Economic growth, productivity & robots

Netscape co-founder and famed venture capitalist Marc Andreessen wrote an article on June 13th, « This is Probably a Good Time to Say That I Don’t Believe Robots Will Eat All the Jobs … », in which the usually upbeat visionary tried his best to assuage the rank-and-files afraid of losing jobs to robots, by placing basically the good-old arguments that we will always find news things to do.

While I largely agree with his arguments, I do think it's worth taking a step back and thinking about the implication of a end-game scenario where everything is done by robots.

 

Let's start with economics

I've studied economics my whole adult life by myself, eventually preferring the more human-oriented approaches by John Maynard Keynes, Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman over the obsession over the beauty of simple models especially in the Monetary School led by the great Milton Friedman.

Keynes

Keynes

Stiglitz

Stiglitz

Krugman

Krugman

Friedman

Friedman

As a reader also of philosophy and litterature, one thing that always bothers me with the Monetary School people or even the Free Market people is that they seldom worry about the raison d'être. The beautiful relations they establish among the selected input and output factors in economies seldom take into consideration of the fact that human beings apparently want more than just material or perceptual satisfaction.

There is hence an eternal debate between the forever positive pro-growth people and the forever pensive pro-lifestyle people. As usual, either side is right at times and wrong at times. But most of the time there's really no answer that could satisfy everyone. And as history goes, there's seldom a chance to repeat the "what-if" experiment and vindicate any prophet.

Make no mistake, the real economic growth over the last two and a half centuries have benefited human beings A WHOLE LOT. Before the industrial revolution most societies relied on the social hierarchies and pandemics to reset the demography back to the level sustainable by the natural productivity of farms and other production facilities. Since the industrial revolution the productivity of human beings skyrocketted and improved the living quality of an expoentially growing earth population at a pace unthinkable before. In other words, there's no denial that real economic growth, often linked directly to productivity in matured economies, is benefitial to human beings.

However, as far as productivity is concerned, what's the end game?

 

Productivity and real economic growth — end game scenario

The ultimate productivity scenario is quite simple actually — it's a world where everything is done by machines or robots and human beings don't have to occupy any single second of their life in producing products or services that are needed or desired by themselves. In other words, the labor productivity is infinite since labor input required is zero. And there will be no shortage of anything and no real desire to be satisfied.

This end game scenario, of course, has been the themes or backdrops of many a Hollywood movies — even the children-oriented « Wall-E » painted this end game scene quite persuasively.

What is then the raison d'être of humab beings in this scenario?

The more sophisticated readers would be able to quickly point out that human beings could always occupy themselves in creative activities such as arts, music and dances, much like the patricians in the glorious Ancient Greece, where unfortunate slaves played the roles of machines and robots.

However, it's quite obvious that not all of us are equipped with the sensitivity to such non-utility activities, even fewer with the talents. There is gonna be a huge part of the population totally left out on this potential of human brains and with nothing to do.

It's also obvious that human beings have the genes of competition, if not killing, throughout our evolution into the current form of homosapiens. It's not difficult to imagine, then, that majority of the people who aren't capable of appreciating or creating arts, would instead create vehicles to satisfy their thirst for competition. Again, many a Hollywood movies have picked on this subject already.

Above all, I think it's gonna be religion that triumphs. Philosophy is too much pressure for most people and religion has always been a good alternative — funny how we talk about religion as an alternative to philosophy now but not the reverse — and will probably dominate the majority of the population if the end game scenario is realized.

Arts

Arts

Competitions

Competitions

Religions

Religions

Whatever this scenario is gonna look like, my point is when the day that no human being ever needs to work a single second to get the things he/she needed or desired, we'll be forced to confront our reason of being constantly. This is what Jean-Paul Sartre was trying to explain with his famous:

Nous sommes condamnés à être libres.
— Jean-Paul Sartre

We are condamned to be free — free to think that is. Horses and insects aren't condamned. They live and never have to worry about their reasons of being. We've unfortunatley evolved with a large enough brain that thinks, leading to our inevitable torture of searching for that reason of being that has never existed in the first place.

 

Wait, wait, wait — this is still a VC blog, right?

It is still a VC blog. Don't worry. You won't hear Sartre's name here as often as in a café in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Still, as VCs and startups believe in changing the world, making life more convenient and increasing the productivity across the board, we're essentially driving toward the above mentioned end-game scenario.

To be sure it's still very very far away from now. Nevertheless, it does not hurt to stop every once in a while and imagine such an end game scenario. By definition in such a world you will no longer need startups. All innovations will be done by machines and robots and we just reap the fruits. Or maybe the startups will take forms in new art initiatives, gladiator proposals or creative religions.

We don't really know. Just keep in mind that we shall not presume that the pursuit of productivity and real economic growth will by default bring human beings what they want — especially when most people have trouble even pinpointing what they really want.

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