Towards a robot-based economy.
August 31, 2003 6:25 PM   Subscribe

Towards a robot-based economy. Lots of interesting ideas here regarding what might happen and possible solutions to economic and social problems when robotics and automation become as cheap as computers did in the 90s.
posted by skallas (20 comments total)
BTW, written by Marshal Brain, the founder of and something of a futurist.
posted by skallas at 6:29 PM on August 31, 2003

Easy solution: liquidate the excess population. I personally recommend packing them into shipping containers, and dumping said containers into the ocean. No fuss, no muss, and a whole lot cheaper than wars or civil unrest (the typical approach to these sorts of situations).
posted by aramaic at 6:32 PM on August 31, 2003

oh shit, i better buy some robot insurance.
posted by shadow45 at 6:34 PM on August 31, 2003

aramaic: That seems incredibly wasteful. Why not take this approach?
posted by fatbobsmith at 6:50 PM on August 31, 2003

posted by quonsar at 6:59 PM on August 31, 2003

Eh. People have worried about automation taking jobs for a long time. Take the automobile industry, for example. Robotic manufacturing has revolutionized that industry, but the automobile workers' union is still one of the strongest in the United States. There will always be jobs, they will just be different.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 7:21 PM on August 31, 2003

There will always be jobs, they will just be different.

Did you read the articles? The whole point is, with the embedded processors, sensors, and vast computing power, there will be little need for millions of workers.

And where are you getting your information about the strenght of unions?
posted by rough ashlar at 7:28 PM on August 31, 2003

the automobile workers' union is still one of the strongest in the United States
That's not saying much. ;-P
posted by mischief at 7:50 PM on August 31, 2003

Maybe I have a poor understanding of global economics, maybe I just smoke too much weed, but lately I've been in a bit of a paranoid "stock up on tinned food" mood.

1953: In general, only half the adult population (ie. the men) are working. Each worker earns enough to support his family. There are still loads of jobs that require hands-on workers.

2003: In general, it seems every adult has a job or wants one. I only know a couple of women who have decided to be "housewives". Both partners have to work to earn enough to support their family. Many jobs are automated, with companies employing far fewer staff, and traditional "low-education" jobs (ie. answering phones, making garments) are carried out off-shore.

Sure, new and "different" jobs exist now, but somehow the equation just doesn't seem to balance properly. I have a niggling feeling that us first-world types are going to get the shock of our lives soon. Please, someone explain to me otherwise.
posted by Jimbob at 8:18 PM on August 31, 2003

See also (sorry Jimbob)
posted by wobh at 8:19 PM on August 31, 2003

See also.
posted by majcher at 8:44 PM on August 31, 2003

God help us when the powergrid fails in 2020...
posted by romanb at 9:12 PM on August 31, 2003

"I want a raise!"
posted by clavdivs at 9:24 PM on August 31, 2003

Gee, all the futurists will get the shock of their lives when a freak electromagnetic pulse blasts through our solar system, injuring and killing few directly but indirectly dooming billions as our computer and electronics dependent civilization is knocked back to the stone age.

That is, of course, if the folks over at Woods Hole aren't correct in their prediction that a cessation in Ocean Circulation, known to be a key factor driving sudden, dramatic climate change, is underway. If they're right, well we've got much bigger problems than automation driven unemployment. But, in either Jim Lovelock advocated in a Science editorial a couple of years ago - we'd be smart to commit the best of current scientific knowledge to print, in a single (or several) large volumes printed on the most durable acid free paper, and widely distributed around the Globe.

I do think the Singularity is possible - but I'd bet my money on other possibilities.
posted by troutfishing at 10:13 PM on August 31, 2003

>electronics dependent civilization is knocked back to the stone age.

Actually, some of the critical military apparatus would still be functioning. The US and the USSR both feared an EMP blast so they built their cold war systems, especially the nuclear ones to be shielded and be ready. A lot of good nukes will do us if the EMP out of the blue strikes, but there will be some kind of powerful infrastructure controlled by the current powers that be. Everyone else will of course be screwed.

>as Jim Lovelock advocated in a Science editorial a couple of years ago

That reminds me a lot of some of the very early ideas surrounding the Xanadu proposal. Originally they talked about a network of satellites holding all important human knowledge to be floating around in space, accessible, and supposedly invulnerable to the worst. Still a paper bound encyclopedia in a bunch of safe locations would probably be just as secure if not moreso.

If you ignore the horseshit hypothesis of computers "waking up" (sheez, who let the Vinge huff so much paint?) the singularity is just the assumption that information and technology will change people and society considerably. Whose to say it hasn't already happened with a fully searchable web and almost ubiquitous net access? I guess we won't know until someone throws a parade or something.
posted by skallas at 10:59 PM on August 31, 2003


(1) If all you want is a 1953 standard of living, you probably wouldn't even need all of one wage-earner now. A small, poorly-insulated house with one bathroom and inefficient heating won't run you much, really (unless you're in California). More realistically, a shabby one-bedroom apartment would likewise be inexpensive in most parts of the country. You can probably find an old fridge and black-and-white tv for free or nearly so. A car of similar quality and safety (say, a Lada or Trabant) could probably be had for $2K or less. A lot of the wage increases since 1953 get sucked up in larger, better houses, more and vastly superior cars, and generically more and better stuff.

(2) I don't think women were out of the workforce in the 1950s by choice. They were forced out, and had to claw their way back in, even when their hubbies were earning enough to support them.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:02 PM on August 31, 2003

oh shit, i better buy some robot insurance.

Warning: Persons denying the existence of robots may be robots themselves.
posted by nath at 2:11 AM on September 1, 2003

ROU_Xenophobe - You're quite right that people's expectations of their standard of living are much higher than they were in the 40's, 50's and early 60's.

I suspect that one of the things that the middle class of the first world is likely to discover soon is that what is considered 'middle-class' to them is considered 'filthy-rich' to most of the world.

Unfortunately, the continued stability (such as it is) of the world economy seems to be at least partially predicated on the ability and willingness of a large middle class to buy new cars, designer clothes and other non-essential (and I mean really non-essential) items.

Like Jimbob, my spider-senses are tingling about what's going to happen when that middle class start to party like it's 1953 again...
posted by backOfYourMind at 6:08 AM on September 1, 2003

I think the robot stuff is a red herring. Robots have been transforming the workplace for the past hundred years, at least. Automation causes productivity to increase, which allows wages to rise without triggering inflation. That's good. Would you rather be a ditch digger or a backhoe operator?

The problem is that without a strong labor movement, and given the stagnant job market, there's no incentive to compensate workers for their increased productivity. Business interests have effectively killed the labor movement (with the help of the unions themselves), which is why real wages have been flat since the 1970s.

But just because the current administration refuses to give the economy any real stimulus (and why would they, when they benefit so much from cheap labor?), doesn't mean such a thing is impossible.
posted by electro at 9:24 AM on September 1, 2003

Rou_Xenophobe - Good point. Have Americans come to a point where they think they're poor unless the are driving Eddie Bauer edition Ford Explorers, or Lexuses, and living in 6,000 square foot mini-mansions? Put in those terms - comparing American affluence in 2003 to that in 1953 - the only index which ( I imagine ) has changed unfavorably would be access to open spaces, and to nature in general. Sprawl has gobbled up a lot of open space on the coasts. Sure, the per-capita population density in North America is still very low as compared to that of India or even Europe, but the Spanish colonization of the Americas started a population explosion unmatched in human history, and it's showing no signs of abating yet.

Skallas - Did you read Lovelock's piece? He notes that human civilizations do have lifespans and that, as much as we think we are somehow special, there is far more outside of our control than we care to admit. Global Warming may hold some nasty surprises in store (i.e. sudden climate shifts) but beyond the human impact on Earth, there are all sorts of possible disasters - extra terrestrial ones - which could knock us back to the stone age or worse. What would then be remembered, a thousand years hence, of our mighty civilization but legends and a few enigmatic plastic items held as holy relics? ( such as an ancient Mr. PotatoHead, for example ). This is the sort of problem that the Long Now folks had in mind, although I think Lovelock's suggestion is the more practical. And while we're at it, a few hundred monuments, with carved messages, strewn around the planet wouldn't hurt either. And pyramids last pretty well over the long haul, time has shown. When in doubt, build squat stone structures (the bigger, the better).
posted by troutfishing at 4:23 PM on September 1, 2003

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