Is Automation Sustainable?

Written by: N.S. Palmer | Posted on: | Category:

According to aspiring Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, automation will soon eliminate countless millions of jobs. It will leave few opportunities for workers who are displaced.

There's no doubt that automation is eliminating jobs. At the grocery store, you can go to an automated cashier, scan your purchases, and pay with a credit card. (Virtue signal alert: I won't use automated cashiers because I want to support jobs for humans.)

When you need to do your taxes or manage your finances, you can use TurboTax or Quicken instead of a human accountant. For your will, there's WillMaker instead of a lawyer. To manage data, you get a database program instead of hiring file clerks. In warehouses and factories, robots have been replacing human workers for decades. Even to interpret your medical tests, computers often do the job.

So in the short term, there's no doubt that Yang is right. We see the results all around us.

But I wonder if the trend can continue. Our technological infrastructure is becoming so complex that it's hard even for professionals to see all the interactions. It might be close to the limit of what human beings can manage.

If we blow past the limit, two possible outcomes are rather unappetizing:

  • Skynet. 'Nuff said.
  • Technological collapse. And we're suddenly back to 19th century technology, unable to support anything even close to our current population.

What to do? That is the question. We'd better start working on the answer.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it "intriguing and vital to living."