Who Will Own The Robots?

Technovelgy readers have seen many examples of increasingly sophisticated robots. In coming years, blue collar robots and white collar AI-enhanced computer systems will continue to take jobs from people. If these innovations produce abundance, will we all share in it? Or only the owners of the robots?

In an interesting article (Larry Summers gets it wrong on Piketty and Robots) on this topic, Colin Lewis writes:

But the critiques fail to appreciate that [Thomas] Piketty does look to the future, in fact he specifically states in his book the extreme example is a society where robots produce the entire output, and that in this case the returns will go entirely to the owners of robots and factoral income distribution would be 100% capital, 0% labor.

In Capital in the Twenty-First Century Piketty talks of an “entirely robotized economy in which one can increase production at will.” (Page 217). He sees this as techno optimism (or pessimism depending upon which side of the fence you sit).

He talks about how capital will always find new and useful things to do, such as producing “ever more sophisticated robots,” and the impact this will have on inequality. (Page 221)

And he refers his readers to his online technical slides where he speaks of the “extreme case” being a “pure robot-economy.” And the people to worry about are those “that own the robots.”

Golden Age science fiction writers Leo Zagat & Nat Schachner were concerned about this problem of machine ownership generations ago. In their 1931 short story The Revolt of the Machines:

Throughout the world, machines did the work of man, and the aristos, owners of the machines, played in soft idleness in their crystal and gold pleasure cities. Even the prolat hordes, relieved of all but an hour or two per day of toil, were content in their warrens—content with the crumbs of their masters...

...the machines did the work of the world, even to the personal care of the aristos’ pampered bodies. Only for direction, and starting and stopping, was the brain and the hand of man required. Now that the inhabited portion of the terrestrial globe was so straitly circumscribed, radio power waves, television and radio-phone, rendered feasible the control of all the machines from one central station, built at the edge of the Northern Glacier. Here were brought the scant few of the prolats that had been spared, a pitiful four hundred men and women, and they were set to endless, thankless tasks.

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