Robot Overthrow or Overcapacity?

The New Yorker paired reviews of two new books in an article that suggests that automation is not taking over human jobs…but not in the usual way. That is, one side says that automation is on the rise and will take over a lot of the tasks currently done by humans, leaving people with fewer employment,ent options. The other side typically says that automation is on the rise, taking on the dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs and freeing humans to do more interesting and creative work.

The books being reviewed by The New Yorker tell a completely different story.

Automation, they say, is on the rise and has been for quite a while. The problem is not that it is talking on human jobs, but that it has led to overcapacity. After all, a robot barista can make 300 – 400 cups of coffee a day…but are there three or four hundred people wanting cups of coffee at that location every day?

An automated paper cup production machine can make 10 cups every minute, 14,400 cups per day, but the robot barista can only fill 400 of them.

Unproductive labor

Supply is far higher than demand in just about every industry, the theory goes, so increased productivity is no longer as desirable as it used to be. Automation therefore leaks over into nonproductive labor. The robot barista is an example.

Factory workers got displaced into service jobs when manufacturing jobs took a tumble. Not robots are also getting pushed into service jobs. Elder care, nursing, waiting tables, fast food jobs, and bartending are all being automated. But robots aren’t really very good at service. And examples of robot service workers are still fairly rare.

There may be fewer jobs, these books figure, but it’s not because of automation. It’s because of overcapacity.

Then what? Some thinkers are looking not at armies of unemployed humans watching TikTok all day, but to a post-scarcity world where satisfying work and community become the focus of human lives.

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