties, which would lead to greater centralization and less economic prosperity. But, once again, we are talking about greater use of robots in the work force leading to unemployment and increased poverty.

I am most certainly not suggesting that greater liberty is the inevitable outcome of new technology. Only that greater access to material wealth accumulation will inevitably be achieved if production is made more efficient. If libertarian economic thought is not on its way to being accepted, then our economic future is not looking good for a large portion of the work force with or without robots. Economic capital will continue to be misallocated and harder to accumulate; resulting in higher unemployment and less wealth for society.

People become richer through

People become richer through a combination of higher income and lower prices. Not just falling prices. Prices can fall, and people can become poorer if their income is reduced by a greater amount than the cost of the product falls.

It is a lot easier to measure incomes than prices, because income is just one measure of a money variable, whereas measuring the price level is insanely difficult and different for every person.

Anyway, if more is lost in income than is replaced in cost savings on a person's cost of goods, a person becomes poorer, not richer.

Just imagine there are two people in the economy. Bob owns a fishing gear factory, John works for Bob.

Half the day John makes and maintains fishing gear, using Bob's capital goods. He also fishes half the day. To purchase fishing gear, John pays with fish. He also gets paid in fish for his work for Bob, producing and maintaining the gear.

Bob gets a robot to do all the work on producing and maintaining the fishing gear. John is out of work, but still needs to buy the fishing gear to catch his own fish, hooks, lines, replacement rods, etc. Stupid hypothetical but just go with it.

Bob has a robot do all his fishing, so whatever small surplus of fish John has is not worth much, and not enough for him topay for more fishing gear, hooks, lines, maintenance, etc.

By losing his income in a capital intensive sector, John ends up with less income and less access to goods, even at lower prices, as the income from producing goes 100% to the robot's owner, since a robot is a slave that requires almost no cost of maintenance.

All income from John's labor is worthless now, and he has no income besides what he can earn in the low capital intensive fishing. He can't even afford to keep up his fishing gear.

John needs to find something other than his labor to trade for Bob's output if he wants to get it, at whatever price.

Maybe a billion John's will just use the power of their numbers to secure a share of Bob's output, through politics. A welfare state or though some degree of socialism.

There is no law on earth that says a person MUST have positive economic value. A person can have nothing of economic value or be of negative economic value in a world where technology does most things.

Assuming everyone will be entitled to a share of the output and to 2.5 children from now to eternity... not likely.

I'm not sure if you realize

that you are basically defending the classic keynesian short-sighted position which ignores basic capital structure theories. It is the exact same model that would institute protective tariffs on imported goods to save domestic manufacturing jobs from going over seas. Please do not think that I am trying to insult your intelligence friend as I am possibly the single least educated individual on this forum and furthermore we probably agree on most subjects away from this one. But the idea that technology leads to higher unemployment has been debunked by nearly every prominent Austrian Scholar of the last century.

I am not going to take the time to write out an entire chapter on Misesian economic theory. Here is a link to "Human Action". Mises explains it much better than I ever could. Take some time and you'll find his most eloquent explanation.


thanks, already read HA a few

thanks, already read HA a few times.

I haven't made any such argument.

It is easily imaginable that people can lose most of their economic value in a world in which everything or nearly everything can be automated. The distribution of goods and services in such a set up would have to follow something other than economic exchange, and controlling population would become a major concern.

As for trade, outsourcing to a billion subsistence level laborers absolutely reduces the job opportunities and wage levels of those competing with them. If they were willing to work for free (like robots), any worker in said fields would have to find something else to do for income.

This does not conflict with classical or Austrian theory.

You can't be serious...can you?

You're trying to tell me that two people who are literally surviving on their own, would be WORSE off if they had a "fishing robot" to do all their fishing for them.

HAHA...you made my day! Back up a minute, and just contemplate how absolutely ridiculous that claim is.

Truth is, if Bob has a fishing robot, fish are no cost to him. That means he can have as many fish as he wants AND trade fish to John in exchange for other services. This is good for both of them.

True, since they have the robot, John's work of "producing and maintaining fishing gear" is no longer needed. Thank God, what a waste of John's talent! Now he can get started on that garden and they can eat more than dang fish all day.

But John's "other services"

But John's "other services" can also be automated.


That's the whole point.

Once his gardening, campfire tending, fish gutting, hammock making, fresh water collecting, palm leaf hat sewing, and wild boar fighting services become automated, he can actually have some leisure and enjoy life...or start working on getting rescued.

You're whole assumption is that what they need to survive is LABOR. That's absurd. What do you think would happen to them if they had robots that create anything their little hearts desire...they're going to DIE from lack of need to labor!? Absurd.

Imagine YOU (yes, you) are literally stranded on some island...are you REALLY saying you would throw away a fish collecting robot (or a FISHING NET, for God sakes) on the grounds it would take away your need to labor?!

(BTW, if you're being facetious, just let me know)