Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Branko Milanovic gets very long-winded about robots

Branko Milanovic - robots or fascination with anthropomorphism. He could have been a lot more concise:
Recent discussions about the “advent of robots” have some rather unusual features. The threat of robots replacing humans is seen as something truly novel possibly changing our civilization and way of life. But in reality this is nothing new. Introduction of machinery to replace repetitive (or even more creative) labor has been applied on a significant scale since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Robots are not different from any other machine.

The obsession with, or fear of, robots has to do, I believe, with our fascination with their anthropomorphism. Some people speak of great profits reaped by “owners of robots”, as if these owners of robots were slaveholders. But there are no owners of robots: there are only companies that invest and implement these technological innovations and indeed they will reap the benefits. It could happen that the distribution of net product will shift even more toward capital, but again this is not different from the introduction of new machines that substitute labor—a thing which has been with us for at least two centuries.

Robotics leads us to face squarely three fallacies.
And so on.

Which could have been summarized more concisely as "we've seen automation replace labour for 200 years already and it just made us richer".

Though I watched an old documentary a while ago which suggested that a contribution to the Great Depression was that Ford-style assembly lines increased productivity far faster than consumption increased, leading to a supply glut.

I don't know if this is just a standard left-wing argument, or if there's merit to it. I'd expect it depends on the rate of productivity increase and the consequent rate of change of the labour-capital income split that would determine the rate of change of demand shortfall increase.

But that's just another way of saying that if you screw the poor you'll screw the economy, and that more general thesis seems like the important topic, not just that robots will take our jerbs.

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