Robots are not going to steal jobs, they keep economists in work

mathijs boumanEconomists aren’t as gormless about robotisation as they used to be, writes economist Mathijs Bouman.

Robots are not going to steal jobs, they are providing one for economists. After seven years of doom and gloom many economists are gagging for a subject which is not apocalyptic. Recession and unemployment do not put a spring in our step but robots do. It’s a lovely subject and there’s something for everyone: growth, productivity, distribution of income and the relationship between labour and capital. Economists, take your pick.

That is why conferences on robots, which used to be all about the technology, are now frequently attended by economists. I went to one in Veldhoven last summer. On stage economists chatted happily about the pros and cons of robotics. The techno geeks in the audience looked crestfallen. What were they on about? One of them couldn’t restrain himself and called out in a German accent: ‘You don’t have a clue what a robot is!’ to the audible delight of the rest of the audience.

Perhaps he was right. Economists don’t know much about technology. That is why they tend to underestimate the problems surrounding the development and implementation of robots and overestimate the rate at which the technology is progressing.

But economists learn fast. Last month, two comprehensive studies into the economics of robot in the Netherlands were published. The scientific council for government policy WRR published ‘Robot de baas’ (Mastering the robot or The robot as master). There’s also ‘De match tussen man and machine’ published by the Dutch economists’ association KvS, which includes a contribution by yours truly.

Apart from the fact that both publications have ambiguous titles they also share a number of conclusions. The robots are coming and no one is going to stop them. But we won’t all lose our jobs. The developments will, however, impact on labour but not so quickly that society won’t have a chance to prepare for what will be a significant change. And if we’re smart about it robots will increase prosperity.

There is reason for optimism but we can’t lean back and relax. There’s work to do. Education needs to be brought up to speed, with a clear focus on creativity and social skills. That is where man has the edge on the machine.

I’m not going to give you a resumé of the reports. You can read them yourself. I recommend you pay close attention to a contribution by ING economist Marieke Bloem in the KvS book.

She states that we should stop talking about ‘robots’. The technological changes will encompass much more than the mechanical men who come to steal our jobs. New technology won’t just change production it will change the products themselves, the needs of consumers and the markets where products and services are sold. See? Economists come in useful after all.

This article was published earlier in the Financieele Dagblad