• Dr. Timothy Smith

Who Will Pay the Bills? The Economics of Autonomous Robots

Source: Wikipedia Commons

“Economics is the study of the use of scarce resources which have alternative uses”.

Lionel Robbins

British economist

Lionel Robbins’ definition marvelously captures the essence of economics in a single sentence. So often journalists, researchers, and marketers reflect on the effect of robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and automation on current jobs and the displacement of humans from the labor force. However, there is another aspect of the rise of AI and robots that deserves more investigation—how will people react to robots integrating into society? Academic and industrial researchers and engineers continue to build robots that look and move like people. Additionally, advances in artificial intelligence continue to give robots more human-like qualities and more sophisticated reasoning. Ultimately, robots will have more and more autonomy, which gets back to the question of economics.

In the future, people, society and economic systems will come to face the challenge of autonomous robots in our communities and as players in our economic system. If economics deals with the use of scarce resources, independent, autonomous robots will have to live under the same economic pressure as people do. A truly autonomous robot participating in society would need to support itself with energy, shelter, repairs and upgrades. if it were truly autonomous, it would need to compete for scarce resources with people and other robots. Take for example the expensive minerals needed in building different types of electronics such as fiber optics, visual displays, lasers, diodes, computer memory, batteries and more. Some metals such as gold and platinum are rare and expensive and used for many purposes including manufacturing and jewelry. Other metals called rare earth minerals with exotic names like europium and samarium are used in computer and robot manufacturing and maintenance and are also expensive due to their scarcity and already high demand. For example, lanthanum is a material for rechargeable batteries and is essential for robot function. Competition for rare earth metals as the population of robots continues to grow would put pressure on markets and prices and perhaps create a situation where robots could not afford the necessary parts to keep themselves going.

More than just competition for minerals and energy, robots will need to compete for jobs and information. Currently, artificial intelligence learns from massive data sets that are compiled from different public and private data sources such as data harvested from the web in blogs and publications as well as data compiled from users at tech giants like Facebook and Google. The information may not be open and available, creating imbalances in artificial intelligence for robots. As for jobs, can one imagine robot resumes and work experience? Certain skills in data analysis and decision making will be strong suits for robots, so maybe more creative job skills will still demand more human employees. In fact, the competition for employment has already begun; we are already seeing these kinds of changes in occupations such as factory work and clerical work.

Moreover, the rise of robots creates a competition for space. At first, people may react in different ways to robots entering their communities, creating a possibility for robot-only communities in towns and city centers. There may be legal implications and battles over whether or not landlords can refuse robots based off of their automated selves alone. This can also be extended to whether shopkeepers will allow robot consumers or whether government privileges previously given to humans will also extend to robots as well. These questions will become more complex as resources begin to become scarcer.

From an economic perspective, there will be competition whenever there are alternative uses for scarce resources. The evolution of autonomous robots has already begun with the greatest advances already happening in autonomous vehicles and cognitive computing such as IBM's Watson. Science fiction suggests various future worlds that deal with intelligent robots as enemies that need to be destroyed, but another plausible future pictures a slow integration of humanoid robots into society. People may grow to like and relate to intelligent robots as well as compete with for them for scarce resources. The new economics will create interesting new markets that will include your robot neighbors.