August 03, 2015
Labor-Saving Robots To Cause Mass Unemployment?

Check out this PBS NewsHour report Do labor-saving robots spell doom for American workers? Some people think so.

Retail is one of the sectors still employing a lot of lower skilled workers. But robots that lead you to what you are looking for, robots that have internet connections to store chain employees in distant places, and robots that stock the shelves and polish the floors are just a matter of time. In some cases, in just a matter of a pretty short period of time. Silicon Valley start-ups are developing hotel concierge service robots too.

I picture a future where if you go to the store a robot will greet you at the door with knowledge of all your previous purchases and it will ask you want you want. If you want to message ahead the robot could already be holding your purchase and you'll just have to wave your smart phone like a wand to pay for it. The robot might be holding a few other things to offer you based on machine learning models that predict your wants. That'll be your shopping experience if you plan ahead.

If you wait until you get to a store to tell a store robot what you want it can go off and get some things while you wander the aisles or perhaps sit in an in-store cafe to eat. THe in-store cafe will have a really excellent robot chef offering a large assortment of quality dishes. The shopping robot can send you images of choices it picks up and you can decide while you eat which color shirt you want or which watermelon.

What I'll opt for instead of a store visit: a robot that brings my groceries into my home and stocks my kitchen with them while I am at work.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2015 August 03 09:13 PM 

Abelard Lindsey said at August 4, 2015 8:50 AM:

Automation has already dramatically affected retail, in the form of internet shopping. We do all of our shopping through the internet except for clothes and groceries. Warehouses are easier to automate than full retail stores. The internet replaces the full retail store.

Randall Parker said at August 4, 2015 7:49 PM:


The impact of online shopping turns to be smaller than I expected: Over a year ago we were only at 8% of purchases made online. I'm way above that, probably doing 80-90% of my spending online. I even buy a substantial fraction of my groceries online. If you are like me then you are an outlier.

Younger are spending more online than older. No surprise there. What's needed to shift more to online? Lots of people want to see what they are buying up close. Will ultra high res displays make a difference?

Nick G said at August 6, 2015 10:23 AM:

What's up with this fascination with robots? Is it because they look like people?

Automation is centuries old - this is just more of the same.

The real question: when do we get to the point where we have enough goods and services? At that point the economy stops growing, and employment starts plummeting, like it has in older sectors like agriculture and textile manufacturing.

Randall Parker said at August 6, 2015 7:48 PM:

Nick G,

When I refer to robots I am not talking about robots that look like people. The vast majority of robots do not look like people and I think that will continue to be the case.

Why I'm fascinated: I think robots and other forms of automation will cause mass unemployment of the lower classes. The employment rate gap by education is already very large. I expect it to grow.

The point when we have enough goods and services: No time soon. People want mansions. Look at how the wealthy live. They aren't living in little houses. They aren't living simple lives. If the wealthy are sated then there is no reason to expect the masses would be sated at the same living standards. Actually, the wealthy are more inclined to save a substantial fraction of their income at high income levels than the masses are at the same income levels.

Nick G said at August 8, 2015 3:50 PM:

robots and other forms of automation will cause mass unemployment of the lower classes

Why more now? Automation has always hit lower paid jobs heavily: think of automated looms, the cotton gin, and the McCormick reaper.

The employment rate gap by education is already very large.

That's always been the case. Marx built his theories on that fact. Only unions made him wrong...temporarily.

Really - is there any evidence that the gap is worse now than it has been historically?

People want mansions. Look at how the wealthy live. They aren't living in little houses.

Well, the wealthy like to spend more money, but I suspect that the square feet they live in hasn't grown much lately (many live in urban areas in the same square feet as other, but pay much, much more per square foot for an arbitrarily high-status location with expensive finishes). Think of a Rolex watch: it doesn't really take significantly more resources than a fake Rolex, but it costs 100x as much. Why? Simply Veblen conspicuous consumption.

The same is true overall: average home size grew after WWII, but AFAIK it's been pretty flat in the last 30 years.

Certainly, car sales haven't grown significantly since they peaked in about 1975. Car prices have stayed flat adjusted for inflation (which is odd, given increasing manufacturing labor productivity), but they haven't gone up. Washer dryers; TVs; etc., haven't shown sales growth. People have enough stuff.

So, that leaves services: health care, education, entertainment, communication, etc. When will we have enough??

the wealthy are more inclined to save a substantial fraction of their income at high income levels than the masses are at the same income levels.

That sentence seems unclear. How can the "wealthy" have the same income levels as "the masses"?

On the other hand, yes: as income rises, the percentage of income that is consumed goes down. People don't really need all that much more stuff as their income goes up. Marketers manage to squeeze quite a lot out of people with fake "needs" like granite kitchens, Rolexes, gold Apple watches, Lamborghini's, etc.'s a losing battle. The obvious solution is progressive income taxes...but the wealthy have managed to roll those back...

Michael G. Gallagher said at August 16, 2015 7:22 AM:

You can't have 30%-40% 0f the working age population actually doing something while supporting the other 60%-40% " who are enjoying" the benefits of having to explore their desires and develop their personal potential while on welfare. Demagogues will constantly try to exploit the discontent and enforced idleness of the nonproductive classes. Piles of virtually free stuff produced by robotic production won't solve the idleness problem, either.

Time for a partial Butlerian Jihad?

Randall Parker said at August 16, 2015 2:09 PM:

Nick G,

Here are numbers for labor force participation and only to 2004.

The participation rate of white male high school dropouts has fallen nearly 12 percentage points from 94.6 percent in 1969 to 82.8 percent in 2004. In contrast, the participation rate of white male college graduates has declined 2.5 percentage points. Among black male high school dropouts, labor force participation has fallen an astonishing 31.7 percentage points since 1969 so that by 2004, more than 40 percent were not in the labor force.

The problem has gotten worse since 2004.

Why more now: the nature of what is getting automated.

Michael G. Gallagher,

Jobs have 3 benefits:
- money for goods and services.
- sense of self: efficacy, purpose, worth, meaning.
- prevent the idle hands that are the devil's workship.

The welfare state can only provide for the first purpose. Most people who have jobs do not want to support the welfare state..

Nick G said at August 18, 2015 10:25 AM:

The mix of education is always changing, so the comparisons aren't apples to apples. The low end will always have a much higher unemployment rate. For instance, the unemployment rate for illiterates was not bad 150 years ago, but now it's very, very high. On the other hand, there are very few illiterates today.

I'd guess that being a high school dropout in 1969 is comparable to being a high school graduate today, for 25-55 year olds. A quick google found a comparison for people 25-34. Compare 1960's 42% market share for dropouts with 2009's rate of 12%!

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