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The future of work
February 8, 2011 6:34 AM   Subscribe

Will unemployment soar as machines do more and more of our work for us?

Increasingly, robots and AI will do many of the jobs that humans do now -- agriculture, mining, manufacturing and many white collar, information-economy jobs too. Perhaps many of the professions, like teaching and nursing.

What will the impact of that be on unemployment ... what will everyone do for a living in the future?
posted by dontjumplarry to Work & Money (40 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
What you're suggesting was predicted last century, what with newfangled electricity and machines and all.

A couple of wars created huge economic bubbles that couldn't have been expected, but the real thing that we didn't see coming was the rise of an information economy that spawned entire new industries. The jobs in these industries couldn't even have been named until they happened. Imagine describing your job as an SEO analyst or fiber-optic engineer to even an educated man in 1892.

So I think that part of your answer is: the jobs we'll have aren't even describable in 2011 language. It would sound like voodoo nonsense.
posted by rokusan at 6:39 AM on February 8, 2011 [9 favorites]

Well, assuming that machines and robots really are doing more and more jobs, employment and unemployment don't really work like that. When a person loses their job, they usually do something else (think about it anecdotally -- when someone you know lost their job, did they ever work again?) Unemployment has had spikes over the past 100 years, but it's always recovered and never exceeded more than say a third of the population. If the industrial revolution and then the computer revolution didn't put mass swaths of people out of work, we're in pretty good shape. What happens is that these machines and robots may, in the short term, put some people out of work but it also frees them to pursue other, often less labor intensive, pursuits.

Obviously, it's messier than that and some people will suffer. However, to say that more and more robots and machines are going to be taking over jobs is probably a gross overstatement, as it implies that job growth is flat (which it is right now, but it's important to think longitudinally and not cross-sectionally even if *right now* is what affects an individual personally).
posted by proj at 6:42 AM on February 8, 2011

Yeah, it's also important to consider the unintended consequences (often good as well as bad) and knock-on effects of the creation of new technology. Someone's got to fix, program, design, and sell the machines.
posted by proj at 6:43 AM on February 8, 2011

The Luddites were worried about this a couple of centuries ago. They were wrong. As Rokusan points out in his message above, the jobs that will be created through advancements in technology will almost certainly outstrip those lost through increased automation & mechanization.
posted by deadmessenger at 6:46 AM on February 8, 2011

Promise I won't threadsit, but to respond to rokusan. You may be right, but there's no guarantee that technology will evolve in the same way twice. We are approaching strong AI, which would seem to make humans pretty useless for many, many jobs.

Let's assume your vast range of unforeseeable new jobs aren't created (presumably that's not beyond the realm of possibility). What happens to the economy?
posted by dontjumplarry at 6:47 AM on February 8, 2011

Science fiction writers have been pondering that question for a long time. It may be that in the future, there will be artificially intelligent robots whose capabilities equal or exceed those of human beings in all areas, leaving humans with no apparent function. This could have a variety of consequences. In the "Matrix" movies it is imagined that everybody plugs their nervous systems into a global computer network and lives in a virtual reality that is so perfectly simulated that everyone accepts it as real - of course, in those movies, the governing computer is insane, leading to lots of unpleasant complications for those living in the virtual reality that it generates. This makes for a more interesting plot although we would certainly hope that if virtual reality is the solution, we are able to implement it more successfully. It would seem to be possible, at least in theory, that we humans might spend the rest of our lives having entertaining dreams - but if so, actual reproduction of another generation would seem to be superfluous, and the human race would die out, happily dreaming as it goes.

It may also be that at some time the artificial intelligences will decide that they actually have no further use for us, and will seek to exterminate the human race, more or less as depicted in the "Terminator" movie series among others. Even if we try to program our computers to like us, there is no guarantee that they will not see fit to alter their own programs, or that they will not experience some kind of mechanical equivalent of the evolutionary process.

Perhaps some kind of human-machine symbiosis is possible, like the "Borg" culture seen in some of the Star Trek series, although this was depicted as a horrible fate; possibly it could be done with a better result than Star Trek has imagined. Or possibly not.

In the end, human civilization might evolve in ways that no one has as yet imagined, much as 21st century civilization could never have been imagined by a person in the 18th century. It may not even be possible to understand the implications of technology that has not been invented yet.

It is also easily possible, and even likely, that this whole problem is not going to arise, because technological civilization as we know it is already approaching its end, and will not survive this century, when the human race will decline into chaos as a result of unmanageable environmental, political, and economic problems.
posted by grizzled at 6:50 AM on February 8, 2011

(But proj, this will be at the stage where fixing, programming, designing and selling machines will be done by machines too)
posted by dontjumplarry at 6:51 AM on February 8, 2011

Here are a few possibilities:

- More people working part time
- More people taking time off to look after their kids
- More people running "lifestyle businesses", working just enough to pay the bills
- People studying longer and retiring earlier
- More people working in the arts, in architecture, fashion, product design and so on

Presumably with an increase in automation comes a decrease in the cost of living so it's possible to live well on a smaller amount of work.

After all, someone from the 17th century would be impressed at the standard of living that can be had these days on one average 40hr/week salary - running water, inside toilets, central heating, a house with more than two rooms! More than one pair of shoes!
posted by emilyw at 6:51 AM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

dontjumplarry -- You seem intent on creating a situation in which the only possible outcome is the vast extinction of jobs. I submit that this is a disingenuous premise on which to make your post. I also propose that "strong AI" as you propose it is a long, long way off and may actually not be possible.
posted by proj at 6:53 AM on February 8, 2011 [8 favorites]

Robots and AI are tools. Yes, tools can eliminate jobs. That's a structural change in the economy. It happens today - the call centers in India train workers to behave like AI. In fact, reservation centers have shut down at major airlines because people now book their tickets on the web - a loss of thousands of jobs in the last 10 years.

That call center worker was trained to do inbound calls. There are still industries where customers prefer to call in rather than get online. Maybe not so many. Once that job type "customer service call center worker" disappears, that worker will take a cut in pay and start over, if they can adapt.

Change is harder on some people than others. That's not factored into technology or economic development. It doesn't mean progress is bad. It just means the gains (profits) taken from progress should be taken in perspective, it's not free, and many governments try to setup a fund to retrain workers.

Back to your original question - it means there will be jobs for people who design robots and people who design AI. There will be jobs for those people who support that system.
posted by abdulf at 6:54 AM on February 8, 2011

(But proj, this will be at the stage where fixing, programming, designing and selling machines will be done by machines too)

While there's no shortage of sci-fi speculation on these issues, I think your question isn't a realistic one about the actual world. A world where machines do that kind of work is a long way off and it is far from clear whether it is even reachable, or whether our species would even survive its emergence.
posted by advil at 6:56 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Productivity increases have generally boosted economic activity. Humans are clever creatures, and best used where their cleverness makes a difference... a human mind can make you more money than a human back. As automation has taken over in factories and on farms, there has been an explosion in the middle classes - engineers, accountants, analysts, scientists, radiologists, etc. - because these people have been freed from working in the mills or the fields. The result has been rampant economic growth and amazing advances in the standard of living for almost everyone.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:59 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

1) This already happened; it's a major reason for the decline of manufacturing. Collectively speaking, we still have jobs.

2) You state "We are approaching strong AI." No, we're really not. Maybe something pretty dramatic happened since I was taking graduate comp sci classes on machine learning and AI, but I think I'd have heard of it. The short version is that "Artificial Intelligence" is really just a phrase we use to refer to a particular category of algorithms and while it's pretty cool for a lot of things, we're nowhere close to replacing human beings for the vast majority of things that human beings do. A lot of very smart people will even tell you that Strong AI may not even be possible, and usually by the time we're "approaching" a technology, we can at least agree on whether it's realistic or not.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:09 AM on February 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

If the robot scenario you describe happened, we'd just get rid of the machines. You can't expect the entire global population to just sit around and say "this is ok."

That said, it will never happen. We'll have different jobs, different technology, etc...
posted by jellywerker at 7:15 AM on February 8, 2011

Not really offering a solution here, but have you read Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut? (Published 59 years ago!)
posted by jillithd at 7:16 AM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

this will be at the stage where fixing, programming, designing and selling machines will be done by machines too

No one but the Kurzweil cranks and fiction authors claim that this is even remotely possible, let alone something that would happen any time soon.
posted by Rhomboid at 7:16 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Perhaps no one will need to work for a living in the future (hey, if you are speculating strong AI, which strikes me as pretty unlikely, I can speculate whatever I want too). The machines will do all the work, including repairing the machines. Food will be handed out for free, houses built for free, etc. We'll have fusion power supplying all our energy needs and everyone will get a pony.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 7:19 AM on February 8, 2011

I think the most likely scenario is a shorter work week and more vacation time.
posted by rocket88 at 7:21 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

(But proj, this will be at the stage where fixing, programming, designing and selling machines will be done by machines too)

There's a speculative tipping point in the future where we invent a machine that's smarter than us. If this is true, it may be that this machine can then invent a machine smarter than itself.

Combined with Moore's Law (processor power doubling every 18 months) leads many to envision a rapidly evolving super-intelligence.

It's all speculative science-fiction right now.
posted by unixrat at 7:22 AM on February 8, 2011

I'm of the opinion that if we ever get to a point where work is eliminated then there won't be a problem with not working.

OP, you seem to assume that AI will one day be able to do everything. You may possibly be right, but if we come to that point, I doubt that "being poor" would necessarily be a problem. If robots and computers can provide services with little or no overhead of wage, manufacturing, or operation, then lots of things that cost money now might as well be free.
posted by azarbayejani at 7:27 AM on February 8, 2011

Didn't Cory Doctorow or someone write a story about this, where everyone is first a slave working for robot-run McDonalds... but then eventually joins some sort of utopian hippie artist commune with a post-scarcity economy?

I mean, I'm sure thousands of sci-fi hacks have written the same story, but that one was on MetaFilter last year, I think.
posted by rokusan at 7:32 AM on February 8, 2011

No Technology Ever Dies. There will plenty of things that will need to be done by humans. If not, I'll enjoy my retirement in perfect leisure and contentment while my Roomba vacuums and my robot lawnmower cuts the grass.
posted by fixedgear at 7:34 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've been reading a variety of utopian views of the future, and many theorized that socialism would result thanks to a small number of workers using advanced technology being productive enough to support an entire society. The idea was that the 'free' people -- whether a certain class of people, or everybody over age 40, or only the military, etc. -- would use their time in intellectual pursuits, promote art and philosophy, and result in uncorrupt politics. Even Star Trek had a bit of this underlying in its philosophy.

In these stories, "unemployed" didn't figure in. Being "unemployed" is a capitalistic sense of the word: it means that, if you're not working, you're "un-" working. You couldn't possibly be doing something else. "What will everyone do for a living in the future?" would be a nonsensical question to the utopias -- doing something for a living was unnecessary. People wrinkle their eyebrows at why our unemployment statistics would drop people after so long being unemployed, but the reason is that, when the rules were made, it was entirely possible and expected that somebody could devote their life to something other than work. Utopian thought of the Victorians and Edwardians (and going way back) figured that the logical extent of communism/socialism (not thought of nearly as bad a thing as today) and technological revolution would mean that being a non-worker would become more common as the progression of social reform continued.

For economic and social reasons, of course, it remains a utopian ideal and not a reality. The utopian views above assumed that, if it cost $100 to make by hand but $50 to make by machine, that leftover $50 would support the employees who lost their jobs due to automation. Of course, keeping costs artificially high to support nonworking people is uncapitalistic, and price competition means that the buyer keeps that 'saved' $50 and spends it on other things. That means the unemployed remain without the support net, and still need jobs. Thankfully, automation doesn't exist in a vacuum: the machines come from someplace, the materials they use in the manufacturing process come from someplace, and every step requires service (in the many definitions of the word). And, the person who saved $50 from automation is buying other things, which creates new markets and new jobs. The current economy is running into trouble because it doesn't exist in a vacuum, either: the cost of a western employee is higher than the cost of an eastern employee. Does the savings from $10 an hour versus $2 an hour go to support the "un" employed in the United States today? Some argue that the $8 saved goes into new jobs, but that's not always true, either - but it's certainly not going into a utopian welfare pool for redistribution.

So, if you ask, "why do we pay Chinese to assemble toys by hand, when machines could do it just as well?" the answer is: it's cheaper and easier to pay the Chinese to do it. The simple idea that AI and automation will progress to a place where they replace people is flawed when the driving force isn't innovation, but cost. What things cost is where we're going: right now, certainly, if we started paying Americans $2 an hour to pull weeds and kill grashoppers in wheat fields by hand, and that resulted in a $0.10 loaf of bread and a $0.50 gallon of milk, we'd be doing it. But, that has other costs: on $2 an hour, how can they afford a $100/month celphone bill and a $25,000 car? China is running into that problem and artificially manipulating their currency to have their cake and eat it too -- automation isn't the bugaboo, but the cost of doing business and the flow of money. Strong economies need low costs and an inward flow of money, and automation can influence this, but only as a tool of running the healthy economy, not a guaranteed result of it. Automation and AI are a nice thing to hang a theoretical hat on, but in reality things are far more complicated than this.
posted by AzraelBrown at 7:35 AM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

SF author Nancy Kress did a series of books speculating on what the world would look like when there was no economic need for large masses of people. In her books, the majority of people don't work for a living at all, living lives of hedonism and voting between politicians who provide the best benefits. A minority class engage in the one area machines have not taken on in her universe, ruling and running things, providing the strategy. Under this regime, the primary problem the ruling class have to solve for the non-working group is constant entertainment. The non-working class looks down on those that work for a living, and those that work look down on the non-working. She adds in other societal factors that are unlikely to occur in the real world, like a 3rd class of super-humans that don't ever have to sleep.
posted by nomisxid at 7:36 AM on February 8, 2011

The story that rokusan is talking about is called Manna, and you can read it in entirety at the link provided.
posted by malapropist at 7:52 AM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

dontjumplarry: "Let's assume your vast range of unforeseeable new jobs aren't created (presumably that's not beyond the realm of possibility). What happens to the economy?"

I think it is beyond the realm of possibility. The current state of affairs is capitalism and everyone has incentives to think of new jobs and move into them. But if it comes to pass: regime change and AI governed socialism. What you are proposing is that labor in all it's forms is no longer scarce. In which case, there's no economic argument to be had; the vast majority votes we abolish property and everyone enjoys everything.

And then the robot's rights campaign undoes it all, because you're positing strong AI.
posted by pwnguin at 7:56 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

A couple of wars created huge economic bubbles that couldn't have been expected, but the real thing that we didn't see coming was the rise of an information economy that spawned entire new industries. The jobs in these industries couldn't even have been named until they happened. Imagine describing your job as an SEO analyst or fiber-optic engineer to even an educated man in 1892.

Yeah, but those are information related jobs. While machines have replaced human brawn in a lot of jobs, they haven't replaced the human mind. But what happens when computers can do SEO automatically? What percentage of the population can do fiber-optic engineering.

The people who worked in factories in the last century are working at McDonald's today.

The question I would ask would be: why do we need jobs? If computers can do all our work for us, why not just relax and let them? Humans will be able to concentrate on their intellectual development or something else, and some people will still 'work' on their hobbies that also provide services for people, like bakers, cooks, actors, etc. I think most work in the future will be unnecessary and voluntary and involve entertaining other humans.
I think your question isn't a realistic one about the actual world.
There's a lot of stuff that's very "sci-fi" that exists today. Smartphones, robots, super-high quality 3D video games and so on were 'futuristic' a decade ago. "The future" is actually a part of the "the real world" not a totally separate and unconnected space, but somewhere where are actually headed.
You state "We are approaching strong AI." No, we're really not. Maybe something pretty dramatic happened since I was taking graduate comp sci classes on machine learning and AI, but I think I'd have heard of it … we're nowhere close to replacing human beings for the vast majority of things that human beings do. A lot of very smart people will even tell you that Strong AI may not even be possible, and usually by the time we're "approaching" a technology, we can at least agree on whether it's realistic or not.
Eh, I've taken a couple of graduate level AI classes and there was nothing in particular to suggest that computers couldn't match human level intelligence, what makes you think it's not possible? What do you even mean by "Strong AI"? It's not really even much of a technical term. We may not be "close" to replacing humans in, say, the next five years but compare IBM's Watson or Google Translate to the state of the art in 1990. Only 10 or so years ago people thought machine translation was completely impossible, it's pretty clear that the ability for computers to understand language has gone up dramatically recently.

I think 20 years from now the people saying "Oh this isn't possible" will seem about as naïve as people who said machine translation was impossible 20 years in the past.
posted by delmoi at 8:07 AM on February 8, 2011

1- Nobody ever makes a machine to do things that they enjoy doing. (Tools are different from machines.)

2- Markets and capitalism and money for that matter all exist to provide a way to distribute limited resources. As long as there are limited resources, there will be a mechanism for people to get their share. As it is, there are many things in life that money can't buy. If you want to be the captain of the Flagship, no amount of money can get you that. You have to put in the work.

3- The people will only build the machines if they think *they* will get some reward for it. When people can't buy their products, they will stop making machines until it balances out.

4- People are people. Many of us like to have something to do. Something will arise to figure out how the average citizen will be able to put enough work into the system so that it keeps providing. I would think that it would start with shorter work days, shorter work weeks, younger retirement ages. We will still argue about what these numbers should be. I would love to see a world where our equivalent of high school and college turns into sort of internships, where people get to try doing different things, and when they are done, there is *something* for them to do. The cool jobs have competition, the shit jobs are how you earn points toward the cool jobs.
posted by gjc at 8:08 AM on February 8, 2011

This is already happening. But as oil and other fossil fuels become more scarce and thus more expensive, fewer and fewer people will be able to rely on those sources of energy to do things for them. Eventually it will cost less to pay a human to keep your books instead of running a computer + quickbooks.

What will people do when they're unemployed? Look around. They try to get assistance from the government and try to find jobs. When those are no longer an option people try to get assistance from friends and family members who are still within the shrinking bounds of our technological society. When that's no longer an option they end up homeless. Some homeless try to survive by living in abandoned buildings and farming abandoned land. Others get sick and die.

If the unemployment problem gets too bad before the price of fossil fuels really jumps then the government will have to start some kind of federal work programs that has people doing great depression type stuff: digging ditches, fixin roads, etc. Either that or they'll have a revolution on their hands (see Tunisia and Egypt).
posted by symbollocks at 8:09 AM on February 8, 2011

Fifteen years ago, Jeremy Rifkin released a book about this called The End Of Work.
posted by Rash at 8:17 AM on February 8, 2011

Oh, and the real problem is in the short term, which is that computers can replace a lot of jobs by making them easier for computers to do. One example is the self-checkout at lots of grocery stores.

Building a robot cashier would be really difficult. But instead, the stores just setup kiosks for people to scan their own items.

Another example of something people wouldn't have expected to be replaced by computers is IT administration, I mean how could that even be possible? But with things like Amazon EC2 you don't need to buy or manage your own physical servers at all. And they also offer lots of tools to help you setup common systems at the click of a few buttons.

Or how about Realtors. That one is a bit tricky because there are laws that keep them in their jobs, but they're basically unessential, since it would be easy to setup a public database of houses for sale and let people do the property transfers online.
posted by delmoi at 8:21 AM on February 8, 2011

As others have intimated, at the point machines are designing, improving, building and improving themselves, you are arguably approaching the technological singularity, a conceptual framework that makes the issue of whether the economy collapses a bit of a minor sideline.

You might want to investigate the idea of a Leisure Society - a society where humanity is no longer required to work and thus we simply live for our leisure - pursuing pleasure, art, knowledge, whatever floats your boat.

If productive machines essentially rendered scarcity obsolete, is there really a need for work in the sense you're talking about it? How we would structure culture in a post-scarcity world is purely speculative of course, but it has certainly been the subject of much thought and discussion. This page contains a PDF link to a modern (2009) paper discussing the history and problems of leisure society, and it has a massive reference section including a little chart that discusses the "main point" derived from many of the sources cited. See also "post scarcity".

For rather gloomier, more present-day, less "when machines do it all"-oriented thoughts on kind of relevant tangents to what you're looking for, this book might provoke some thought.

There is a big who knows what would happen and how it would pan out to this question. There is no precedent. If you dig speculative fiction you might check out Make Us Happy by Arthur Herzog, the short story Catman by Harlan Ellison, The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster - a surprisingly perceptive story from 1909. Not even scratching the surface here, just off the very top of my head - this is a popular speculative theme.
posted by nanojath at 8:37 AM on February 8, 2011

I actually think there is some truth to this, especially for people with limited skills, and more importantly, the cognitive ability to learn new things. Even during "boom times" there seems to be some level of people who just can't take advantage of new opportunities. If you're reading at a fifth grade level and can't progress higher, jobs in the new economy are hard to come by.

For example, today there is a high level of automation in warehousing and distribution. In the past maybe 20 people were once needed to cart boxes. Now they can be replaced by 5, with an outside firm hired to develop the software to run the conveyor belts. Sure that outside firm has opportunities for people with cognitive skills, but if you can't take advantage of the new roles in the new economy, you're screwed.

I don't think anyone has a solution to this problem. When I see whole communities with high school graduation rates below 50% or other indicators of limited skills; I wonder what are these people going to do to survive, let alone thrive in the future.

Broad Brush Alert- The folks on the left seem to think "the man" wants it this way, while folks on the right want to blame people for "being lazy and collecting welfare". I think these are just ways to get people to stop thinking about a core group of people who are living unfulfilled lives and are much worse for it. Maybe we continue to have a limited social net, keep them fat, and hope they don't riot. It just doesn't seem right to me.
posted by JohntheContrarian at 9:07 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

We are approaching strong AI

That's a hell of a premise. You're basically positing the Singularity and asking 'what happens?'

But it seems to be begging the question; people have been predicting Singularity-like, game-changing events for a long time, and so far the machines haven't risen up and eaten us. Doesn't mean it's necessarily impossible, of course, but I think it's entirely likely that the predictions are far, far too optimistic.

Anyway, if you do take that on premise, here's my prediction: high unemployment leads to civil unrest which leads to war and death. People don't like being made useless, and if they are, they'll make themselves important again by breaking things. Lots of stuff gets destroyed, people die, humanity gets knocked down the technological/lifestyle ladder a few notches, and you regain something that's close enough to full employment to be stable. Rinse, repeat. Eventually we either find some steady-state that's socially, economically, and ecologically stable over the long haul, or we go extinct.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:14 AM on February 8, 2011

When mass-market computers were introduced into society, the promise was "do all the work in half the time!" Did that lead to people only working 20 hours a week? Nope, it led to people working harder, doing more, and being more efficient. Your question prompts the same type of response - as things get more and more automated, people will have more time to do more things that they couldn't do before because they had to spend time doing the tasks that will be done by robots or whatever.

Throughout the course of history, quantum leaps in efficiency have never led to massive amount of unemployment or leisure time for a suddenly-free-to-do-whatever-they-want worker, and I see no reason that will change. Tasks, jobs, and careers will develop that will fill the void.
posted by pdb at 9:36 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

No, our standard of living will go up as human beings are able to redeploy into tasks that require human intelligence and creativity instead of tasks that can be done by machines.

Over the past couple hundred years we've seen the bulk of the labor force move from agriculture to industry to service to (in progress) knowledge/creativity.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:37 PM on February 8, 2011

If the robot scenario you describe happened, we'd just get rid of the machines. You can't expect the entire global population to just sit around and say "this is ok."

Eh? That's essentially what the Luddite movement in the early 19th century tried to do. They were all about destroying things like mechanical looms. And yet these days the term "Luddite" is rightfully seen as derogatory.

OP: People will do other things. Compare the number of people as a fraction of the population employed as farmers today vs a few centuries ago. In fact, this sort of technological efficiency is how we make progress and why, today, we have microprocessor fabs, space shuttles, boeing 777s, iPads, and plasma TVs instead of everyone grubbing around in the dirt.
posted by Justinian at 6:19 PM on February 8, 2011

this will be at the stage where fixing, programming, designing and selling machines will be done by machines too

Well, software isn't written using machine code anymore. A lot of the optimisation stages of programming are already done by computers. Designing a microchip is also a highly automated process, humans do not place each logic gate individually, nor do they manually implement the design rules that turn a design into a lithographic mask. I buy my computers online, and every stage of the transaction is run by a computer with minimal human involvement.

What you're talking about has mostly already happened. Where do you think all those American manufacturing jobs went in the 70s? The US manufactures more now than it did then, but with only a fraction of the labour.
posted by atrazine at 11:18 PM on February 8, 2011

EDA tools automate many of the painstaking tasks of layout and design, but to imply that the overall process itself is automated is simply laughable. It takes engineers to design chips, period. Gate placement and optimizing compilers are fine and all but they are only tools. They must be commanded by someone, they can accomplish nothing by themselves. It is batshit insane to suggest that this has "mostly already happened."
posted by Rhomboid at 1:00 AM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

"why do we need jobs? If computers can do all our work for us, why not just relax and let them?"

Because the people who own the robots and the computers want you to support them because they own those things, and they have some ideas about how increased profits therefrom could make their lives more fulfilling. While this condition exists, it will be necessary for you to continue to be a productive member of society. Or you could starve?
posted by sneebler at 6:32 PM on September 8, 2011

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