Lion of the Blogosphere

The robot economy in Forbes

Earlier this week, there was an op-ed in Forbes telling us that there’s no need to fear the robot economy.

However, I think the op-ed is pretty poorly reasoned. It goes something like: “Technological advancement has always bettered the human condition, and there have always been better jobs for the displaced workers, so stop worrying, morons.” I tried to find more specifics in there, but that’s really all there is to it.

The robot revolution is different than the previous economic revolutions. Robots will make unskilled and semi-skilled human labor worthless. The robot economy will produce more stuff with less human labor than ever before, but because we are married to the idea that people have to have some sort of job in a free-market economy in order to deserve to right to partake of any of the goods and services produced by society, the strange result of the robot revolution will be more people living in poverty.

The author of the op-ed writes that “mass leisure will also create other kinds of jobs, such as those devoted to entertaining and informing each other,” but the problem is that the masses will be too poor to afford leisure, and the majority of people aren’t smart enough to entertain and inform better than a robot. It will be more as I previously wrote, “there will be two classes of poor: the less poor who can provide services that amuse the few super-rich, and poorer poor who have nothing valuable to contribute to the super-rich.”

Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

February 22, 2013 at EDT am

Posted in Robots

44 Responses

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  1. Think of our coming Robot Future as the most stressful evolutionary bottleneck in human history. Why would you oppose it?

    Eris Guy (@ErisAtNyx)

    February 22, 2013 at EDT am

    • Oh I don’t know… maybe I don’t want my grandchildren to starve to death? I bet that you think that you’re going to be in the 0.0002% of the population that doesn’t get screwed.

      T

      February 23, 2013 at EDT am

      • Sorry, chief
        Your grandkids
        WILL starve to death – the boys
        The girls will be concubines for Sports Stars.

        Nobody grasps that Forbes Magazine and all the brilliant-brillianty writers in its celestial firmament don’t live in the real world. They get breakfast at NOBU

        Firepower

        February 23, 2013 at EDT pm

    • Doesn’t get screwed. Hilarious. What makes you think that screwing is in the future?

      I don’t want your grandchildren to starve to death either. I’m sorry you think they’re not bright enough to survive. I bet they are. Why assume a hard landing?

      In the Lion’s den we believe that the overwhelming mass of humanity are disgusting proles whose breeding brings down the collective IQ of the people. We tried the kinder, gentler way: “three generations of imbeciles in enough.” It didn’t work.

      Eris Guy (@ErisAtNyx)

      February 23, 2013 at EDT am

  2. I’ve been writing hammer & tongs about The Elite long before I blogged.
    http://eradica.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/future-uniforms-part-iii-your-new-uniform/

    Some Po’Folks won’t have anything to serve The Elite. That’s true now.

    Problems arise when the elite runs out of cash to feed them. Uh-oh, Chongo!

    Firepower

    February 22, 2013 at EDT pm

  3. It’s not just robots, but autmation in general and its applications all degrees of skill.

    Computers have already down-sized engineering design officers. Calculations that once needed dozens of junior engineers using siderules, log/trig tables and mechanical calculators and taking days now are done by one engineer and a pc in minutes. Survey teams that once needed four or five men are replaced
    by one man, and the survey notes are plotted in minutes by a computer. Computers have also reduced jobs in the financial and are poised to wreak havoc among lawyers.

    So what are all these high IQ high skill going to? A return to Dicken’s London seems likely. I’ll have to emulate my distant cousin Bill Sikes.

    bob sykes

    February 22, 2013 at EDT pm

    • Are you the geneticist who traced the name Sykes?

      de Broglie

      February 22, 2013 at EDT pm

  4. What Forbes means is that the coming robot future is of no concern *to them*. The capitalist approach to labor has always been to ensure the highest supply possible, then deal with the consequences- or maybe more accurately let others deal with the consequences- when social chaos results. Mass European immigration, black migration to the North, mass modern era legal and illegal immigration- all these have had serious consequences that Forbes readers couldn’t care less about. Capitalists will substitute capital (robots) for labor when it’s cheaper, but having vast slums filled with hungry people willing to work for almost nothing is fine with them too. The idea that new employment will be created is just sunshine they blow up our butts to make us think otherwise.

    thrasymachus33308

    February 22, 2013 at EDT pm

  5. “The robot economy will produce more stuff with less human labor than ever before, but because we are married to the idea that people have to have some sort of job in a free-market economy in order to deserve to right to partake of any of the goods and services produced by society, the strange result of the robot revolution will be more people living in poverty.”

    To be fair, the problem isn’t really the robots, its people clinging to Leninist (which is where the idea of “he who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat” comes from) ideas.

    Ed

    February 22, 2013 at EDT pm

    • “He who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat” comes from the Bible, actually, although it’s not clear how widely this rule is supposed to be applied. The original context is people who stopped working because they thought the end of the world was coming soon, and then wanted to mooch off their fellow Christians when the end didn’t come. St. Paul was telling their fellow Christians that they didn’t have to put up with this sort of thing. Applicability to the robot economy not straightforward.

      Anne

      February 23, 2013 at EDT am

    • The phrase “he who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat” appears in the Second Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians. It is not clear whether Lenin knew this, but in any case, we are up against something that has been around for thousands of years.

      WRB

      February 23, 2013 at EDT am

    • 2 Thessalonians 3:10
      10 For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.

      Tarl

      February 23, 2013 at EDT am

    • But Lenin was talking about aristocrats who felt that work was beneath them. Imperial Russia didn’t have much of a welfare state – the idea of a poor person being a “parasite” was almost inconceivable.

      Peter the Shark

      February 23, 2013 at EDT pm

  6. “because we are married to the idea that people have to have some sort of job in a free-market economy in order to deserve to right to partake of any of the goods and services produced by society”

    Interesting sleight of hand there. Goods and services aren’t produced “by society”, they are produced by specific individuals and firms. Having the rewards for that production go directly to those individuals and firms is appropriate. Having the penalties for not producing those goods and services hit the individuals and firms who do not produce them is also appropriate.

    What I think will be most interesting about a world in which robots and, more importantly, AI can crunch all the relevant data in a meaningful way to derive the best possible organization of society is that I think it will be pretty much along the lines of a free-market utopia, where AI engines determine that, in light of every data point known to humanity, there is absolutely no evidence that top-down central planning works in any way, shape for form and recommend that anyone advocating any sort of top-down approach be ignored. I can’t imagine any scenario, for example, in which a data-driven AI would have come up with a piece of crap law like ObamaCare.

    I cannot wait for these trends to pick up steam. A lot of people who thought they were pretty smart are going to be left in the dust by computing power that can deconstruct and overturn every aspect of their ideology in a data-driven way within milliseconds. I predict liberals’ self-esteem will be hardest hit and they may even try to forestall some developments in AI because they will realize that, compared to said AI, they will be as dumb as they now consider conservatives to be compared to them. To the AI, Krugman will be a mouth-breathing rube.

    BS Inc.

    February 22, 2013 at EDT pm

    • Your long-winded post didn’t address the central issue: that your grandchildren will be unable to sell their labor. What happens in a world where labor is virtually worthless? Should we all be allowed to starve to death?

      T

      February 22, 2013 at EDT pm

      • I don’t see how this is supposed to work. If there are lots of people shut out of the robot economy, then their labor will retain value to one another. The only way your labor gets worthless is if everyone else already has everything you could possibly make for them. But if everyone has everything, how is it that you are starving?

        Anne

        February 23, 2013 at EDT am

      • Then maybe I should do my best to accumulate capital so my grandchildren don’t have to sell their labor, which is exactly what I’m doing with my life, while labor IS still worth something.

        Was that response short enough for you?

        BS Inc.

        February 23, 2013 at EDT am

      • Anne: the robot economy won’t instantaneously make everyone have everything. Over time, more and more jobs will be automated, and more and more people will be out of work. Even if the people shut out of the economy can do things for each other, they will not have any money to pay each other with–stores will not give them food, and they will have no money to pay a landlord, for example. The unemployment rate will simply continue rising, but as long as enough people remain employed, the capitalists can just convince the remaining workers that their unemployed brethren are lazy, etc.

        Imagine 50% unemployment. The capitalists still have the 49.99% of workers with jobs on their side, and, since they have more money than the unemployed, will still be able to look down on them, and hire police to shoot the unemployed and keep them in line.

        Even at 70% unemployment, the rich and their remaining minions will be able to have the advantage because they can field a well-trained army–10 US Army soldiers can easily defeat 23 unemployed people because they have guns, training, and discipline.

        Once you get to 90% unemployment, you might start to see the rich and the army overrun by hordes of starving people. So they might start throwing them in a bone in terms of limited food, etc.

        All #s approximate, of course.

        SFG

        February 23, 2013 at EDT am

      • What happens in a world where labor is virtually worthless? Should we all be allowed to starve to death?

        GDP gains from automation follow a Laffer curve. If 100% of all jobs become automated then economic activity screeches to a halt because nobody has a job to earn money from.

        The Undiscovered Jew

        February 23, 2013 at EDT am

    • I think the “capitalist” AI will go further and determine that an optimal organization of society is one in which its inferiors (=Homo sapiens) are fully wiped out.

      Nyk

      February 23, 2013 at EDT pm

  7. Technology has been replacing unskilled jobs for decades and people have adapted by acquiring skills. This is one reason why I believe the Flynn Effect is a genuine biological based increase in intelligence (caused by nutrition); so many people are able to cope with even today’s high tech world and I don’t think education explains that. But even if you deny the Flynn Effect reflects a real gain in intelligence, it’s likely more genes for IQ will be identified, and embryos will be screened in ways that enhance the average IQ of future generations.

    The Legendary Linda

    February 22, 2013 at EDT pm

    • I’ve been meaning to post this link on here for awhile. There is some evidence that IQ is declining among humans, not increasing.

      http://naturalsociety.com/leading-geneticist-human-intelligence-slowly-declining/

      “One Stanford University researcher and geneticist, Dr. Gerald Crabtree, believes that our intellectual decline as a race has much to do with adverse genetic mutations… the geneticist explains that people with specific adverse genetic mutations are more likely than ever to survive and live amongst the ‘strong.’ Darwin’s theory of ‘survival of the fittest’ is less applicable in today’s society, therefore those with better genes will not necessarily dominate in society as they would have in the past.”

      Of course, when genetic engineering kicks into high gear, then all bets are off.

      shiva1008

      February 22, 2013 at EDT pm

    • That reminds me of Brave New World where all the children are test tube babies and the only sex was recreational. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The homos will finally be equal.

      destructure

      February 23, 2013 at EDT am

  8. Lion,
    This is one area that I just don’t agree with you. You are essentially repeating the same argument that have been made since the start of the industrial revolution. Machines have been taking over human work for centuries now. There was a time when the majority of population physically tilled the fields, when there were people whose job was to light the gas street lights at dusk, when most clothes were made by actual suturing, when law firms hired people to proof read all documents to make sure nothing had been altered, and when people working at banks did calculations manually. People don’t do these things anymore, but I don’t see mass poverty. In fact, our lives are better today than 200 years ago. What’s so special about the robot “revolution” (essentially a continuation of machine/computer revolution already underway), that will have such negative consequences?

    AsianDude

    February 22, 2013 at EDT pm

    • You are misunderstanding Lions argument. As I understand it, it can can be boiled down to the thought experiment: imagine a world in which machines have a comparative (as well as absolute) advantage in almost every job typically held by humans. I think it will be quite a while off (25 yrs.) before a scenario like this comes to fruition. In the meantime, we will be seeing the gradual transition take place. We are not going to all wake up one morning and realize AI’s can do everything.

      de Broglie

      February 22, 2013 at EDT pm

      • If robots become so good at everything, that must include the construction of more robots right? The price of robots, like every manufactured good, will fall. It seems a stretch to say only the rich will be able to have robots.

        AsianDude

        February 23, 2013 at EDT am

      • “If robots become so good at everything, that must include the construction of more robots right? The price of robots, like every manufactured good, will fall. It seems a stretch to say only the rich will be able to have robots.”

        I agree that robots won’t only be limited to the rich, but they will have the best robots.

        For me, the closest analogy is the world of algorithmic trading in the financial markets. The teams that assemble the best teams assemble the best algorithms and put the lesser teams and algorithms out of business. It will be the same with robots.

        There was a legal case in Ancient Athens that always got trotted out as an example of the role of slavery in Greek society. Apparently, a man plead for mercy in the payment of a fine because he was “so poor that he couldn’t afford a slave”. In the future, there will be people “so poor that they can’t afford a good robot” and will have to make due with lesser models.

        BS Inc.

        February 23, 2013 at EDT am

      • “The teams that assemble the best teams assemble the best algorithms and put the lesser teams and algorithms out of business. It will be the same with robots.”

        But robots are manufactured in a factory. Sure, better models will cost more. But no manufacturer develops a model with the intention of selling just a few.

        AsianDude

        February 23, 2013 at EDT am

      • “But robots are manufactured in a factory. Sure, better models will cost more. But no manufacturer develops a model with the intention of selling just a few.”

        That will depend on how economies of scale work in robot manufacturing and what the minimum efficient scale ends up being. The largest manufacturing plant is not typically the most profitable in a given industry, at least not on a per-unit basis.

        BS Inc.

        February 23, 2013 at EDT pm

  9. Do you expect most people to live in relative or absolute poverty? The former seems inevitable, because most people already live in relative poverty and the robot revolution will make things worse. However, the top 0.01% who own all the robots might choose to distribute consumer goods to the masses, if only to undermine their revolutionary fervor. The ultra-rich will pull a B’rer Rabbit by making the proles think that the rich are being painfully-forced to provide that bounty.

    Much of the world will become a kind of Detroit where nearly everyone subsists on welfare or make-work civil-service jobs and poor individuals compete for status in their neighborhoods mainly by brawling (their life goal to terrify everyone for a radius of ten or twelve blocks which will be about as far as they ever travel, and to get the pick of the local sluts). No one will starve or lack for cable TV but no one will ever go anywhere nor do anything intellectual either.

    The ultra-rich and their lackeys from a rump class of technicians will live in or near Loudon County, Palm Beach, San Luis Obisbo, etc. and although they will enjoy much greater luxury than the proles, will actually be skinnier and have fewer children. Chief among the luxuries they will cling to will be simple separation from proles.

    For the ultra-rich “income taxes” will simply describe their administrative scheme for distributing part of their robots’ output to the proles. After all, if you are a capitalist who owns an army of robots your income is whatever they produce, which is potentially infinite. The rich will allocate the cost of welfare schemes among themselves via the income tax, which will not touch their capital (in order not to threaten their relative status) but will make it hard for anyone else to accumulate any capital. The propaganda value of this will be immense– when wanna-be tribunes of the people denounce the robot-owning class, propagandists (hired from the technician class) will divert the proles’ anger into gloating over the high tax rates they “impose” on the rich. The rich will quietly laugh at the whole charade. The technician class will resent the taxes (which will be rigged in tandem with welfare schemes, as now, to impose a very high marginal tax rate on anyone trying to “climb out of poverty”) but pay them rather than be cast into the proles’ hell.

    Piper

    February 22, 2013 at EDT pm

  10. The Israeli Water Engineer had a great post on this recently, “Fighting The Power Loom”. In it, he notes that the initial impact of the industrial revolution wasn’t just widespread poverty, but actual starvation. He concludes:

    “How did the English solve the industrial revolution disruption? “General” Ludd and Owen’s utopian communes all failed. Trade unionism succeeded. It understood that the problem was not the higher productivity of new technologies, but the division of the fruits of progress. They stopped fighting the capital and fought for stability in employment, social security and legal protection. In the end they understood that the real issue was political power, and they took it. England is basically a worker run socialist country in the last hundred years. How will the current postindustrial revolution be solved? Also politically.”

    He’s absolutely right. That doesn’t mean the solution today will be the same as back then, but it will necessarily be a political solution.

    DaveinHackensack

    February 22, 2013 at EDT pm

  11. Lion and others, what do you think of Ray Kurzweil’s predictions?

    de Broglie

    February 22, 2013 at EDT pm

    • Transhumanist dreams with little basis in reality. The “Singularitarian” rapture is little better than other religious doctrines, dating from time immemorial, promising eternal life to the faithful. Even the steep curve of Moore’s Law cannot deliver miracles, which are what Kurzweil promises at Singularity. Strong AI is elusive (recall the optimism of Minsky et al. decades ago, which did not exactly pan out), and neuroscience is nowhere near the point of being able to upload the contents of your brain to an artificial substrate (a nontrivial undertaking, to say the least).

      Kurzweil can pop all of the vitamins he wants, but the odds of him seeing The Singularity are slim.

      Sanjuro

      February 23, 2013 at EDT am

    • Kurzweil may be proven right many hundreds of years from today. But the Singularity is unlikely anytime this century or even the next.

      The Undiscovered Jew

      February 23, 2013 at EDT am

      • Pretty much. It’s like us telling an Italian facing the disintegration of Rome, ‘don’t worry, because in 1000 years Western Civilization will rise again, and in another few hundred your descendants will be much better off than you ever were.’

        SFG

        February 23, 2013 at EDT pm

  12. The disruption of the industrial revolution was solved with higher taxes that allowed to create the welfare state.
    The robotik revolution should be solved with even higher taxes to allow the creation of the minimal guaranteed income for everyone. Classical marxism in the sense that the state should own the means of production has never worked. Just because in the past workers relocated to another jobs, doesn’t mean that it will happen in the future. Ever higher employment requirements and needed skills suggest otherwise.

    Machaco

    February 22, 2013 at EDT pm

  13. Jello Biafra had the final solution to the underclass problem over thirty years ago.

    All Systems Go

    February 22, 2013 at EDT pm

  14. “mass leisure will also create other kinds of jobs, such as those devoted to entertaining and informing each other,”

    Well what do you expect them to say? “mass leisure will also create other kinds of jobs, such as those devoted to killiing and maiming each other,”?

    jayNE

    February 22, 2013 at EDT pm

  15. The problem is technology. And if it is “Luddite ” to say that, so be it. Ruthless attacks on intellectual property law will most likely help to slow down the pace of technological advancement. With the monetary incentive gone, technology will advance much slower. That’s the reason why rare diseases remain untreatable while common conditions like cancer get better therapies every day.

    Grand Mariner

    February 23, 2013 at EDT am

  16. Dude’s you should move around. There’s tons of stuff to be done that people aren’t doing now and robots aren’t too practical. Say food. People can go grow and process better food than the industrial mutated garbage you are being fed every day. And that has value.

    spandrell

    February 23, 2013 at EDT am

    • But what if few people are truly informed of the qualities of said food over the much cheaper pink slime?

      Nyk

      February 23, 2013 at EDT pm

  17. By the time all this
    Robot Jazz
    arrives
    Blogging will look like some off-target Raymond Massey
    “Things To Come” movie.

    It wasn’t Flyin’ Cars Brit filmmakers had to worry about
    Nor Flyin American Cars and Nuclear Robot Aliens
    From the Cold War

    But, the Colored Horde in
    The Camp of The Saints.

    The colored barbarians using Madison Square Garden like the Lombards used the Coliseum
    Will have as much use for robots as Huns did for Aqueducts

    Firepower

    February 23, 2013 at EDT pm

  18. Unskilled labour will still be needed on Capcha solving sweatshops to spam forums. And in the future, spam will provide 50% of the GDP.

    Toad

    February 23, 2013 at EDT pm


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