Robots and Unemployment: It’s Complicated


“Imagine 10 times as many people were unemployed today than are,” said Silicon Valley luminaire Vinod Khosla. He was referring to the potential consequences of widespread service automation. Let’s consider Mr. Khosla’s premise as if we were writing a science fiction story. What kind of plot would we follow from it?

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The plot Mr. Khosla and many others fear is a dystopia where social order breaks down and we fight for survival, much like in Octavia Butler’s “The Parable of the Sower”. William Gibson imagines a more familiar near future on “The Peripheral”, in which characters survive doing odd jobs here and there, with a lot of help from family and friends.

Other authors imagine humanity uses all the spare time to go to space. Perhaps we will become soldiers when we retire, as in John Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War”. Or we could get very cool jobs, like the character in Kim Stanley Robinson’s “2312” who is an asteroid terrarium designer.

The root of Mr Khosla’s concern is how to keep humans busy when every job is done better by a robot. Charles Stross tackles the issue heads on in “Saturn’s Children”: after humans are bored to extinction, our androids take over the solar system. A funny twist of Stross’ story is that androids also become jobless when they are obsolete, using their downtime to discuss the mythological humans and our odd quirks.

“Nonsense” says economist Tim Worstall on Forbes. Even if robots do our jobs better than us, “it will still be to our advantage for us to do what we are least bad at”. Though he then admits that economy as a discipline is not best equipped to imagine a future without scarcity.

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He needs not worry: there’s plenty of scarcity to go around. In fact, we don’t have to go far to see ten times the 5% unemployment of the US; youth unemployment in Greece is over 50%. Just in case, seems ever practical to find something we are not too bad at. Here’s a list of the fastest growing jobs, but don’t be too depressed if, like this correspondent, you have to settle for “statistician”:

The fastest growing jobs

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