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The future: Will automation and tech revive the economy?

Technophiles see advances in robotics and artificial intelligence ushering in a new age of universal bounty, but not everyone agrees.

Can technology remake our economy? asked Zachary Goldfarb in WashingtonPost.com. Northwestern University economist Robert Gordon doesn’t think so. He came out last week “with a new, depressing paper” that deals a sharp blow to “the so-called techno-optimists.” While technophiles see advances in robotics and artificial intelligence ushering in a new age of universal bounty, Gordon says they can’t fuel enough progress to offset America’s scourges of “socioeconomic decay, poor educational test scores, massive student debt, high school dropouts, rising poverty,” and inequality. Compared with innovations like electricity and cars from previous generations, he says, computers and smartphones haven’t really been all that transformative in economic terms. And he’s convinced that “the most obvious uses of robots and computers have already happened.”

“This is an embarrassingly bad argument,” said Kevin Drum in MotherJones.com. Gordon sounds like some 1870s scoffer “arguing that all this folderol about electricity is ridiculous.” It’s true that “the current level of AI is primitive.” But since we still don’t know where technological progress will lead us, it’s only prudent to “treat it as a wild card.” To dismiss the prospects of AI out of hand, as Gordon does, is “a bunch of bunk.” His real mistake lies in even trying to predict technological evolution, said Matthew Yglesias in Slate.com. “Computing power is growing at an exponential pace, not a linear one.” That makes it hard to judge future progress from our current state. “Unless you think about it in the correct exponential terms, you’re going to massively underrate the likely gains in the future.” Who knows what’s possible?

Some “healthy skepticism” is in order, said Matthew C. Klein in Bloomberg.com. Techno-optimists touting a “second machine age” lack much evidence. “It’s hard to make the case that the ability to share the results of personality quizzes on social networks is a significant boon to humanity.” On the other hand, Gordon makes “quite a few unwarranted gloomy assumptions.” He asserts, for example, that income inequality will increase indefinitely. But “almost no trend in human affairs—in economics, most of all—continues unabated.” And even if new inventions don’t propel us forward as much as we’d like, that’s no reason to write them off completely. For instance, “only a fool would deny the potential of driverless cars to improve the lives of commuters, to say nothing of the tens of thousands of lives that might be saved from traffic accidents.” Perhaps instead of worrying about theoretical doomsday scenarios, “we should ask our economists to focus on the problems that need fixing today.”

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