In early 2013, a colleague and I attended the inaugural meeting of the UK Robot Ethics association. There, we suggested that developments in robotics and computing technology meant that we needed to re-evaluate some of our economic thinking. Machines were now increasingly capable of replacing human cognitive power as well as physical power, as had primarily been the case in the past. There is an orthodox idea in economics according to which increases in productivity driven by technology will not create long-term or ‘structural’ unemployment. Conventional thinking has it that as technology-driven productivity increases expand the economy, new jobs will be created. And indeed, this has been the case historically.
Machines are now increasingly capable of replacing human cognitive power as well as physical power
We pointed out that while in the past the automation of traditional physical-labour-intensive jobs had led to the expansion in the labour market of jobs requiring cognitive rather than physical force, this time around the automation of human cognitive power would leave us struggling to figure out what capacities we had left to exploit in the labour market. There are three obvious answers: really high cognitive function roles, such as computer programming; emotional work like therapy and some care roles; and jobs requiring a great deal of physical human-to-human contact like physical or massage therapy. But these are relatively niche parts of the labour market. When machines replaced horses as the main suppliers of power for the transport industry, horses did not vanish altogether from the economy, they simply became confined to very niche areas of it, namely recreation. Could something similar happen to human beings in the age of intelligent machines?