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I’m Still Not the Least Worried About AI Causing Lasting Unemployment

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Here’s an e-mail to an economics undergraduate who (I boast) says that his brother “is a fan of Cafe Hayek.”

Mr. Chad:

Thanks for your e-mail. And please pass along my thanks to your brother for his telling you about Café Hayek.

You ask how worried I am “about lasting unemployment being brought on by AI and robotics making robots closer and closer to human.”

For three related reasons, I’m not worried at all.

First, robots are tools that conserve human labor. As Deirdre McCloskey notes [2], by using robots today we humans do nothing that differs fundamentally from what we’ve done for millennia; conserving scarce labor by using robots is economically no different than conserving scarce labor by using the likes of levers, pulleys, ropes, and buckets. If the adoption of labor-saving tools 10,000 years ago, or 1,000 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 10 years ago caused no lasting unemployment, I see no reason to worry that such adoption today and tomorrow will do so.

Second, as George Selgin points out [3], labor-saving tools and techniques are not adopted until there’s an economic impetus for doing so. And the principal economic impetus for saving labor is a rise in the cost of labor. Because in markets a rise in the cost of labor – that is, a rise in real wage rates – is itself evidence of an expansion and improvement in labors’ opportunities relative to the supply of labor, the adoption of robots and other labor-saving techniques is a result of labors’ increasing scarcity rather than a cause of its superabundance.

Third, as I myself have somewhere observed, no robot is more human-like than an actual human. Therefore, each and every one-person increase in the labor force is akin to the introduction into the labor force of one robot brilliantly engineered to possess all the dexterity, flexibility, and intelligence of a human worker. And so because the huge increase in the human labor force over the past few centuries has caused no lasting unemployment, I’m confident that the ‘birth’ of human-like robots will have no such baneful consequence.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030