Colleague robot takes over

Will artificial intelligence lead to new mass unemployment? The discussion has flared up again – a good recipe remains the same.

The Alpha Mini robot at CES in Las Vegas last year.

Se since Aristotle has been the conviction that work is the God-given destiny of human beings. Their value is not limited to generating income. Even the most alienated activity contains a remnant of meaning. The human being is only fully human where he works.

To pursue a regulated, reasonably meaningful job means making a contribution to society. And to receive something vital for it, namely recognition. This is how the Frankfurt philosopher Axel Honneth described it again and again. If that’s true, the worst case scenario is the very possibility of a world that threatens to run out of work.

Against this background, reports from the first few days of the new year are causing concern that German industry will want to reduce employment. Certainly, we are currently living in the best of all worlds: 45 million people in this country have jobs that they get paid for. Unemployment is lower than it has been in a long time. Shortage of skilled workers, not loss of jobs, is the fear word of the present day.

“Machines build machines”

But the present could lead to a false sense of security. And the reports of job cuts could be a harbinger of the future. What happens if robots and automata build cars in the future? “Machines build machines” is the terrifying utopia of Tesla boss Elon Musk (which the crosshead likes to withdraw from time to time).

This is the paradoxical counterpart to Henry Ford’s famous sentence “Cars don’t buy cars”, with which he wanted to express that without people’s purchasing power, no product can be sold. So if robots build cars, who will buy the cars made by robots when the factory workers run out of jobs and money?

And, even worse, what do the unemployed workers do? Looking depressed by an unconditional but meager basic income of futility – that is little consolation that top managers and left-wing utopians currently have to offer.

Two groups face each other, unreconciled. The pessimists say: industrial robots and artificial intelligence are gradually automating all necessary tasks, which in the long term must lead to mass unemployment. “Totally wrong!” Counter the optimists: Automation will improve productivity. Such productivity gains result in an increasing demand for labor. Full employment, the opposite of mass unemployment, will also exist in the age of AI.

Who is right? Daron Acemoglu, a renowned economist at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT), presented a study for the annual meeting of the Association of American Economists (AEA) taking place this weekend in San Diego, which paradoxically shows that pessimists and optimists are right.

A look at history helps. First of all, when machines take over tasks that were previously done by humans, this leads to unemployment. In the 19th century, weavers in Silesia experienced this no differently than agricultural workers in the American southern states. Acemoglu calls this the “displacement effect”.