The Robot Future is Bright - So Don't Panic!

The robot future IS bright. It's just different.


We don't normally think of robots taking our jobs in the most positive of light. The future is, however, extremely positive. We can say that with a very high degree of certainty. 


People normally think of this issue from the point of view of the worker, whether employed or self-employed. Our fear is around the commoditization of our skills. This means that - because of a combination of globalization, outsourcing, and automation - humans just can't command the same earnings as they once did. Whether we are employed or self-employed, it’s equally scary. White and blue collar workers are already finding they can't charge the same amount of money for their skills and time as they used to be able to. As our ability to earn goes down, our self-esteem plummets and we become terrified. This fear paralyses our logic. 

What not to talk about at parties

If you are ever raise the subject of someone’s job being commoditized or automated, a good working assumption is that everything you say after that will not be heard. The person will not be listening to you. Instead, they will be thinking about how they're going to pay their mortgage and how they will be able to hold their head up in their community. They will not be listening to any further discussion on the topic.

So how can I possibly say that the future is bright?

You are a worker and ALSO a consumer

The issue of commoditization of skills is definitely a very real side of the coin. This same coin, though, has a clear-cut other side and this is where the brightness lies. You are a worker and ALSO a consumer. Whatever job you do, there other people who buy your goods and services. At the same time, you also buy goods and services that other people are employed to create and sell. The two roles are inextricably linked. As a consumer, this trend is brilliant! We have greater, better and cheaper goods and services than ever before. When prices come down at a large scale, this is known as deflation. There are dangers to this, but at the moment our central banks are managing to keep a lid on the economy, even though prices are coming down so rapidly. And this trend is only accelerating. In many ways, what this means is that we are all getting wealthier.

The wisdom of the Uber driver

Recently, Maxine was in an Uber in Johannesburg. She looked at the smiling driver with concern, as he chatted away, navigating the notorious roads. “The old taxi cabs hate us,” he said. “The technology of Uber has made our rides safer and cheaper than theirs. They can’t keep up, so they just hate us”. “Aren’t you afraid of driverless vehicles taking away your job, though?” Maxine asked hesitantly. To her surprise he roared with laughter. “I can’t WAIT for driverless vehicles,” he enthused. “I will buy a whole fleet and they can do all my work while I sit around drinking cocktails”.

NEXT POST: "Predicting The Future With Confidence" coming June 5th.

Write a comment

Comments: 4
  • #1

    dtomlinson36@yahoo.com (Wednesday, 23 May 2018 17:28)

    David, very thought provoking. Looking forward to see where you are going with this line of thinking. It would seem that as the workers skills are commoditized, and his/her income is threatened, to enjoy those commensurate cheaper products, they will still need to be engaged in a meaningful, productive enterprise. This may mean re-training, or developing completely new skill sets, this latter of which is the higher probability it would seem to me. Therefore, the global educational process needs to use their most effective crystal ball to prepare the next several generations for not only their benefit, but for the benefit of society itself (see, the tremendous shortage of available, and skilled employees currently needed to fill positions in the USA). This anticipatory educational direction can only be effective if done in close association with industry, who, after all, cannot progress and develop new exciting products without these suitably trained individuals.

  • #2

    David Jaffa (Wednesday, 23 May 2018 21:06)

    Hi dtomlinson, many thanks for your feedback!

    I absolutely agree with you that first world education systems need to prepare young people for where the economy is going, not where it is today. The long term direction of the economy is very predictable whereas the future of technology and the future of specific product and industry categories is not. This gives us a useful lens to peek through.

    In future posts, I will suggest what skills and other attributes young people need that are resistant to commoditisation. Suffice to say that some things will commoditise much faster than others and certain things are very hard to commoditise indeed.

    I'm glad you took something from our post! Our next post will be on June 5th.

  • #3

    Matt Saunders (Saturday, 26 May 2018 19:30)

    Hi David and Max,

    Very interesting discussion. I read a very insightful essay by Leontief on this where he presents the need for action and a more pessimistic view.

    I found a link here if interested. I don't know about this site but there is a copy of the original scientific american article from 1983 and is the only one I could find: https://fabiusmaximus.com/2015/03/17/wassily-leontief-automation-80864/

    Trade and technology may have a similar impact on rising inequality. I know we don't talk a lot about this but I am sure displaced workers and loss of purpose and self esteem has contributed to the opioid epidemic in communities here in the US. Even if we talk about this as a positive sum game overall, retraining and transition still requires action in my mind and can be painful for segments of the population.

    I think it is great that you are tackling these issues, but I am not sure that the transition will be easy. What are your thoughts re. a basic income allowance?


  • #4

    David Jaffa (Sunday, 27 May 2018 10:36)

    Matthew, thanks again for this thoughtful contribution. I look forward to reading the article you have suggested. We do have some thoughts on a universal wage, which we will share in due course. The short version is this...

    Technology is making society as a whole much wealthier and driving other changes, many of which are very predictable. And while lots of people will benefit... many will be left behind. A brand new hierarchy of skills is needed to succeed in the age of robots.

    Our next post will be about the almost mathematical certainty of DRAMATIC growth in overall wealth in first-world countries that is being driven by technological change, in which we reference your 1930 article by Keynes!