I have been lonely in my concern with the dire economic implications of robotics, but now Clarity Press has provided me with some company by publishing The Artificial Intelligence Contagion by David Barnhizer and Daniel Barnhizer. It is telling as to the irrelevance of the economics profession that the coauthors are lawyers.
The concerns about robots and artificial intelligence have come from scientists who express worries about killer robots with super intelligence taking over from dumber humans with less capabilities. Possibly, but it is more likely that these kind of concerns stem from an incorrect model or understanding of mind, consciousness, and creativity. I do wish that Michael Polanyi were still with us to give us his take on our proclivity to attribute intelligence to machines.
The coauthors briefly mention these threats as well as the very real and already present threats from governments armed with the intrusive surveillance and control that the digital revolution and artificial intelligence make possible. Warnings from Stephen Hawking, Nick Bostrom, and Elon Musk of an immortal godlike superintelligence, amoral at best and immoral at worse, that will determine our fate are speculative, but the adverse economic impact of robotics are already upon us. Thus, the main focus of the coauthors is on the massive economic dislocation that will result from making people superfluous.
Recently, I read about a smart machine that displaces warehouse workers and also the workers at the plants that make the mechanical forklift machines that warehouse workers use to move and stack the crates and boxes. As the smart machines themselves are made by robots, the forklift production workers are also displaced.
According to the latest job report, there are 1,192,000 people employed in warehouses. Unlike the forklift, the new smart machine does not contribute to increasing the productivity of labor. Instead the smart machine displaces labor by eliminating the need for people to do the work. Every dollar that would have been paid in wages goes instead into the profits of the warehouse owners. This is the great difference between earlier innovations that increased human productivity and living standards and the AI robotic innovation that eliminates the need for humans and makes them redundant.
Robotics will not be implemented everywhere all at once. it will come upon us in stages. The 1.2 million displaced warehouse workers will look for other jobs. The lucky few will find one. The rest will join the unemployment ranks until they become discouraged and are dropped out of the unemployment measure. State, local, and federal tax revenues will decline as a result of the lost jobs. But unemployment compensation and other social welfare benefits will rise. With constrained or nonexistent incomes, 1.2 million people will have less participation in the retail market. Car sales, home sales, restaurant, clothing, and entertainment sales all decline. The Social Security and Medicare payroll tax revenues decline by the earnings of 1.2 million Americans as do pension contributions. Social Security and Medicare are funded by the current work force paying for the retired work force. As robotics eliminates the current work force, payroll tax revenues collapse.