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Will Robots Create Economic Utopia?

Robots weld a Volkswagen Passat at a factory in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Robots weld a Volkswagen Passat at a factory in Chattanooga, Tenn.Photograph by Mark Elias/Bloomberg

The robots are coming! Every day it seems we hear another story blaming robots and automation for the disappearance of not only menial jobs, but middle-class ones as well—the kind of work that pays enough to fund a pension, a health-care plan, and a home mortgage. The deepening gloom over jobs runs deeper than robots. The rapidly spreading digital economy has reached critical mass, transforming industries and replacing workers of all kinds. Think high-speed trading on Wall Street. The lightning-quick trades account for most of the volume on the major stock exchanges, yet the action is driven by computers and software communicating with other computers and software, supervised and monitored by at most a relative handful of highly compensated workers. (As a Wharton School report put it, “In the time it takes to read this sentence, tens of thousands of high-speed, computer-automated transactions can occur.”)

Forget these jeremiads. Yes, it’s easy to imagine a dystopian future defined by technological unemployment and underemployment for the mass of workers. Yet the rise of an automated, digitized economy is wonderful news. The potential efficiency gains and productivity improvements are mind-boggling. We’re at an inflection point comparable to the First Industrial Revolution in the 18th century and the Second Industrial Revolution a century later. The opportunities offered by the wealth-generating capacity of machines, bits and bytes, algorisms, and artificial intelligence will fundamentally shift our societal concerns from “how best to generate growth” to “how best to distribute wealth.” “The productive part of the economy will be in great shape, but the distribution of it will be the main problem,” says W. Brian Arthur, visiting scholar at the Palo Alto Research Center’s Intelligent Systems Laboratory. “The big problem from 2010 on is distributing all the wealth, getting it into human hands.”