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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Robot Apocalypse

I’m not sure what it is, but the last few months have been like T2: Judgement Day in the blogosphere. It seems everyone is talk about job-killing robots.

But with all the talk about jobs, the automation alarmists miss an important defense mechanism that human workers have: Their power to be consumers as well as producers.

In other words, the fact that robots will never buy sneakers or drink beer at the local pub.

We’ll get to this in a moment, but first some background on the robo-talk I’ve been reading lately:

  • In December, Wired writer Kevin Kelly asserted that robots can take our jobs and he won’t put up a fight. “Most of the time we are giving them jobs we could never do,” he wrote. “Without them, these jobs would remain undone.”
  • To counterpunch, there was an overhyped segment on “60 Minutes” in January saying we are giving “good jobs” to robots.
  • To make the issue global, The Economist ran a piece shortly afterwards about the “economics of Robotistan” that could replace India and China as the source of menial labor for the west.
  • Then in February, blogger Lynn Stuart Parramore of AlterNet pointed out that folks have nothing to fear since they are “not a horse, of course.” The real issue is about distribution of wealth in a robot-run world, and that “Investment in automation is a good thing that can produce more, and better jobs” should the lower classes actually get the training to use and fix these robots.
  • Heck, even the Brits are in on the act. Ed Luce of FT.com weighed in with “Obama must face the rise of the Robots” just a few weeks back. He lamented the fact that “The bulk of U.S. jobs growth since mid-2009 has been in low-skilled areas, such as food preparation and domestic aides.”

All of these authors made me click their headlines and many were entertaining and thoughtful. However, they are starting the wrong conversation.

Technology has always marched ahead, whether it be thanks to gunpowder or the steam engine or the printing press or the internet. Workers and society adapt. So instead of acting like 21st century Luddites, let’s admit that technology is a tool that can be used for both good and bad — and then start talking about the consumption part of the equation.

There’s an inherent ceiling on how much automation — and how much threat automation poses — simply because of the consumption element that is necessary for economic stability and growth.

To wit: You may claim that automakers or smartphone makers have no incentive to keep humans around in their factories. But then who would buy those gadgets?

Maybe humans working as waiters or retail clerks would … but you need a job to buy food at restaurants or purchasing housewares. Would these underpaid employees be able to afford more than just the bare staples of life?

If not, forget about big profits for manufacturers of discretionary goods.

If so, is that because the lower classes are finally paid a better wage at those seemingly menial jobs? Or is it because governmental policies effectively redistribute corporate profits from the robot-run businesses to other humans not in the automation game?

I don’t pretend to know the answer to these questions. But I know that the good and the bad of robots should be discussed in context of consumption as well as employment.

It’s easy to overlook the spending habits of unskilled workers because they are lower-income Americans and don’t own businesses or buy big-ticket items regularly. But collectively, their buying power adds up — and without mass consumption, the economics of mass production via automation just doesn’t make sense.

Robot rant over. Back to The Matrix with you!

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Jeff Reeves is the editor of InvestorPlace.com and the author of “The Frugal Investor’s Guide to Finding Great Stocks.” Write him at editor@investorplace.com or follow him on Twitter via @JeffReevesIP. 

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