The Rapid Global Deployment of Increasingly Smarter Machines Overturns Traditional Economic Policy Assumptions About Employment Growth and Income Distribution


Last week Amazon, the online retailer, announced it was buying a robot maker called Kiva Systems for $775 million in cash. … Kiva Systems’ orange robots are designed to move around warehouses and stock shelves.

Or, as the company says on its Web site, using “hundreds of autonomous mobile robots,” Kiva Systems “enables extremely fast cycle times with reduced labor requirements.”

Nick Bilton, Disruptions: At Amazon, the Robot World Comes a Little Closer, New York Times, March 25, 2012.


The value of the global industrial robot-system market will double to $41 billion by 2020, according to an estimate by Christine Wang, an analyst at Daiwa Capital Markets in Hong Kong. Global unit sales last year jumped about 30 percent to a record 150,000 units, the IFR said.

Reuter, the Kuka CEO, said higher wages in China make investing in robots a simple trade off.

“It comes down to the question: at what cost can a robot do the job more efficiently?”

Richard Weiss, Kuka Robots Invade China as Wage Gains Put Machines Over Workers, Bloomberg, April 12, 2012.


This is the potential of the “Internet of Things”: billions and billions of devices and their components connected to one another via the Internet. 50 billion devices by 2020, according to companies like Ericsson.

The basic building block of the Internet of Things is machine-to-machine communication (M2M), devices equipped to communicate without the intervention of humans.

Large scale M2M users may offer their services dozens of countries, selling the same devices globally.

Rudolf Van der Berg, The Internet of things, OECD Insights,  January 31, 2012.


IBM says Watson’s skills — interpreting queries in natural language, consulting vast volumes of unstructured information quickly, and answering questions with a defined level of confidence — can be applied to many industries. It has already sold the technology to WellPoint Inc. (WLP), the U.S. insurer, and Citigroup Inc. (C), and expects to generate billions in new revenue by 2015 from putting Watson to work.

… Martin Kohn, IBM’s chief medical scientist, said in an interview. Using Watson “we have access to much more information than we could possibly accomplish by reading on our own, or even 100 people reading.”

Beth Jinks,  IBM’s Watson to Help Memorial Sloan-Kettering With Cancer, Bloomberg, March 22, 2012.


There is reason to believe that code kernels for the first Turing-intelligent machine have already been written.

“Two revolutionary advances in information technology may bring the Turing test out of retirement,” wrote Robert French, a cognitive scientist at the French National Center for Scientific Research, in an Apr. 12 Science essay. “The first is the ready availability of vast amounts of raw data — from video feeds to complete sound environments, and from casual conversations to technical documents on every conceivable subject. The second is the advent of sophisticated techniques for collecting, organizing, and processing this rich collection of data.”

Brandon Keim, Artificial Intelligence Could Be on Brink of Passing Turing Test, Wired, April 12, 2012.


The prevailing U.S. policy approach to creating jobs and distributing income reflects the traditional optimism of economists about long term employment and income distribution trends.  It treats employment growth and the widespread distribution of income through private sector payrolls as beneficial side effects of economic growth that require little attention from government.  The primary concern for government is providing optimal conditions for private sector investment.

The general optimism of economists about employment and income distribution includes a specific optimism about the impact of technology driven productivity growth.  Economists generally acknowledge that the implementation of new production technologies reduces the demand for labor in the industries in which those technologies are introduced.  But, they go on to argue that the workers who are displaced (or their children) find work in new industries (also created by the new technologies).  The net result is greater wealth for society and no permanent upward trend in unemployment.

Assumptions Underlying This Optimism Are Obsolete

In the past, this logic worked fairly well in the U.S.  Today, however, three key assumptions underlying this logic are violated in the real world.

The first assumption is that technological innovations will not be implemented faster than displaced workers can retrain for and find alternative work in emerging industries.  This assumption is no longer operative because unprecedented efficiencies in research and development fields, unprecedented fluidity of capital flows, and unprecedented levels of global competition are generating employment displacement and new skill requirements faster than human institutions can respond.

The second is that global market institutions will always evolve fast enough to keep the global capacity to consume growing as fast as the global capacity to produce grows.  The expanding role of debt financed consumption in the growth of global markets in recent decades and the prolonged duration of the financial and economic crisis that began in 2008 because of the tightening of credit show that this assumption is at least questionable.

The third assumption is that machines can displace only a small portion of human work activity.  This is no longer true.  Recent years have brought businesses massive increases in computing power, lower cost high capacity information storage, and computer programs that use highly sophisticated computational algorithms.  These hardware and software advances are now being deployed to mimic an expanding range of human work activities.

Job Creation and Income Distribution Must Become Direct Goals of  U.S. Economic Policy

If the assumptions on which economists rest their optimism about employment growth and income distribution are now obsolete, then public policies that succeed in stimulating private sector investment growth are unlikely to produce the employment growth and income distribution outcomes needed by the majority of people.  Creating good jobs and implementing policies that widely distribute incomes must become direct goals of government policy making, rather than secondary goals.

To continue with the current focus only on providing optimal conditions for private sector investment will only bring us more of what we now have: declining middle class incomes, more families living in poverty, and too much wealth owned and controlled by too few people.