Will Machines Take Our Jobs?

Will Machines Take Our Jobs?

Hi, I'm Tim Tyler - and today I will be discussing whether the advent of intelligent machines will have the effect of making humans redundant.

If you visit a supermarket these days, you may notice some of the checkout agents have been replaced by machines:

Simiarly many clerks in banks have been replaced by machines:

Though the environment is less familar to most people, the insides of many factories are also heavily dominated by robots:

It seems likely that what we have seen so far is the tip of the iceberg - and that as machine capabilities grow in the future many more tasks will become susceptable to automation.

With the advent of advanced machine intelligence, it seems likely that technological development will move forwards at a dramatic pace, resulting in relatively rapid mastery of molecular nanotechnology, nuclear fusion, robotics, and the creation of synthetic living systems.

If that happens, there is a real possibility that most humans will be made redundant. Here is James Hughes, describing the scenario:

[James Hughes footage]

Now, we do have social institutions to handle unemployed people. They normally receive a minimal hand-out from the government.

Another perspective is given by Hans Moravec:

[Hans Moravec footage]

The conclusion seems similar - machines will competitively displace humans in the job market.

However, not everyone seems to think this displacement of humans by machines will take place. For example, here is Ray Kurzweil on the topic:

[Ray Kurzweil footage]

Is Ray right? Will machines supplement human capabilities, rather than competitively displacing them in the job market?

Next, here's Robin Hanson, giving an economic analysis of the situation:

[Robin Hanson footage]

Both Hanson and Moravec use the metaphor of a rising tide of machines.

Initially, when machines are primitive and expensive, there will indeed be a tendency for machines to take the poor and dirty jobs that humans find repetitive or unpleasant, freeing the humans for "higher" tasks.

However, it probably won't be very long before machines are better at practically everything. Today's machines may seem relatively uninspiring. However, many factory, warehouse, retail, cleaning and farming jobs do not seem to me to be that far out of reach. Then will come driving, clerical work, telephone work, personal assistants - and so on gradually eating up the job market, until they decimate it completely.

At first, displaced humans will find less-easily-automated tasks to perform. However, eventually, automation will eat up jobs faster than humans can find new useful economic areas to migrate into.

Machines add value - and contribute positively to the economy - so there will be more weath in total. However, the opportunities for inequalities will grow - since much of the money will be siphoned off by the machine manufacturing companies.

The government will tax these companies - to help pay for the welfare of the unemployed humans. However, by the time that stage is reached, the humans are essentially parasites on a machine-driven economy. The companies will try to find off-shore tax havens. They will lobby the government for lower taxes - threatening to take their business to countries offering a better deal. Once humans are redundant, their position seems likely to be unstable to me. They might persist for a while, but their long-term prospects do not look very good.

What about the idea that humans will persist by engineering themselves - or by becoming cybernetic organisms? As I have explained elsewhere, these proposals do not appear to be remotely realistic to me.

In almost any scenario where there is natural selection - or a kind of capitalist analogue of it - it seems likely that machine agents are likely to eventually competitively displace conventional biological ones - except in historical simulations and museums. I think that this is the most likely outcome.

I think this helps explain some of the interest in self-directed evolution scenarios - since they have some potential to avoid such competition - by creating universal cooperation - and thus could theoretically create a civilisation that continues to support human life.



  1. James Hughes - Singularity Institute Interview Series;
  2. Hans Moravec interview - from TechnoCalyps: Transhuman Part 2;
  3. Ray Kurzweil closes the 2008 Singularity Summit by showing the progress of technology;
  4. Tomorrows People Forum 2006: Smarter? - Hanson footage in the middle;

Tim Tyler | Contact | http://alife.co.uk/