DailyDirt: What Will The Robot Economy Look Like?

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Algorithms have already quietly crept into nearly every part of our lives, helping us to search the internet and connect with friends and to find matching personalities for dates. Soon, we’ll have cars that drive us — and some old Yakov Smirnoff jokes won’t make any sense. But how will people adapt to a ‘robot economy’ where everything is done by robots — and we can’t even play games without knowing that the computers are just letting us win?

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Comments on “DailyDirt: What Will The Robot Economy Look Like?”

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Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

Automation Isn’t New

There seems to be a lot scaremongering nowadays, as though the trend of automatic machinery taking over tedious, unpleasant or dangerous jobs is something new.

This goes right back to Ned Ludd and the early days of the Industrial Revolution. And if you think the trend is somehow worse now, note that, back then, if you lost your job, you and your family could starve to death. That’s rather less likely now…

kyle clements (profile) says:

Re: Automation Isn’t New

The difference is that in the past, automation was large, dumb, singularly focused, and prohibitively expensive, with automation costing so much only large scale factories could afford the machines.

New automation is cheap, flexible, and smart. The world has never seen anything like this before.

This time, it will be different.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Automation Isn’t New

The only things that the world hasn’t seen before are matters of scale rather than substance. New automation is not fundamentally different than automation ever has been — it’s just cheaper and smaller.

Every time that technology has changed enough to be considered an “age” or somesuch, those who fear it argue that “this time it will be different” while articulating the same fears as before.

It’s never been true yet. Well that’s a half-lie. In reality, every time it is different, it’s just different in a way that nobody expects. It’s just change, and change happens. We humans hate and fear change, but we are pretty good at adapting to it.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Automation Isn’t New

“but it’s coming”

That’s highly speculative and very debatable. Certainly a worthy conversation to have, certainly, but what you’re talking about is nowhere near a sure thing. In my opinion, there’s no solid reason to even think that it’s likely (my reasoning why is a bit complex for a comment).

But even if that day does come, it won’t be within the next few generations at the fastest.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Automation Isn’t New

That’s highly speculative and very debatable.

I can’t imagine how it’s anything but inevitable.

But even if that day does come, it won’t be within the next few generations at the fastest.

It could 100 or even 200 years. But to think that we might stop making robots better seems ridiculous to me, and assuming they keep getting better, sooner or later they’ll be as good as we are at everything. Then they will keep getting better, and the human-grade robots will get cheaper. At some point it will be cheaper to buy a robot to do a job than to hire a human to do it. That point has already come for some jobs in some countries, but given enough time all jobs everywhere will get there (assuming our civilization lasts long enough).

Maybe the improvement will take off rapidly as some predict or maybe it will be slow and steady, but if you have some reason why it would permanently halt I’d love to hear it.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Automation Isn’t New

I never said that progress would permanently halt. What I assert is that there will always be things that humans do better than robots — and if the day comes that a robot can do those things as well, they aren’t robots. They’re humans.

But, the less speculative answer is this: robots (like computers) are nothing more than prosthetics that extend the capability of humans. As a result, so far no robot has been able to even come close to performing as well at any task as a robot and a human combined. There is reasonable reason to suspect that this will always be true.

As a recently topical example, look at the recently acclaimed chess-playing robot. It can reliably beat human chess masters. However, it cannot beat even people with average chess skills if those people can use a computer to help decide moves. Computer + human is greater than computer alone.

Or, to look at it from a free market/capitalistic point of view, if a company automated to the point that no human workers were needed, that company will get crushed in the market by competitors who use both automation and humans.

Anyway, this is all a very simplified and incomplete explanation — and, in all honesty, it is nearly as much speculation as the pessimistic assertion. Which is rather my point: none of this is even close to looking settled enough to lay odds one way or another, and so it’s very very premature to raise alarm bells over it.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Automation Isn’t New

and if the day comes that a robot can do those things as well, they aren’t robots. They’re humans.

Then substitute “robotic humans” for “robots” and “biological humans” for “humans”. Before we get to that point, we need to figure out a way to structure our society other than “biological humans who can’t find a job get to live on minimal government aid if they’re lucky or be homeless if they’re not”.

As a recently topical example…

Any such examples will not be very relevant to the state of robotic technology in 50, 100, or 500 years. I’m not saying this transformation is going to happen with the robots we have today.

Anyway, this is all a very simplified and incomplete explanation — and, in all honesty, it is nearly as much speculation as the pessimistic assertion.

I wouldn’t call it pessimistic. Pessimistic would be to predict that we will not be able to cope with the change, and society will degenerate into violence and chaos.

Which is rather my point: none of this is even close to looking settled enough to lay odds one way or another, and so it’s very very premature to raise alarm bells over it.

I don’t really see it as a matter of odds, but a matter of time. And it’s too early to raise alarm bells, but never too early to think about it.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Automation Isn’t New

I don’t think it matters whether robots approach human intelligence. What matters is that they are smart enough to get the job done.

Making a little girl’s party dress, with lots of lace and velvet, and whatnot, is one of those things which it is very hard for a robot to do, because cloth is flexible. However, the garment trades have always been very poorly paid. No one cares very much about whether the party dress was made in Newark, NJ, or in Kaifeng, China, or by a robot. Stephen Crane summed it up, in “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” when he observed that the ferocious gunslinger was wearing a red flannel shirt “made by certain Jewish women in New York…”

The point of practical contention is likely to be putting two pieces of metal together, for example, installing a windshield wiper motor in an automobile chassis. You have a specially designed tool, which holds a motor and two bolt guns in a specified relationship to each other. It works on very much the same lines, as, say, an office stapler, only it might weigh fifty pounds. However, this tool can be mounted on a standard robot arm. Making reasonable assumptions, this robot might install windshield wiper motors for about a dollar an hour, human equivalent. The traditional rule of thumb in automobile factories has been to use robots for “heavy, dirty, dangerous” jobs, the jobs the auto-workers don’t want that badly, and won’t fight for. The classic example is welding, where working against the clock unavoidably means getting burned. Putting a couple of hundred specialized robot-mounted tools on an assembly line would probably wipe out all the semi-skilled jobs, the kind of well-paying jobs which someone can get out of high school. Donald Trump is arguing about whether this kind of job should be shipped to Mexico or not, and, in the process, he is tearing the Republican Party in two.Someone in Alabama gets twenty dollars an hour to put in windshield wiper motors, two motors every forty-five seconds for eight hours, five days a week, and someone in Mexico gets maybe five, and with rising wages, someone in China might get as much as two. But the robot will do it for one dollar an hour.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Automation Isn’t New

Funnily enough, there was a show on the radio Today talking about an automated tractor (which was used to unload a harvester when it got close to full) and a major theme of the show was what this would do to farm jobs (the farmer/inventor using the beast said he didn’t actually fire anyone, just used the spare body else where on the farm during their busiest period). That got me thinking of all the inventions that have recently replaced labour on the farm:

The hoe (don’t need so many people to grub out weeds).
The grinding stone (don’t so many people to smash the kernels)
The animal drawn plough (don’t need so many people to grow food, since more seed grows to produce food).
The windmill (don’t need so many people to grind grains).
The water mill (ditto)
The animal drawn seeder (don’t need so many people to sew a harvest)
The animal drawn reaper (don’t need so many people wielding scythes to harvest grains)
The animal powered thrasher (don’t need many people to remove the husks from grains)
The tractor (faster than animals for all the above, plus tractors don’t compete for food with us, so harvests go further)
The seed drill (plants seeds at a regular interval and ensures they are covered – thus reducing the seed wastage, so freeing more from the harvest for eating, plus raising yeilds by making seed placement nearer optimal; reduces the number of people needed to grow a certain quantity of crops)
The combine harvester (combining several jobs into one pass by a single machine, reducing the number of people required to harvest a certain quantity of food).
High nitrogen natural fertilizers (e.g. guano – increasing yields per acre and thus reducing the number of people)
Artificial high nitrogen fertilizers (ditto, plus fewer people required to gather/create the amount of fertilizer used per acre).
Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides etc (reduce crop loss thus reducing the number of people…).

Now, many may say not all of these are desirable nor increase the general well-being, but they do all decrease the number of farm jobs required as a percentage of the population. It’s been going on for centuries, so what makes now so very special and different?

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Re: Re: Automation Isn't New--Captain Swing.

In England, in the early 19th century, there was “Captain Swing,” who was roughly the agricultural equivalent of “General Ned Ludd.” Captain Swing went around destroying threshing machines in the middle of the night. It often worked, in the sense that the farmer did not get a new threshing machine, but it probably did not prevent the farmer from doing something less drastic like replacing labor-intensive row agriculture with cattle and sheep pasturage. At the time, the Corn Laws regulated grain imports, according to a “trigger price.” If farmers chose not to produce grain, grain was allowed in from East Prussia and Poland, specifically via Danzig, at an only incrementally higher price.

The surplus population got displaced to the cities, especially the big cities of northern England, and started doing industrial work. Of course, what happened, circa 1850, was the repeal of the Corn Laws, allowing unlimited imports of cheap grain from America and Eastern Europe. The agricultural landlords and big commercial farmers did not really come out ahead in the end.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Automation Isn’t New

It’s been going on for centuries, so what makes now so very special and different?

The difficulty is that even if automation continues to produce more jobs than it eliminates, the people working the eliminated jobs aren’t qualified for the new ones, and in the US we have basically no system to train or educate them. Unless we make some big changes, we risk having the kind of unemployment we haven’t seen since the great depression. I’m not saying it’s not a solvable problem, just that we aren’t equipped to solve it with the tools and processes we have now.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 the people working the eliminated jobs aren't qualified for the new ones

Identity politics in which we are being turned against each other?

We need to qualify people to do the jobs required by the market, as nasch has suggested. That means providing them with the education and training they require. Your “pure” free market/voluntaryists won’t like it but it’d solve a lot of problems we have now and prevent a lot of problems in the future, one of which is…

…who the hell is going to buy all that robot-made crap if only a lucky few of us have any readies?

Money is like blood, it needs to circulate. When it doesn’t, parts of it will strangulate due to low or no demand.

We are thinking a lot about robots and the economy, but who is going to consider the role of the punter in all of this? We’re in a consumer economy. If people don’t buy enough stuff, it grinds to a halt.

Anonymous Coward says:

What will happen ?

TLDR:More unemployment for starters. Then we’ll need to find a solution.

Owners will, at first, see some increases in profit, though not for long, as more and more industries will choose to automate.

Products will indeed cost pennies to make but with a constantly decreasing consumer base having the money to buy them in the first place, companies will shut down. And there won’t be a “too big to fail” argument anymore since we won’t even prop up jobs anymore at that point.

“The elite” may want to fully isolate themselves from “the rabble” in 100% robot-serviced colonies, but it won’t happen with today’s tech…

But tech issues aside, let me put my tinfoil hat on for a moment:
Say we had the tech for that. The elite 1%-ers would STILL have to bear a huge contraction of both wealth and power for them to enact a “Georgia Guidestones”-style society. And it would still be a risky move.

Long term, unless they want to see “shareholders à la lanterne”, they’ll probably have to open up to solutions.

Ninja (profile) says:

Tech optimists seem to think that we’re headed for a life of leisure as robots take over menial tasks and open up more careers that require compassion, creativity and leadership skills.

This is pretty much my guess. We are moving towards giving people more time to enjoy their family and friends. And that’s a good thing. Society is currently sick. In the future people will focus on specialized jobs that machines either will not be able to do or that requires humans to some degree. In many cases human interaction simply can’t be replaced at all. And robots will do those jobs that end up killing people like mining or similar. Of course we will have to go past capitalism for things to work in such scenario and, as other readers mentioned, the rich will have to get used to being less rich (but still rich nonetheless).

I personally see a bright future ahead. The transition may not be smooth at all though.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

One of my high school teachers in the early 80s liked to read about future implications of current trends. One of the predictions he would tell us about was that by 2000, the five-day work week would be abolished.

Worker productivity had gone way up in recent decades and was continuing to rise. Women were entering the workforce in ever greater numbers. Short of accepting higher unemployment, lower wages and less job security, a four-day work week (with the same standard of living) was inevitable.

Robots will give us a two-day work week!

Anonymous Coward says:

Wrong question

Unemployment is caused by economics, which are heavily influenced by politics, not by technology per se. When a robot can do the job for an attractive combination of better and cheaper than a human can, the job will most likely go to the robot. The technology may move the price point, but economics drive the decision. Politics make some variables in the equation “sticky”.

There are many ways to shift the balance in favour of human employment:

– Reduce the cost of human employment. Robot don’t pay payroll taxes for one, which “artificially” raises the cost of humans. We could pay a job subsidy instead. Or we could reduce the human wage demands by “topping up” incomes so that lower wages bring home the same amount.

– Increase the costs of using robots, such as ongoing ownership taxes or eliminating capital cost deductions. This risks driving jobs offshore, but hey, when has that ever stopped an ideological politician of any stripe.

– Aid worker migration into other areas of employment. Subsidize retraining, relocation, pay a temporary differential on lower entry level wages.

– Free up the labour market. Eliminate closed shops, place tax surcharges on businesses that are too pure in ethnicity, religion or gender.

– Recognize that large companies do not create jobs and move their subsidies, tax breaks, monopolistic IP and other government mandated market barries either to the trash bin or to small to sized medium companies that actually provide new employment.

Worrying about technology changes destroying jobs considering the economics and politics is like worrying about an aggressive kitten in your living room when the whole place is surrounded by tigers.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Wrong question

Your ideas are good in principle, except that we need an increased tax take to cope we have with our needs NOW. Dropping the wages of low-paid workers isn’t an option; increasing them increases the tax take from them, meaning taxes on the rest of us can stay pretty much the same.

Capping CEO wages might not be popular outside leftist circles,* but I don’t understand why “Work or get fired!” doesn’t motivate those special snowflakes. It motivates the hell out of me!

*I’m actually not a leftist but I’m willing to consider their ideas if they seem reasonable to me.

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