The Perfect Robot – Unemployment or Free Time?


In a follow up to the previous post on the Luddite Fallacy. What would happen if we developed the ‘perfect robot’. Rather than looking at what happens if we start with no technology and increase, what if we start at the other end of the spectrum?

Suppose technological advances lead to a robot who was so perfect that:

  • The robot built itself requiring no labour
  • The robot was able to mine all necessary raw materials
  • The robot was able to produce and deliver all goods and services that we wanted.

In other words, technological developments was so rapid, there was no real need for labour at all.


Not quite the perfect robot. (photo Pewari, Flickr)

In this case, we could maintain a very good living standard, without having to actually work. We could create a job for ourselves, but it would be purely optional. In essence we would be free to pursue leisure 24 hours a day. Because the robot would be providing us with all the things we want. If the robot is 100% efficient, labour productivity is infinite.

If the robot wasn’t perfect, but 95% efficient, then some small quantity of human labour would be required to maintain the robot. But, because technology was so advanced, labour costs would be very low relative to the very high standard of living. In other words, technology would enable us to enjoy mostly labour. We might have to work two hours a week to maintain the robot.

At the moment, production of goods and services may be automated to about 20% of total output. In other words, considerable human labour is still required to assist the robots in producing goods and services. Therefore, the labour costs of producing goods are currently much higher. We have to work relatively long hours to assist these inefficient robots.

Some Notes:

Many argue there will be diminishing marginal returns to new technology. In other words, it will be hard to keep making big strides in productivity we have seen in the past. I believe, we will be constantly surprised at new technologies that develop, but still can’t envisage anything near a 100% perfect robot.

If improved technology can enable lower working hours, why are we working longer hours in past few decades? Well, it’s still a shorter hours than a few centuries ago. But, mainly it represents a social preference to maximise income rather than leisure.

From Luddite Fallacy – Readers Question In the light of recent High street retail closures how do we adjust our employment and economic model when goods are imported and sold online? There are only so many supply chain jobs that can be created so where are the new lower skill jobs going to come from?

One answer is to think how the high street changes. When I remember Oxford high Street and Cornmarket 15 years ago – there were three record companies, there was a tailors, there were no American style coffee shops. There were three bookshops. For every shop that has closed down, another shop / restaurant or cafe has taken its place.

If HMV closed down, what will come in its place? Perhaps another cafe so youngsters can download music from the internet. Or perhaps people will be trying to make a living from writing an economics blog.

I don’t think we need to adjust our economic model. But, if we don’t buy from HMV, we will buy from iTunes and perhaps have more disposable income to buy more takeaway meals. I reckon HMV will be replaced with cafes or more fast food outlets. Also more of the economy has shifted away from the high street to the world wide web – a new source of income and employment.

Whether these changes are a good thing or not, is another question.

One Response to The Perfect Robot – Unemployment or Free Time?

  1. rjs January 16, 2013 at 12:58 pm #

    it isnt really robots that improves out standard of living, it’s stored energy in the form of fossil robot can run without an energy source..