Work in the Age of Robots - Encounter Books

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Work in the Age of Robots

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Publication Details

Paperback / 80 pages
ISBN: 9781641770279
AVAILABLE: 5/15/2018

Work in the Age of Robots

Are robots finally replacing humans? Does the emerging age of artificial intelligence and automation mean we will soon see “peak jobs” and the need for a Universal Basic Income to support a widening swath of hapless citizens unsuited for employment in a future “knowledge” workforce? Productivity—reducing labor-hours per unit of product or service—has been the hallmark of progress for centuries. But this time we’re being told it’s different because digital machines will be so good at performing both blue-collar skills and low-knowledge white-collar work. History and the realities of the underlying technologies, however, suggest the opposite. While automation, artificial intelligence and robots will certainly cause disruptions, it will also increase productivity and lead to more jobs.

About the Author

Mark P. Mills, a physicist, is a Manhattan Institute senior fellow, a faculty fellow at Northwestern University, and partner in Montrose Lane, an energy-tech venture fund. He is author of Digital Cathedrals (2020) and Work in the Age of Robots (2018), and he is the co-author of The Bottomless Well (2006).

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America is finally approaching full employment. But a chorus of experts claims that this happy situation will be short-lived. Their warning is not the usual one about unemployment rising again when the next recession hits. Instead, the proposition is more ominous: that technology is finally able to replace people in most jobs.

The idea that we face a future without work for a widening swath of the citizenry is animated by the astonishing power of algorithms, artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, especially in the form of robots. At last count, more than a dozen expert studies, each sparking a flurry of media attention, have offered essentially the same conclusion: that the amazing power of emerging technologies today really is different from anything we’ve seen before; that is, the coming advances in labor productivity will be so effective as to eliminate most labor.

It has become fashionable in Silicon Valley to believe that, in the near future, those with jobs will comprise a minority of “knowledge workers.” This school of thought proposes carving off some of the wealth surplus generated by our digital overlords to support a Universal Basic Income for the inessential and unemployable, who can then engage in whatever pastime their heart desires, except working for a wage.

It is true that something unprecedented is happening. America is in the early days of a structural revolution in technology, one that will culminate in an entirely new kind of infrastructure, one that democratizes AI in all its forms. This essay focuses on the factual and deductive problems with the associated end-of-jobs claim. In it, we explore what recent history and the data reveal about the nature of AI and robots, and how those technologies might impact work in the 21st century.

But before mapping out the technological shift now underway and its future implications, let’s look for context at previous revolutions in labor productivity.

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