Welcome to the machine age

We’re in a time of technological change, one characterized by machines that think, rather than by machines that do. What impact will these new technologies have on the way we work and live? Nobel Laureates in Economic Sciences share their views with us.

For centuries, technology has significantly improved our way of life, so why are many of us now suspicious of new technology and what the future holds? One of the obvious reasons is the fear of mass unemployment. Various studies say that up to 50% of all people might lose their jobs due to technology, robots and artificial intelligence, so are we creating a self-destructive force?

Will we still be needed in an age of automation?

Showing the sort of ground-breaking thinking that won him the prize in 1977, Nobel Laureate James E. Meade believed that technology, and robots in particular, could lead to people doing fewer of the jobs that are available in an economy. He suggested that it would be possible to design a society where wage rates might be low but people’s incomes would not be, as they’d receive a social dividend from the profits that are made from robots’ productivity.

“It may turn out to be the great moment of history. The moment when everything changes. When we no longer work, but have machinery working for us.”

In an automated era, should everyone be guaranteed an income?

Laureate Paul R. Krugman has said that if robots make us redundant, we should be providing everyone with a basic income. This should give us more than just enough money to eat, says Krugman.

“What we can do is ensure that people have enough to purchase the necessities – and necessities actually meaning things that are necessary for them to be full participants in their own societies.”

Robots are evolving

Nobel Laureate A. Michael Spence thinks that for now, even though you can tell machines how to do something, you still need humans to tell them on a much deeper level how to learn. But with their rapidly advancing skills, how long will they depend on us?

“Robots are now quite capable of assembling electronic products. They can see, they have fine motor coordination, they don’t make mistakes, they’re very precise.”

If robots take over, will we still have jobs?

Nobel Laureate Robert M. Solow believes that even though 80 percent of the US economy’s growth is driven by technological progress, people will still play a vital role if they have the right skills. So, even if the modern tech revolution is transforming the way we do business, humans can stay in the driver’s seat.

“We’ve allowed for substantial amounts of our workers to be inadequately educated for modern industrial work. The responsibility is on us to change that; to see we educate our youth.”

Humans aren’t in danger. Yet.

Laureate Robert C. Merton is also optimistic about the future, depending on the job in hand. He acknowledges that while “fabulous technologies” have been – and are being – developed, he doesn’t think they’ll be replacing all human functions just yet. He compares a movie streaming service with financial advice:

“I know after ten minutes it’s a lousy movie. I’ve just wasted ten minutes. But I don’t know someone has given me bad financial advice until it’s too late. That’s why financial technology will not displace financial advisors on its own.”

How do we make sure everyone benefits from technology?

Edmund S. Phelps is a Nobel Laureate who sees technology as our ticket to global prosperity. For him, innovation is the vital ingredient. He believes innovation only flourishes when people are included in it at every level of employment. And not just in places like Silicon Valley, but across a whole country. Phelps argues that if we don’t plug everyone in to creative and innovative work, it’ll be bad for the economy and society as a whole.

“Silicon Valley is just a small part of the economy – innovations have stopped in the heartland of the country. It’s the working-class people deeply connected to that heartland who’ve been suffering.”

Get new questions as they launch

Will the world always be this unpredictable?

In our Life’s Questions series, multi-award-winning tech entrepreneur Janneke Niessen, Co-Founder of Improve Digital, talks about the steps we can take to prepare ourselves for what may come.

"Artificial Intelligence will change the way we do things in a big way. And we have to prepare our next generation with the right skills, so they can play a role in a society where automation and robotics are key."

Janneke Niessen,
Co-Founder of Improve Digital

More questions shaping our world


Why is it that equality is still so elusive, while inequality is seen as normal and almost inevitable?


Why should we save, is it possible to invest without risk, and how can we all make the most of our finances?


How can we make sure that all aspects of our society work for everyone?


How can economics shed light on the way governments work and policy is made?


The nature of employment is changing, how do we prepare for jobs that don’t exist yet?