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"This stuff isn't science fiction. The robots are here right now."
August 13, 2014 8:20 AM   Subscribe

Humans Need Not Apply. Video essayist CGP Grey explains why we need to start preparing for a post-human economy.
posted by ocherdraco (103 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
I found it comical that, midway through, the video was equating individual and creative potential with that of a horse.
posted by Nevin at 8:36 AM on August 13


The machine based economy of plenty has been forseen for over 100 years and the 1st political reaction was the Technocracy effort.

How is THIS time gonna be different?
posted by rough ashlar at 8:36 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


In case anyone else wondered what a video essayist is: "The Video Essay".
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:37 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


There was another part of the "essay" that talked about how 'bots will one day write your annual or quarterly report, and it makes me wonder if the essayist has ever worked in a bureaucracy, where such reports are always in some part meant to be political and persuasive.

On the other hand, automating discovery (in law) doesn't seem to be such a bad thing at all. The legal "industry" is very conservative and is highly resistant to change. This means that a lot of your money as a client is wasted paying a law firm to sift through documents (as is the case with discovery), charging a lot of money but relatively speaking adding very little value.

Culturally, law is going to resist automation. On top of that, it's a paper-based system. There was a local software engineering startup here that specialized in semantic search for legal documentation, but they went under. Automation seems to be a growing field for law, but I wonder how long it will take.
posted by Nevin at 8:56 AM on August 13 [4 favorites]


A terrifying thing about living in 2014 is that the odds that in 100 years humans are useless and we have no idea what to do with that fact and the odds that in 100 years we're living in a climate change nightmare with no energy and no water seem roughly equal.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:56 AM on August 13 [10 favorites]


Logically, human labor and machine labor can only co-exist in economic domains where demand is infinite. In the future, we will all be porn stars.
posted by XMLicious at 8:57 AM on August 13 [3 favorites]


in 100 years humans are useless and we have no idea what to do with that fact

Are we actually useful now?
posted by Foosnark at 9:01 AM on August 13 [3 favorites]


Bullshit. The only thing making us able to live in this utopian post-human economy is the moving of work to countries like India and China where we can pretend that the work is done by machines instead of by modern day slaves.

I haven't got an answer here, but the only way we can afford to "buy" stuff with the value created by labour saving robots is if that stuff is cheaply produced by Indonesian children.
posted by zoo at 9:02 AM on August 13 [10 favorites]


The potential military impact of automation is way scarier than the economic impact. An organization in control of sufficiently powerful automated drone weaponry wouldn't really need to worry about labor politics at all.
posted by fivebells at 9:07 AM on August 13 [4 favorites]


I recently set out to reread all of Kurt Vonnegut's novels, in the order they were published. I orignally thought I'd breeze through it really fast, because the stuff of his that I read back in high school was always a very quick read. However, his first book "Player Piano" has a more traditional narrative voice that makes it more slow-going. Anyway:

While reading, I keep thinking that it's a bit retro-futuristic, in that it's predicated on an extreme automation that's left most everyone unemployed, with the automation all being vacuum tube driven. That aside, though, the concerns of the book seem pretty relevant fifty years down the road.
posted by Ipsifendus at 9:08 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


Thank god I took out that huge robot insurance policy.
posted by mcstayinskool at 9:09 AM on August 13 [3 favorites]


Summary: humans will be confused with horses in the near future. It may already be happening.

Seriously, though, widespread 'good enough' automation will be a hard transition. A lot of people seem to conflate regular work with someone's worth as a person or value to society. Living with those idiots -- until they're all made redundant -- will be a lot of fun.

Then we have the problem of inadequate test suites and failure cascades in closely coupled automated homogenous systems. ( The future is bright... with the campfires of millions of technology outage refugees. )
posted by Kikkoman at 9:10 AM on August 13 [3 favorites]


Automation seems to be a growing field for law, but I wonder how long it will take.

Do you mean something other than e-discovery software? Because that's already a $1.4 billion market worldwide, projected to grow to $3.8 billion in the next few years.
posted by Longtime Listener at 9:15 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


I haven't got an answer here, but the only way we can afford to "buy" stuff with the value created by labour saving robots is if that stuff is cheaply produced by Indonesian children.

A local robot (thus saving container shipping costs) could conceivably be cheaper than an Indonesian sweatshop worker.

US jobs are back! (For robots)
posted by emjaybee at 9:17 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


This, not anything else, is the moral issue of our time. The staggering amount of wealth that will be generated by the new wave of automation can thrust us into the world of star trek or it can shove us into just about all of the science fiction written since 1980.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:20 AM on August 13 [8 favorites]


"We need to think about what to do when large amounts of the population are unemployable."

You could put it that way. Or you could say:

"Thanks to robots, most people won't need to work at all in the near future! They'll grow our food and make our stuff and clean up our messes!"

Are "jobs" an unalloyed good that is rapidly shrinking, or something we can live perfectly well without, provided we got things automated enough? Seems possible for the second one to be true.
posted by emjaybee at 9:28 AM on August 13 [3 favorites]


Are "jobs" an unalloyed good that is rapidly shrinking, or something we can live perfectly well without, provided we got things automated enough? Seems possible for the second one to be true.

Sure. So long as, along with the jobs, we also eliminate the requirement to pay for the things we need. It's going to suck to live in a future where every job (and, thus, paycheck) has been automated-away, but you still have to pay the power-bot to keep the lights on in your cardboard box.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:36 AM on August 13 [21 favorites]



A terrifying thing about living in 2014 is that the odds that in 100 years humans are useless and we have no idea what to do with that fact and the odds that in 100 years we're living in a climate change nightmare with no energy and no water seem roughly equal.

WHY NOT BOTH, Robots doing everything cause it's too dangerous to go outside!
posted by The Whelk at 9:42 AM on August 13 [5 favorites]


Sure, robots can imitate humans making human music, but call me when you have a bot that can make an Autechre song...
posted by symbioid at 9:42 AM on August 13 [3 favorites]


So long as Capitalism exists and engenders hatred of the unemployed and blame and stigma, this will be a problem. It's only a problem when Capital demands ever increasing returns by continually increasing "productivity" -- once productivity is reached by firing everyone, nobody will have money left except the ultra wealthy, and yachts won't make the economy go around. At some point you have to pay the serfs or there will be an uprising, either against the robots, against the capitalist pigs that created the situation, or both.

And guess who's making tons of robot military killing machines?

Lovely.

Think I may just have to move over to Dougiestan before shit hits the dougie-fan.
posted by symbioid at 9:46 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


Jobs are just a scheme for wealth distribution. There are other ways of distributing wealth, but, you know, Socialism.
posted by dudemanlives at 9:48 AM on August 13 [14 favorites]


At least as it currently stands, the problem is less with the technology itself than it is with who owns and controls the technology.

There seems to be a common and unexamined belief out there that easing the workload on people is going to somehow result in a reasonably egalitarian system, but when has that ever happened?

Most AIs aren't publicly owned, and they're not open source. There are people who control them and use them to their own benefit, just as there are people who control other systems and use those to their benefit.

I have no earthly idea what the economy is going to look like in another generation, but I don't think that technological advancements are going to naturally result in social advancements.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:49 AM on August 13 [3 favorites]


I don't really buy the whole "post-human economy" stuff.

The Industrial Revolution upended centuries of economic stability; the tractor and combine harvester decimated farming as far as human labor is concerned; globalization reduced entire cities to neutron-bombed shells of their former selves. "Work" carries on.

The definition of "work" is flexible enough, and society is built around it to such an extent, that the definition will change. Work is what you do all day. A whole lot of what we call "work" today would probably not have been regarded as work by someone a few generations back; it would seem suspiciously like 'doing nothing'. It is not inconceivable that the trend will continue, and that people a few decades or even generations from now will continue to go to "work", but the work won't be recognizable as such: it'll be design work and advertising and machine design/repair on the primary end, and then secondary service-sector jobs catering to those primary workers, and so on and so forth down the economic line.

At least for those who live in the industrialized world. In the rest of the world, given the truth in the old saying about humans being the only machines you can mass-produce with unskilled labor, there will still be a demand for sweatshops. The kids in the Indonesian shoe factory or the Chinese electronics fabricator will get to play the part of John Henry: they'll be constantly racing the machines, all the way to the bottom. (Political life in those countries might get...interesting, considering what happened to Europe during the equivalent period.)

But in general, I suspect that Western governments will create work if enough of it doesn't exist organically, because of the dangers of a large and restive unemployed population. I can see anything from the subsidization of automation-resistant industries (teaching, healthcare, etc.) to straightforward WPA-like makework projects, to military conscription. The military is the ultimate "zero productivity" job, after all, and you can tolerate a bigger unemployed underclass when you pay half of them to keep their boots on the face of the other half.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:51 AM on August 13 [3 favorites]


I was actually surprised, that was a pretty well done video. Even the subjects I know a lot about were over-simplified but not really wrong. In a previous life I was an automation engineer; I've personally replaced a dozen-person department with a 100-line perl script. The only things we couldn't trivially automate were things that we didn't have reasonable interfaces for (things that lived in people's heads or that lived in systems we couldn't interact with).

There's a reasonable case to be made that automation isn't even bigger already because of the supply shock of ~a billion unskilled workers being dumped on the world economy. I'm highly uncertain that's going to last. Costs of living in China and India are rising fast and there just aren't another billion workers to dump into the pot.
posted by Skorgu at 9:54 AM on August 13 [9 favorites]


A lot of people seem to conflate regular work with someone's worth as a person or value to society.

Yes, this is called "capitalism". And what this video is stating is that, if we continue to rely on the current economic model of being paid to do something do you can in turn afford to buy goods and services to support your existence, we are going to discover that those that hold the capital creating those goods and services no longer want to pay humans to do work at all.

This is, as they say, a problem.
posted by hippybear at 9:56 AM on August 13 [10 favorites]


Wouldn't.. at some point if nothing changes and things turn out like CGP is suggesting.. the scales tip in such a way that no one has a job and thus has no income to buy the things the bots are making?
posted by royalsong at 10:02 AM on August 13


And what this video is stating is that, if we continue to rely on the current economic model of being paid to do something do you can in turn afford to buy goods and services to support your existence, we are going to discover that those that hold the capital creating those goods and services no longer want to pay humans to do work at all.

And you might think the solution is for them pay people for not working, and then you have a new problem-- How are you going to make them?

Ultimately the only way to do it is going to be to seize their property by force, and once you get to that sort of situation, you have the problem of the people with the guns then being the new guys with the wealth, and the people who don't work still not getting anything.
posted by empath at 10:04 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


Okay, not to defend capitalism, but doesn't capitalism leave room for employment where things can't be automated? It's all a question of scale of course, but it seems to me that at some stage we're likely to have an economy where all the human workers deal in art, sex-work, or psychology. (Yeah, those will be automated eventually too, but they'll be among the last to go.)
posted by hjo3 at 10:05 AM on August 13


Since I figure the worst possible situation will happen, I imagine the effects of automation and climate change causes the US to kind of stumble backward into something like socialism but I bet it'll be some super shitty version of it where huge companies have no-bid contracts to feed the hungry and you have to put in enough work hours scrubbing pots before getting a meal token that can only be used at said corporate kitchen ( deserts are extra!) while another company builds and maintains the housing for the workers ( who, if not married, will sleep in barracks.)

Long story short, the US finally gets its plantations back, just like its always wanted.
posted by The Whelk at 10:09 AM on August 13 [10 favorites]


I have no idea who he means by 'we' in this video, since right off the bat he says almost none of us work in agriculture when in fact according to Wikipedia around one-third of the people on Earth work in agriculture...?

The global proletariat is also larger now than at any time in history.
posted by colie at 10:09 AM on August 13


it seems to me that at some stage we're likely to have an economy where all the human workers deal in art, sex-work, or psychology.

Yes, and an economy where 9 billion people are all making art, fucking, or analyzing each other is totally sustainable.
posted by hippybear at 10:09 AM on August 13 [2 favorites]


Because that's already a $1.4 billion market worldwide,

That might seem like a large number, but it's not really (if you think in global terms). The tech sector of the small city where I live (300,000 residents, with about 18,000 tech workers) generates revenues of about $3B a year.

So the e-discovery field is puny (on a global scale or even in an American context).
posted by Nevin at 10:11 AM on August 13 [4 favorites]


I have no idea who he means by 'we' in this video

When you're talking about automation, you're primarily referring to the most technologically advanced industrialized countries.
posted by empath at 10:11 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


When you're talking about automation, you're primarily referring to the most technologically advanced industrialized countries.


Like China? Where nobody works in agriculture.
posted by colie at 10:13 AM on August 13


Keep in mind as well that having a lot of people sitting around, unemployed, tends to lower wages and thus makes it practical to have people do activities that could be automated.

There are plenty of tasks that could be automated today, but are done by people, just because people happen to be cheaper. (Harvesting fruit, for instance.) If the cost of having humans do it increases, then you automate.

But the reverse is also true. If unemployment increases such that there are a lot of people looking desperately for any job that will pay them, then maybe it's not worth the investment in a multi-million-dollar robotic system when you can just hire somebody to stand there all day for $60.

I've actually seen this happen in warehouses. A big distribution center installed an automated picking system in the early 2000s, but found that the TCO of having people do it was actually lower, in their particular labor market. Part of this was because one of the big nearby employers closed down, and the labor market got suddenly very slack, with lots of people used to hard physical labor suddenly looking for jobs and willing to take minimum wage or not much better for it.

So there is a steady-state balancing point between automation and human activities which depends on a lot of factors, including the cost to automate a particular activity (i.e. how cheap are the robots), minimum wages and labor laws, local labor-market conditions, long term interest rates and other CAPEX calculation inputs, etc. Robotics and other types of automation are becoming cheaper and more capable, but there are other variables that affect the overall outcome.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:14 AM on August 13 [5 favorites]


US jobs are back! (For robots)

Made In USA By Robots
posted by Foosnark at 10:17 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


I've been thinking recently that the self-driving long haul tractor trailer is probably going to be one of the most "disruptive" (I hate that phrase, but it's accurate in this usage) technologies that could be introduced to the U.S. economy. Trucking is at the top of the list that's presented towards the end of the video - a huge number of jobs are wrapped up in putting people in trucks, and then sending them in one direction to transport goods. A robot is unquestionably preferable to a human, since it can conserve fuel to a specific algorithm, it can drive straight with minimal stopping, it runs a lower risk of wrecking and killing itself or someone else, and it can be fit into a small container thereby allowing for lighter vehicles or more storage.

It's interesting, given the stereotypical right-leaning political inclinations of truckers. I do wonder what sort of labor organizing you would see going on as automated trucks begin to replace human truckers.

Another thing that struck me is the idea of skilled jobs providing an on-demand service like (at the low end) barristas and (at the high end) doctors. I can't imagine the wealthy wanting a robot to do either one of those things, to be honest. So you'll see a hollowing out at the middle, where more and more people are unemployed or underemployed as their jobs are automated, but you'll still see human incarnatons of those jobs that service the high level managers who run the automated super-systems. Being the best barrista will allow you to service the rich as a luxury item, there's a huge gap, and then the rest of the population is on the outskirts.

Also, as others have said, this is examining a very specific western future, and ignoring the cheap or slave labor which goes on in many parts of the world where it's cheaper to treat your workers like objects instead of buying literal objects to do the work. On preview, what Kadin said.
posted by codacorolla at 10:17 AM on August 13 [2 favorites]


Like China? Where nobody works in agriculture.

China is actually kind of a weird situation because labor is so cheap that they haven't heavily automated.
posted by empath at 10:18 AM on August 13


I have no idea who he means by 'we' in this video, since right off the bat he says almost none of us work in agriculture when in fact according to Wikipedia around one-third of the people on Earth work in agriculture...?

You realize that that's a tiny number of historical terms, right? 70-80% of the United States labor force was employed in agriculture in 1870. The fact that only 1/3 of the population, even including less industrialized countries, is working in agriculture is proof of his point, not a counterargument.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:21 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


Actually, wages in China are rising rapidly. You're going to see some manufacturing (assembly, really) returning to the US.
posted by Nevin at 10:21 AM on August 13


David Graeber has been writing about issues related to this (here's a Salon article).

Not that long ago, there was a broad-based expectation in society that automation would lead to increased leisure time: that we would all benefit more or less equally.

That's gone. Today, the expectation (as exemplified in the video) is that a lot of people will be unemployable because labor is more expensive than robots. The holders of capital have been gaining power, and labor (where by "labor" I mean anyone who gets their income from working rather than investing) has been losing power, and capital can use automation to further its interests at the expense of labor. The video makes this seem like an iron law.

Of course, at some point, something's got to give. Those robots probably aren't going to be a worthwhile investment if they're only making trinkets for the 1% while the rest of us roam a desiccated landscape.
posted by adamrice at 10:25 AM on August 13 [3 favorites]


It's interesting, given the stereotypical right-leaning political inclinations of truckers. I do wonder what sort of labor organizing you would see going on as automated trucks begin to replace human truckers.

1) Not sure you can paint the trucking industry with such a broad brush as this. I come into contact with truckers on a very regular basis, and they run the full spectrum of political interest.

2) It's like you've never even heard of the Teamsters Union.
posted by hippybear at 10:27 AM on August 13 [3 favorites]


Of course, at some point, something's got to give. Those robots probably aren't going to be a worthwhile investment if they're only making trinkets for the 1% while the rest of us roam a desiccated landscape.

That's what the automated policebots and security drones are for.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:28 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


Bulgaroktonos: it's not a tiny percentage even compared to the old days, and for some reason the dude's graph showed zero people working in agriculture rather than 33 percent, but I take your point and you're right overall.
posted by colie at 10:28 AM on August 13


There does seem to be a hole here, though. If machines are putting masses of people out of work, who is buying all the stuff the machines are making? A tiny class of super-rich can't sustain the global economy as it is: even the wealthiest billionaires aren't buying a billion dollars worth of shoes each.

It seems like the current situation can't become totally automated because at some point you would have no market left to sustain the further growth of automation.
posted by Sangermaine at 10:32 AM on August 13


So I guess the only way to be safe going forward is to buy shares of companies that manufacture police/military drones. Great.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:32 AM on August 13


But the reverse is also true. If unemployment increases such that there are a lot of people looking desperately for any job that will pay them, then maybe it's not worth the investment in a multi-million-dollar robotic system when you can just hire somebody to stand there all day for $60.

During the interim period (which I think we are already in) this may be true; long-term, assuming continued advances in robotics, robots get cheap enough to undercut any human labor, especially when you factor in that they have no need for rest periods or nutrition (although we are going to have to solve more of our energy issues at some point).

If there is no civilization-destroying event (climate change disasters overwhelming all of us, nuclear war, asteroid impact, Yellowstone supervolcano), we are eventually all going to be superfluous, in labor terms. Except for whatever oversight we install for various machine functions and of course, politicians and lawyers, artists and performers, all of whom will exist to manage distinctly human relational needs, because basic survival needs will have been solved.

"But how will we pay for things?" assumes money is anything but a means to obtain goods and services. If we are automated enough that goods and services are obtainable by all, and the bots that produce it are self-repairing, then the only "cost" is energy, which again, we still have to solve for. In other words, if you have a replicator you don't need much cash.

That doesn't mean the path from here to there won't be littered with bloody uprisings and virtual enslavement. It's sadly very likely that we will not make this transition smoothly. But I think we are headed towards it no matter what we do.

Of course, at some point, something's got to give. Those robots probably aren't going to be a worthwhile investment if they're only making trinkets for the 1% while the rest of us roam a desiccated landscape.

That's what the automated policebots and security drones are for.


The most pessimistic option is that the richest 1% simply slaughter everyone else and let the robot servants care for them. Keeping slaves is far too problematic, in comparison, if you don't need their labor.

But again, if there is no scarcity, is there a real 1%?
posted by emjaybee at 10:34 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]



2) It's like you've never even heard of the Teamsters Union.


Of course I have. You're misreading what I wrote. I was wondering about how the current state of labor organization would change as automated trucking becomes prevalent across the industry.

You also seemed to miss that I put in "stereotypical" to describe the political leanings that truckers are often represented as having.
posted by codacorolla at 10:34 AM on August 13


I notice when talking about horses the stick figure suddenly has a bottle of glue on its desk.
posted by ckape at 10:35 AM on August 13 [4 favorites]


I think stereotyping is a bad way to approach any group that is as numerous and encompasses as wide a range of people as the trucking industry, both long-haul and local transport.
posted by hippybear at 10:36 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


There does seem to be a hole here, though. If machines are putting masses of people out of work, who is buying all the stuff the machines are making? A tiny class of super-rich can't sustain the global economy as it is: even the wealthiest billionaires aren't buying a billion dollars worth of shoes each.

It seems like the current situation can't become totally automated because at some point you would have no market left to sustain the further growth of automation.


Not sure that's 100% the case due to the rise of 3d printers and so on. With limited amounts of natural resources left to exploit, 'economies of scale' might not be as useful as they once were. The future might be 'replicators' creating goods on an as-needed basis from recycled materials.
posted by empath at 10:37 AM on August 13


emjaybee: "But again, if there is no scarcity, is there a real 1%?"

See, that's the nub of the problem. As Gore Vidal said "It is not enough merely to win; others must lose."
posted by adamrice at 10:40 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


1) we already have the test case for what will happen as more skilled labour is replaced by capital, I believe it's called "structural unemployment", and the fiscal response to this does not make me optimistic.

2) While computers beat humans at chess, human + computer beats computer handily, so there is still value-add in at least this arena. I think that for white-collar workers, there will be a hybridization where the role of "automation engineer" and "worker" are combined into one mega-productive robocop-esque worker of the future. Watching this happen, or fail to happen, at the large corporation with ingrained ideas about the capacity of their managers will be vary interesting, in my opinion.
posted by The Ted at 10:40 AM on August 13 [4 favorites]


2) While computers beat humans at chess, human + computer beats computer handily, so there is still value-add in at least this arena. I think that for white-collar workers, there will be a hybridization where the role of "automation engineer" and "worker" are combined into one mega-productive robocop-esque worker of the future. Watching this happen, or fail to happen, at the large corporation with ingrained ideas about the capacity of their managers will be vary interesting, in my opinion.

My job is largely to automate my own job. Someone gives me some tedious task like "Check to make sure that all of the dhcp leases are for approved devices" and rather than, you know, spend a week looking up each ip and checking our inventory management software make sure that the device belongs there, I spend a few hours writing a script to do it, then I never think about it again. A computer, as of today, couldn't manage the actual script writing part of it yet, and won't be able to for a very long time. I spend far more time trying to understand our automated systems and the connections between them than I do actually either 'doing work' or automating things. I think there is always going to be need for that sort of work.

I think if you don't want to be a slave to the machines in that kind of worst-case fully-automated dystopia, you should be learning how to program them.
posted by empath at 10:50 AM on August 13 [3 favorites]


There does seem to be a hole here, though. If machines are putting masses of people out of work, who is buying all the stuff the machines are making?

That's why I think you'll end up with government intervention to stop unemployment. If you start to see significant demand destruction, there will eventually be calls from both capital and labor to do something to restart the economy.

I mean, we saw a miniature version of that back in 2008, although not across the board — just in housing. And the government stepped in and created a huge incentive program to get people to buy houses.

So, my prediction is that if automation started to create a huge unemployment shock, the government would start to pull various levers to create employment, including synthesizing jobs directly (WPA, military, college scholarships that pull people out of the job market, etc.). The government can, of course, just print money to pay for this stuff, which is a well-known tradeoff: inflation vs. unemployment. Some people would scream about inflation, but I suspect the pressure to not let demand collapse would be overwhelming.

So what might occur is that the government basically starts printing money in order to keep people in zero-productivity jobs (dig hole, fill up hole, repeat...), so that they can then take that money and buy shit from robot factories, and also employ people in secondary / service-sector jobs, etc. Keynesian stimulus, pure and simple. I question the long-term sustainability of that, but then again I also question the sustainability of technological civilization generally.

There are other levers that the government can pull as well, although they haven't been used in a while. Price controls, for instance. Or they could just tax the hell out of automation systems, which seems not exactly likely now, but could be more politically possible if there were a lot more people sitting around hating on robots.

What you might eventually end up with is almost but not quite a Basic Guaranteed Income: you go to the WPA site, dig your hole and fill it up, and get a government chit that lets you buy stuff (made by robots), at prices that are fixed so they don't collapse, and then the government recoups some of that cash flow from the robot factory operators in taxes to keep inflation from going completely out of control. You could fake 'capitalism' for quite a long time that way, if you were inclined to. It would all be a farce, of course, but such is life.

At some point you would probably need to buy raw materials from other countries (e.g. petroleum) and that's where you can get into a lot of trouble. It's not hard to make a little pass-the-buck economy work in a vacuum, but when you have to trade with other economies it can all fall apart. If you don't export anything of value that people in other economies want to buy, it's pretty difficult to import raw materials. The US is a lot less fucked than other countries in that regard, though.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:55 AM on August 13 [4 favorites]


Nevin: "Actually, wages in China are rising rapidly. You're going to see some manufacturing (assembly, really) returning to the US."

Umm, I think you mean Cambodia.
posted by symbioid at 10:56 AM on August 13


Transcript?
posted by klangklangston at 10:59 AM on August 13


Umm, I think you mean Cambodia.

And Burma. It may be off the radar for you, but SE Asia, notably Burma is a huge growth area at the moment. There is a ton of potential.

Manufacturing will be and currently is heading to Africa. The next decade is an exciting time.

Personally, I don't see what the attraction is of assembling iPhones or making shoes. We should be aiming higher.

The problems with employment in the US is more to do with education than anything else. We need to have higher expectations for our societies. If we educate more people it will do more to combat unemployment than anything else.
posted by Nevin at 11:02 AM on August 13


If we educate more people it will do more to combat unemployment than anything else.

1) Go to school
2) Get higher degree
3) ???
4) Profit!
posted by hippybear at 11:06 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


And Burma. It may be off the radar for you, but SE Asia, notably Burma is a huge growth area at the moment. There is a ton of potential.

Manufacturing will be and currently is heading to Africa. The next decade is an exciting time.


But there must be an end-point to this. If manfuacturing shifts to China, then SE Asia, then Africa or wherever, eventually there will be nowhere left to go for cheaper human manufacturing. What then?

Eventually everywhere will be automated as robots get cheaper and cheaper and standards of living rise. Some day there won't be anywhere people are willing to toil all day for pennies because wages have risen, and machines will be very cheap.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:07 AM on August 13


Kadin2048; in the long run, why would the government bother to do that, when just giving people what they want would be cheaper? If you have a fake job, you need a supervisor and enforcement mechanisms to make you do it/track your progress/punish you (by letting you starve? Sending you to jail?) if you don't do it. All of that seems more expensive than just saying "show your citizen card, get basic clothes/food/housing made for very little by automation."

I'm not saying your proposed kabuki-capitalism couldn't be tried, but I think it would collapse quickly under its own weight. Also, people hate pointless work and so a market in fake chits would spring up instantly.

Now where it gets interesting, capitalism wise, is that if the government did, say, give people a basic set of clothes (Let's say, grey pants, white shirts, basic black shoes) there would immediately be a market for modifications and jewelry. The government would not make those, they are not necessary for survival, but someone would. But if few people have money; how do they pay? Barter maybe; informal currencies, perhaps. Perhaps you can earn credits by turning in old junk for recycle (as part of a cleanup program). Grandma's old terabyte drive might net you a new pair of custom kicks.
posted by emjaybee at 11:12 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


I was in Chichen Itza a couple of weeks ago, and the tour guide pointed out that the people had basically nothing to do for several months out of the year because nothing grew during the dry season. So the priesthood got people to build pyramids.

Now, I don't think it's because the priesthood particularly liked pyramids. I think they did it to keep people busy. Because a bunch of relatively well-fed people with nothing to occupy their time might start to wonder about why they don't have as much stuff as you do, and figure out ways to get it.

So I'm not sure that a guaranteed minimum income in the absence of 'work' will be enough to guarantee some kind of social stability, as long as there is still a huge difference in wealth between the haves and the have-nots. Very few people will be satisfied with hand-outs, ultimately.
posted by empath at 11:40 AM on August 13 [3 favorites]


THE SOLUTION IS CLEAR

WE NEED TO BUILD MORE PYRAMIDS
posted by The Whelk at 11:42 AM on August 13 [13 favorites]


emjaybee listen to yourself for a moment and consider the topic...

why would the government bother to do that, when... need a supervisor ...more expensive

The beauty of inefficient, make-work schemes is the more inefficient they are, the more work they make.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 12:24 PM on August 13 [1 favorite]


Umm, I think you mean Cambodia.

And Burma


"The electronic I Ching calculator was badly made. It had probably been manufactured in whichever of the South-East Asian countries was busy tooling up to do to South Korea what South Korea was busy doing to Japan."

- Douglas Adams The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
posted by Panjandrum at 12:27 PM on August 13 [2 favorites]


To be pessimistic, it should be noted that the "winter" dry season in Mesoamerica was actually when military campaigns were carried out, which is another way of keeping masses of people busy.
posted by Panjandrum at 12:30 PM on August 13


Wait, humans are still around? Damnit, I just sprayed the place the other day! Sheesh.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:36 PM on August 13


To be pessimistic, it should be noted that the "winter" dry season in Mesoamerica was actually when military campaigns were carried out, which is another way of keeping masses of people busy.

Not to mention their other method of keeping unemployment down.
posted by empath at 12:36 PM on August 13 [1 favorite]


If there is no civilization-destroying event, we are eventually all going to be superfluous, in labor terms.

We have to get through the fossil fuel bottleneck too, and that doesn't look likely, at least on a level that won't require us to reduce our population by a lot.
posted by MillMan at 12:44 PM on August 13


It's interesting that these technologies are coming online at exactly the same historical period that neoreactionary ideologies are multiplying and ramifying. Such ideological movements are an emergent property of our time, arising from an understanding--or at least intuition, no matter how dimly perceived--that political and moral theories (i.e., justifications) may be needed to once again support strong dominance hierarchies, including even the possibility of mass extermination by either active or passive means ("reduced carrying capacity").

Production that is globally sustainable, and egalitarian distribution of excess "productivity", will only come by force--at the very least mass political force, but possibly more direct. Does anyone here want to make the case that history supports any other expectation?

That said, the technovisionaries, like the transhumanists, are in a footrace with global collapse. Given the tipping-point nature of our current epoch, nonlinearities are greatly in play, so small changes in conditions will have large changes in how things develop.
posted by mondo dentro at 12:59 PM on August 13 [3 favorites]


Robots will never write think pieces, let alone produce nifty video essays, will they? Because the demand for these seems to be infinite.

Robots are also really bad at motivating learning (look at MOOC retention rates).
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:13 PM on August 13


A computer, as of today, couldn't manage the actual script writing part of it yet, and won't be able to for a very long time.

I really really doubt that second part, unless your very long time is much shorter than mine.
posted by PMdixon at 1:35 PM on August 13


So, basically, a feudal society of the 0.1% nobility patronizing the starving artists and court jesters and poets and astronomers, then?

The rest of the 99% can sit on the couch and watch reality TV all day while the AmazonMart drones drop off their guaranteed basic supplies at the back porch. Maybe they'll start adding nitre to food to slow down the breeding.

How do I change the channel on this dystopia again?
posted by RedOrGreen at 1:51 PM on August 13 [1 favorite]


"Robots will never write think pieces..."

The Thomas Friedman OpEd Generator, previously on Metafilter.

Also, Metafilter: another way of keeping masses of people busy.
posted by straw man special at 1:51 PM on August 13 [3 favorites]


"...how 'bots will one day write your annual or quarterly report, and it makes me wonder if the essayist has ever worked in a bureaucracy, where such reports are always in some part meant to be political and persuasive."

The dystopian future the bots don't need to replace, they only need to displace--the piece offers an unemployment figure upwards of 45%. The bureaucracy doesn't go away it just gets smaller. Just imagine how for many years lots of printers had a job to set lead type. Then phototype reduced the workforce to a handful of people necessary to layout the page for film plates. Then the computer eliminated their jobs, eliminated the film, and now high volume printers go direct to plate. The layers of separate individual products involved in the workflow of printing (writing, editing, layout, approving, proofing, makeready, wot wot) all got squished down by electronic files. That's what the narrator is speaking about when he says people lose their jobs for no fault of their own. The writer puts their text into a template and arguably 6 documents squished down to 3, and certainly one or more human laborers in between.

That said, I read an interesting article suggesting the innovation of containerization in the shipping industry was due in part to the misguided stranglehold of unions. Unions had the power to strike on individual basis and could disrupt shipping in a more or less haphazard way. So one critique says it was Union's failure to act in the interest of the workers long term that lead to the container innovation.
posted by xtian at 1:55 PM on August 13


Here's a synopsis of the containerization innovation. Its the only link that isn't behind pay wall or requires you to take a Coursera course.
posted by xtian at 2:06 PM on August 13


I've been framing out my personal book-length antidote to the deluge of exhausting, tiresome futureless apocalyptiphilia and post-apocalyptic standard-issue dystopias and Kurzweilish pervokinky orgiastic snuff fantasies of magical ejaculatory nanomagical transcendence to literal godhead status on Earth, and the role of humans in my science fictional future isn't bracketed by the tired not-very-old system of industrial overload—it's predicated on the idea of what might happen if a whole generation came up that looked out over the laid-out future of dead factories and deader prairie dog cubicle farms and said "yeah, we really don't feel like playing your game."

All those tools that are supposed to render us superfluous could just as easily wipe out the monstrous social and financial gestalt machinery of a faceless corporate culture of the expected in favor of something better, and smaller, and more human.

What if we destroyed a civilization, but left behind all that was good about that civilization?

Maybe I'm just an optimist, but optimism doesn't run on silicon.
posted by sonascope at 2:06 PM on August 13 [6 favorites]


Apocalyptiphilia. Like it! I also like "doomer porn". As terminology, I mean.

Actually, you've got a lot of stuff there I'm gonna steal...
posted by mondo dentro at 2:09 PM on August 13


>"The definition of "work" is flexible enough, and society is built around it to such an extent, that the definition will change. Work is what you do all day."

This should be the opening statement of an economics thesis. Or a pep talk for other western countries.
posted by xtian at 2:16 PM on August 13 [1 favorite]


what might happen if a whole generation came up that looked out over the laid-out future of dead factories and deader prairie dog cubicle farms and said "yeah, we really don't feel like playing your game."

A different but also terrible outcome. Pristine revolutionary change is also an old fantasy. The problem is that the overthrow of the bad stuff in today's world will be done by humans and not perfect angels, and will likely just result in a different set of assholes with different priorities and miseries in power.

All those tools that are supposed to render us superfluous could just as easily wipe out the monstrous social and financial gestalt machinery of a faceless corporate culture of the expected in favor of something better, and smaller, and more human.

Wasn't this done in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and other works by Cory Doctorow (e.g., "Nimby and the Dimension Hoppers")? I remember this being a thing in SF about 10 years ago. It seems like it's just a variant on the transhuman utopianism of the 90s.
posted by Sangermaine at 2:22 PM on August 13


@sonascope, What do you mean? I certainly feel this statement is poetic if nothing else.
posted by xtian at 2:33 PM on August 13


@sonascope, What do you mean? I certainly feel this statement is poetic if nothing else.

Which statement in particular?
posted by sonascope at 2:37 PM on August 13


Which statement in particular?
I took the text as a series of run-on sentences, so I took them all as one "statement" or text.

If you felt strongly about one clause or phrase, you could elaborate on that. If you like. Or is this Oxford Style debate, and I have to pick a side?
posted by xtian at 2:49 PM on August 13


I guess my gist, or at least the core of the little novel I'm sketching out on the topic, is that I think there's a whole lot of pent-up interest in a kind of life that's peripheral or alternative to what we've been doing for the past hundred years or so, but that doesn't require an all-out revolution or single wave of cultural change inasmuch as modern technologies and automation can let us recolonize parts of the world we've abandoned.

In 2004, I lost my job in a dying field in which I'd worked for 18 years. I was a crackerjack master of everything microfilm, having grown up in the business, and was making a decent transition into the digital extension of that field, but the ethos change, I got sick and tired of the work, and my sick and tired got me quick and fired, and that, at least for one bright, shiny moment, was just fine.

I had a backup plan. I own 0.56 acres of mountainside in West Virginia, with a shitty, run-down cabin, a well, and and trains running through my front yard, the Potomac just across the tracks, and enough clear space to grow a big portion of my own diet. I drew up spreadsheets and worked through bills and taxes and old receipts and expenses to speculate and project possible economies. I researched green architecture and satellite connections, worked out that I could replace the ruinous cabin with something based on earthship or earthbag principles. Found where I could point a satellite dish for internet access, and where I could build a rack of solar panels. Worked out the math of maintaining an old truck for moving heavy stuff and keeping a little Honda underbone for running into the nearest towns.

I could have done it, and lived up there in decent comfort, with niceties and still connected to the world, with health insurance and everything, able to watch Firefly on my laptop, for about $5000-$6000 a year, and this was 2004.

As it turns out, I was headhunted by a great museum for a project in 2006 that turned into a full-time job that led to another full-time job, and I didn't get to test my plan, but ten years later, watching the way the floods of ground-level DIY maker technology are coming in, I think there's a whole level of world-changing machinery out there.

Back in 1999, I had to stop driving my beat-up old Citroën Dyane because the door latches were all made of breaking thirty-two year-old plastic that you couldn't find for love nor money, but in 2014, I could just have a friend print a set for me out of plastic worlds better than 1967 plastic, had I not surrendered a hair too soon. The capacity to fix and upgrade and repurpose things with the technology that's supposed to be replacing us is out there, and I think there's a pent-up feeling in millennials that they just don't want to be stuck with our stupid old system. Why struggle to catch up to the old rules of generating respectability, and inconceivable debt, and try to play a game that's clearly failed, and clearly handed the reins of the world to the sickly money-grubbing inheritors of our old monarchic histories?

Driving through the parts of the American South on my way to family affairs in Georgia, I take the road less traveled by and I'm always struck by the huge realms of places gone fallow out there and the possibility. Pull into some of the little towns along the way, and there are whole abandoned factories standing behind faded real estate signs, and I've called my share of 'em, and gone to look at empty warehouses and churches and old motels where each room is its own little cabin, and you'd be amazed how cheap everything is. Go in with ten friends, buy a dead factory for $50k, build a little village of tiny houses in the vast inside spaces like castle citadels, throw up satellite dishes and build a network, attract more people to your maker-friendly spaces, and start changing the landscape.

It's not time yet, but soon.

In the past, we all had to go to the cathedral for indulgences and to the king to grovel, but what if all those disruptive technologies weren't just building human-free factories and soulless businesses? Young people are the masters of any new technology, and they're getting fed up after finding out how they're getting stuck with the bill from a century of anti-human living. Who needs violent revolution when you can just get your hands on the switch and take it away from the old masters?

Yeah, I know, but
posted by sonascope at 3:31 PM on August 13 [19 favorites]


Humanity needs a new frontier. We need colonies where the unemployed can seek out their fortunes. Let's go to space.
posted by Apocryphon at 3:46 PM on August 13 [2 favorites]


Robots are going to keep replacing jobs, sure. Should we be worried? As I see it, there are two questions: how fast and how will it affect bargaining power?

Productivity is actually increasing pretty slowly right now (as it has been since ~2005), which means that we are not making workers obsolete very fast at all. And yet everyone is worrying that robots are going to cause big unemployment problems in the future. We have unemployment problems now that have nothing to do with automation--that may even stem from low productivity growth.

The large lists of jobs in automation's crosshairs will not be replaced immediately. It's going to look more like the rollout of self-service kiosks at grocery stores: they will add a few while keeping some employees and gradually phase most of them out.

People spend a LOT of money on things that aren't governed by raw efficiency. We often pay a premium when it's supplied by a human precisely because it is supplied by a human (e.g. restaurants vs microwave meals, or hiring a live quartet to play at a wedding). Consumer habits and business models are slow to change. I'm not saying they won't, just that it's easy to be alarmist about huge change happening quickly when it's very unlikely.

The bargaining power aspect is the real issue, I think. Basically, we need to make sure our democratic institutions (ones that distribute political and economic power) keep up with our changing economies. Because technology has been doing an end-run around them recently, using national borders and other tricks to increase the power of capital owners. Sure, tech has democratized information and accountability in some respects, but it has vastly centralized power in the economy. As tech continues to remake the workplace and the production process we need to make sure our institutions evolve as well.
posted by ropeladder at 4:03 PM on August 13 [1 favorite]


sonoscope: Gramsci said "I'm a pessimist because of my intelligence, but I'm an optimist because of my will."

Technology won't save us: it really depends on the choices we make as individuals and as a society. By the same token, technology alone won't doom us.

I've pretty much (but not completely) given up on conventional, party-centric activism and now spend my "political" energy on community-based relocalization/transition efforts. My sense is that millions around the world are working to do the kinds of things you're talking about, to whatever extent they can, in their communities. We need more. Alternative currencies and financing, barter networks, worker-owned businesses, permaculture, community energy projects, regional food networks, affordable zero-energy and zero-water dwellings, local manufacturing and the "internet of things"... That's definitely where the action, excitement, and optimism is for me. I've deepened existing friendships and made many new. It's telling how it's also a very demographically and even politically mixed bunch of people, the crowd seeking to do these sorts of things. It really is pushing us to get past conventional left-right thinking, at least as defined by the existing order.

The cool thing is that, for the time being, communities (and individuals) can work on various projects like this pretty much under the radar. But make no mistake: power will view these activities as a threat, and at some point will respond. I see no benefit in making pretend humans aren't prone to form hierarchical societies, and that coercive power, including naked violence, is a big part of that. It's better for all of us to go into that future with our eyes wide open. And, like you said, who knows? Maybe we'll get lucky!
posted by mondo dentro at 4:14 PM on August 13 [3 favorites]


The staggering amount of wealth that will be generated by the new wave of automation can thrust us into the world of star trek

Sure, if you like boring geology lectures and fake booze that doesn't even get you wasted and if you hate and fear everything intelligent that isn't unimproved meat.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:02 PM on August 13


You said it yourself, the old masters lured you back with a great gig. Who would blame you for taking the normal route? Christopher McCandless went into the wild and never came back.

My chosen profession underwent heady change in the space of 5 years. Within another 5 years it completely crippled--right when I was ready to break the code to the meaning of life! Even as change was upon me I retooled, so to speak, but change today is just too fast.
posted by xtian at 5:17 PM on August 13


Was this video recorded using a robot voice?
posted by pallen123 at 9:45 PM on August 13


What? No. That's CGP Grey's normal voice.
posted by ocherdraco at 10:29 PM on August 13


Strictly speaking, this video commits the lump of labor fallacy.

If you think about what people with enough money for essentials want, it's very often the services of other people. They want to be sold things, taught things, receive coaching and therapy. They want to be engaged and excited.

The owners of the robots will want those things too; there may be fewer boring office jobs, but there will be more jobs as psychologists, trainers, marketers, tour guides, and teachers.

Whether there's enough new jobs to replace the old ones depends on how the profits from robot ownership are distributed. Let's institute a basic income guarantee so we can serve each other rather than just the CEOs.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:56 AM on August 14


My 5 year old son keeps telling me that when we are old, he will take our brains and put my wife and I into robots so we won't die. He fully plans to transition to a robot himself some time later. So bring on the robo-future, because my little mad scientist is pretty sure I'll be ready for it.

I have no idea where he came up with this. I certainly never told him cybernetics was a possibility. But he acts like this is no big deal, just a matter of common sense - make dad and mom into robots, then keep us oiled so we won't rust...
posted by caution live frogs at 5:40 AM on August 14 [2 favorites]


"in 100 years humans are useless"
I doubt that it will take so long.
Let me make a prediction with 50% probability that at least lone of these things will happen in the next 30 years or with 90% probability in the next 50 years.

* Break down of our civilization based on debt accumulation and energy requirements (both are connected). [1,2,3,4]

* Technological singularity happening

* World war happening that makes look WWI and WWII like birth day parties.

I personally don't think the future is looking too good. The odds are against us.

But I give a 100% probability that the next "future outlook" by THE ECONOMIST at the end of the year will state that the world has never been better and we are looking for a golden future.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 6:12 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


If you think about what people with enough money for essentials want, it's very often the services of other people. They want to be sold things, taught things, receive coaching and therapy. They want to be engaged and excited.

The owners of the robots will want those things too; there may be fewer boring office jobs, but there will be more jobs as psychologists, trainers, marketers, tour guides, and teachers.


There will be some of those (along with the artists and poets that people always like to talk about in these conversations), but there will be many more retail clerks, call center workers, fast-food cashiers, waiters, busboys, and Walmart greeters, paid nearly nothing, with no job security or control over their work. As their duties become ever more rigidly defined, they are expected basically to simulate robots in most respects except that they must also perform the emotional make-work of providing the customer with experience of servility, which a computer cannot do.

I say "will be," but this is basically our economy now. All of the jobs mentioned above have seen massive growth during the period of accelerating automation we have undergone in the past few decades. As automation proceeds there will be fewer and fewer other kinds of jobs, but we are already a ways down this road.

Given the enthusiasm that most of the ruling class has shown for these developments and the defeatism of the working class I don't see much reason for optimism.
posted by enn at 7:01 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]


I think the singularity is the new fusion-is-just-twenty-years-away, but fortunately so, because thinking faster and merging into the new goo wouldn't be half as good as discovering that humans only use 10% of their compassion and figuring out how to use it all.
posted by sonascope at 11:30 AM on August 14


I still suspect that the singularity is not going to include humans at all.
posted by hippybear at 11:51 AM on August 14


There is a lot of cheerleading without concrete proposals here, but obviously many folks folks are missing the point, like anotherpanacea.

We definitely do not want to be sold thing by other humans, that's fucking ridiculous. An explanation is sometimes nice, but the sale, oh hell no.

We're automating education more aggressively that most white collar work, largely because the feds pay fraudulent degree mills, but the problem appears tractable. There are however now serious people, including Ivy league institutions, seeking to put the frauds out of business by actually automating education correctly.*

In particular, We can fix MOOC retention rates far more easily than retention rates for normal universities

There is an enormous field called epidemiology dedicated to not just automating therapy, treatment, etc., but actually making them almost wholly unnecessary. And drugs will magnify the effectiveness of therapy.

*Imagine a world where a insanely cheap online degree from MIT is second only to a full campus degree from MIT, Berkeley, etc. We'd still use physical universities to give the rich or driven a leg up since meeting your tutor face-to-face improved performance, yet even important state schools would not design a curriculum or lecture series that out performed the free MIT ones.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:19 PM on August 14



Hi Straw man ..."The Thomas Friedman OpEd Generator" gave me an interesting view of the future, it looks like we're going to have a boom in bad writing as computers are good at using redundant metaphors and non sequitors.
The futures going to bring lots of; bad financial analysis, bad music criticism, bad Marxist writing and bad prose poetry.
The first casuality is editors on men's magazines which typically have atrocious English and bad paragraph construction. (Apparently the readers like it that way)
posted by Narrative_Historian at 3:05 AM on August 15


Humanity needs a new frontier. We need colonies where the unemployed can seek out their fortunes. Let's go to space.

Eventually, sure. But we have a lot of problems to solve first. Conveniently, many of them (self-contained food production, energy, sustainable practices in general that you would need for, say, a Mars colony) are things we need to solve here on Earth too. Solve it here and your path to space is a lot easier.
posted by emjaybee at 3:52 PM on August 17


Isn't space travel a wee bit expensive for the unemployed, Apocryphon? And space exploration has become more machines dominated than almost any other human activity.

We'll eventually develop strong AIs that surpass humans at basically everything, including designing strong AIs. At that point we'll start just settling other solar systems using them rather than ourselves. I'd expect we'll settle the Moon and maybe Mars, with actual humans before that point, but still.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:04 AM on August 18


I was being idealistic- if anything, the inherently dangerous (for humans) environment of space will mean even more automation than on Earth, and we'll essentially have a Blade Runner situation where our off-world (and off-screen) Martian colonies are staffed by enslaved robots.
posted by Apocryphon at 10:32 AM on August 18




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