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Technology is eating the world

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Earlier today the comment section of an old post I wrote about UberX was revived with a discussion around technology and what it means for human capital.

The concern expressed was that technology and machines are going to put us all out of a job. And it stemmed from a discussion around driverless cars. Clearly we are headed in that direction and so eventually we will no longer need to drive or have people drive us around. This means that something that was once a job will no longer exist.

But I am not yet convinced that it will be as dire as some believe it will be – though it could very well necessitate some significant structural changes in the economy.

Here are two things to consider:

Marc Andreessen has written and tweeted a lot about the topic of “robots eat all jobs” and his argument is that this line of thinking often revolves around something called a lump-of-labor fallacy. This is the idea that there is a fixed amount of work to be done. And so when technology replaces humans, we are just making the labor pie smaller.

But the reality appears much different. Human wants and desires increase and we find new ways to put people to work. One of the examples I’ve heard Marc give, that I really like, has to do with buildings. In the past, there used to be a guy whose only job was to shovel coal into a furnace. He physically heated the building. But eventually technology did away with that requirement and that job. Is that not progress? Or should we go back to that in order to put people to work?

All this said, unemployment and job displacement are still serious issues for cities and countries. Which is why some people – including many capitalists – believe that minimum wages will not be enough going forward. We will also need to look at things like a “basic income guarantee” to redistribute wealth and ensure that, no matter what, everyone has a certain amount of money to live.

At first blush, this doesn’t feel right. But I think it’s important to remain open minded and engage in discussion. Hopefully we can do a bit of that today in the comments below.

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