Robots Taking Jobs — Like That’s a Bad Thing?

Politicians are talking about robots. To a large extent, they’re warning us about robots taking our jobs. Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur and philanthropist with a 2020 presidential campaign, thinks we underestimate the dangers inherent in automation. He sees a near future in which millions of truck drivers and retail clerks are unemployed and potentially dangerous. Bernie Sanders is adamant that robotics and AI must serve the workers, not just the rulers, by which he means that regulation must keep robots from taking human jobs.

But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has a different take on the situation. Why shouldn’t robots take the jobs? It’s only a problem if jobs are required for survival. “What it could potentially mean is more time educating ourselves, more time creating art, more time investing and investigating in the sciences, more time focused on invention, more time going to space, more time enjoying the world that we live in. Because not all creativity needs to be bonded by wage.”

“We should not feel nervous about the toll booth collector not having to collect tolls anymore,” she said at SXSW. “We should be excited by that. But the reason we’re not excited by it is because we live in a society where, if you don’t have a job, you are left to die.”

Business Insider expanded on her talk. “The thinking goes that these people will either need swift retraining or will need to survive on government handouts. Meanwhile, the moguls who actually own the robots will accumulate wealth by laying off expensive human workers in favor of cheap robot workers.”

The working class used to be distinct from the leisure class, some of whom frittered away their time and some of who made amazing strides in the arts and sciences. Early speculation on automation took place within the reality of or at least the memory of this system. People figured the leisure class would expand and the working class would have better lives. This was true to an extent as workdays shortened to a mere eight hours and weekends off became the norm.

But current discussions of shorter work weeks tend to focus on food insecurity and loss of health insurance, not on the prospects for lifelong learning and more charity work. Maybe this will change.

Meanwhile, economists continue to point out that jobs are made up of tasks, only some of which will be automated. Some entire jobs — possible truck driving and retail service jobs among them — may be threatened by robots, but most will change rather than disappearing.

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