In the past, labor-saving devices did not reduce overall employment because for every job lost, another opened up. For example, when an excavating machine took the place of 30 workers with shovels, the labor was freed up for other productive activities, like wiring the building, mowing the grass, or working in a factory making plastic toys. But now, people are being replaced by increasingly sophisticated robots. At some point in the relatively near future, the robots will be able to do most jobs that most people do. That means that when your job gets automated, unlike in the past, there’s now no other job to go to because the other jobs are done by robots too. So when you lose your landscaping job to a lawn-cutting robot, you can’t go to work in, say, a warehouse, because the warehouse is automated too.
The tractor and the automobile meant that most horses could no longer produce services sufficient to pay for their keep. As a result, the horse population peaked in 1915. The video below argues fairly convincingly that robots will make most people unemployable like those horses. Even professionals like lawyers and doctors might easily be replaced. A computer, if given the correct information on a patient’s symptoms, can generate diagnoses more reliable than those of human doctors.
Even pets can be replaced by furry robots that bark or purr and don’t get sick or soil the carpet.
Probably the safest jobs are in the creative arts like painting, sculpture, writing, and acting, which speak to the human condition. To speak effectively to the human condition it probably helps to be, you know, human. But the arts account for only about one or two percent of the economy. Professional athletes might also retain their jobs, as race horses do today.
The video argues that making huge swaths of the population unemployable might create unprecedented problems for society. People will be left with nothing they can do to support themselves. And as the old saying goes, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”
Update: Bonus video on robot firefighter being developed by the U.S. Navy.