A new study published this month by the US National Bureau of Economic Research explores various scenarios for an economy increasingly powered by robots, and none of them look great for human workers.
The basic situation they predict is bleak: As robots perform more efficiently than humans, businesses invest in robots that can cut workforce costs. The constant need for new technology leads to increased tech salaries and costs of services. That tech boom, the authors argue, will eventually cause its own bust.
Over time, developers will actually put themselves out of work, they say. The robots developers build will be able to handle increasingly complex work, meaning fewer workers will be needed to maintain the machines built by the last generation of developers. It will also take fewer people to build each new generation of robots, as construction of robots will be automated and based on the old models.
“When smart machines replace people, they eventually bite the hands of those that finance them,” the researchers explain. (They’re not the only ones worried about a Terminator-like future—even the tech guru Elon Musk fears that something apocalyptic might unfold.)
The working paper, which has not been peer-reviewed, models several different futures, with names ranging from the dystopian (“Immiserating Growth”), to the revolutionary (“The First Will Be Last”).
“The long run in such cases is no techno-utopia,” the paper warns.