Economist warns of the coming robot apocalypse

A followup to my earlier post on technological automation:

Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University, writes in the current issue of Politico that the trend toward automation in economies around the world is leading to a robot takeover.

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Okay, that’s not it exactly. There’s no robot apocalypse. But there is a global trend of better and more widespread technology leading to increased automation, which Cowen says is shifting employment patterns and remaking American politics.

The highest-paid job in America is anesthesiologist. So it’s surprising to see that even this highly skilled occupation is seeing automation encroaching on its turf, too: A new system called Sedasys is able to do what previously only expert doctors could. Sedasys only does a small range of what these doctors do, but it’s more than anyone would have thought possible not too long ago. Anesthesiologists are paid so much because, contrary to what you see in the movies when somebody is given a knockout gas, it’s really hard to strike the fine balance of chemicals necessary to safely knock somebody out.

Other occupations facing possible competition from automated replacements: butcher, taxi driver, financial journalist, and comedian. (Hat tip to Politico’s Elizabeth Ralph for the links.)

Cowen predicts that the growth of automation will help to continue the shrinking of the middle class:

In 20 years, intelligent machines will expand their reach into every corner of our lives, and as technological change rewards a select few, these social and economic fissures will only deepen.

Our future will bring more wealthy people than ever before, but also more poor people, including people who do not always have access to basic public services. Rather than balancing our national budget with higher taxes or lower benefits, we will allow GDP growth to falter and the real wages of many workers to fall, creating a new underclass. But this polarization notwithstanding, America’s political collapse is much less likely than the pessimists imagine, between the general aging of American society and the way new technologies are improving basic living standards.

I’m not sure I agree with everything he says in this piece, but he makes some really interesting points.

(Side note: It’s also kind of interesting that Cowen starts his article out with an Isaac Asimov story, because one of my favorite economists, Paul Krugman, was inspired to become an economist in the first place because of Isaac Asimov.)

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