The Rise of the Robots

BERKELEY – For decades, people have been predicting how the rise of advanced computing and robotic technologies will affect our lives. On one side, there are warnings that robots will displace humans in the economy, destroying livelihoods, especially for low-skill workers. Others look forward to the vast economic opportunities that robots will present, claiming, for example, that they will improve productivity or take on undesirable jobs. The venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who recently joined the debate, falls into the latter camp, asserting that robots will save us from a future of high prices and low wages.

Figuring out which side is right requires, first and foremost, an understanding of the six ways that humans have historically created value: through our legs, our fingers, our mouths, our brains, our smiles, and our minds. Our legs and other large muscles move things to where we need them to be, so our fingers can rearrange them into useful patterns. Our brains regulate routine activities, keeping the leg- and finger-work on track. Our mouths – indeed, our words, whether spoken or written – enable us to inform and entertain one another. Our smiles help us to connect with others, ensuring that we pull roughly in the same direction. Finally, our minds – our curiosity and creativity – identify and resolve important and interesting challenges.

Thiel, for his part, refutes the argument – often made by robot doomsayers – that the impact of artificial intelligence and advanced robotics on the labor force will mirror globalization’s impact on advanced-country workers. Globalization hurt lower-skill workers in places like the United States, as it enabled people from faraway countries to compete for the leg-and-finger positions in the global division of labor. Given that these new competitors demanded lower wages, they were the obvious choice for many companies.

According to Thiel, the key difference between this phenomenon and the rise of robots lies in consumption. Developing-country workers took advantage of the bargaining power that globalization afforded them to gain resources for their own consumption. Computers and robots, by contrast, do not consume anything except electricity, even as they complete leg, finger, and even brain activities faster and more efficiently than humans would.