Quibbling with Articles on Our Robot Futures

I was reading over some automation/machine autonomy related articles this morning and came across a couple of statements with which I have some minor issues.

The first came from a piece Martin Wolf wrote for Foreign Policy in the July/August 2015 edition, which had a special feature on “Work and Life in the Age of Automation.” Right in the beginning of the piece he uses productivity or the growth of output per worker as the quantitative metric which best represents “the pace of economic and social transformation” in recent decades. Right off the bat that struck me as rather obviously less-than-ideal proxy for measuring social and economic change, and in particular trying to link such transformation to technological change. Offhand, I would think that dominant labor arrangements or patterns of education, career, or family organization would be better indicators.

The second came from a short article by James Bessen in The Atlantic a few days ago entitled, “The Automation Paradox,” and addressing the debate about long-term structural dislocation of labor due to automation. In the piece he addresses the intuitive but historically often erroneous forecast that new technologies – particularly automation – will automatically reduce employment in whatever occupation it is deployed.   He cites a number of historical examples in which automation is correlated with increased employment opportunities, examples that include the legal profession (e-discovery) and banking (ATMs leading to more bank branches). He states the familiar economics claim that automation reduces the cost of products and services, which enables lower prices, which attracts more customers (which drives employment increases). This might sound like quibbling, but I think the statement we should be more comfortable making is that when automation enables business to reduce costs, they tend to redeploy that money – which might mean altering their costs or their operations in such a way as to require more human labor.


Same as It Ever Was” by Martin Wolf, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2015

The Automation Paradox” by James Bessen, The Atlantic, 1/19/16

Images of Our Robot Futures


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