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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Who Cashes a Robot's Check?

"Small bills, please."
The term ‘robot’ has been with us since 1920.  Rooted in the Latin word roboti which means work but denotes drudgery, they first appeared in a play penned by Czech playwright Karel Capek.   The concept of robots, however, dates back as far as the concept of mechanics.  It shouldn't surprise you to find that Davinci had relatively workable plans of how a robot could be manufactured way back in 1495.  It would seem that the desire to fashion artificial slaves has been a driving force of human ingenuity for centuries. 

For most of that time the robot or android was reserved as a far flung fancy of futurists, but in the modern day robots are becoming more and more ubiquitous.   As we inch further into the robotic world we are slowly being forced to rethink some of the most basic underpinnings of our economy.

The formula for the economic modality throughout the developed world is a simple one.  I have money, you have labor.  I don’t want to do the dishes and you don’t want to be broke so a symbiotic relationship ensues.  But the machination of the world is starting to erode the foundation of this formula.  Your labor is more expensive than a dishwasher, after all.

There was a time when this seemed like the pinnacle of ingenuity.  In the 40s and 50s we dreamed of a utopia where humans could relax and let C3P0 take care of all the laborious crap we don’t care to do.  By the 60s this was becoming a reality.

Somehow this guy failed to notice.

While some of us see the notion of robotic overlords as an excuse to turn zombie movies into sci-fi flicks, there is a far more real danger that robots pose and it is one that is measurable even now.  Robots are stealing our jobs.  And they’re way better at them than we are.  As a nation, America is up in arms about the off-shoring of jobs as well they should be, but robotics pose a far greater threat to the present notion of economy.  We might be seeing a lot of our jobs move overseas, but even in cheap labor markets like China they are seeing an overall loss of manufacturing jobs.

"Did you hear about model T6-8181's promotion? 
She only got it because she kisses so much Chassis..."

The manufacturing industry has already been transformed by robotics and now they’re moving into other elements of our life.  The service industry is already seeing this.   For decades, the feel-good claim was that people would forever prefer a human to interacting with a machine.  This was offered to placate the fears of service jobs being decimated by technological advances, but it is patently false.  Already the vast majority of people get their gas without any human interaction and we tend to prefer it that way.  More and more Americans are opting for self-service checkout lines at the grocery store and even fast food Mecca McDonalds is testing out computer interfaces that might soon replace the smiling high-school dropouts that used to greet us at the Golden Arches.

This is, of course, only the tip of the iceberg.  As computers get faster, smarter and smaller, jobs once considered impossible for robots are coming tantalizingly close.  Honda’s Asimo demonstrates the ability to essentially step in tomorrow as a robotic butler leaving everyone on earth names Jeeves  scrambling for a new profession.  Google is hard at work testing autonomous cars that will allow drivers to relax in traffic and read the paper on their commute.  (pic of guy reading paper in car, caption: Just kidding, newspapers will be gone long before that)  Korean engineers have developed a robotic maid that can retrieve toast in mere hours.  A hospital in Scotland is testing out robotic orderlies.

On the bright side, robotic orderlies can eat this without puking.
But we are only scratching the surface here.  Consider that it took humanity all of 46 years to go from a few yards of barely powered flight in Kitty Hawk to Yeager breaking the sound barrier.  The first commercial computer appeared in 1977 and 33 years later your present day laptop would laugh at it.  Once we have proof of concept and proof of market, it doesn’t take long for humans to take it to the extreme.  If Honda’s slow-motion runt is the robotic equivalent of a Commodore Pet, Asimov’s automata are certainly on the horizon.

But that begs the obvious question.  What the heck are all the fast food cashiers, chauffeurs, butlers, orderlies and maids going to do?  We’re often told that when technology eliminates the need for one segment of the economy it opens up another.  But that is patently absurd and if it was true, what would be the point of making robots in the first place?  The whole concept is to save labor so if we’re doing it correctly we should be steadily decreasing the need for service jobs.

This issue is not specific to a particular industry.  Once McDonalds perfects its automated order system, how long before robots take over the back of the house as well?  It might not be commercially feasible to create a “burger-flipping-bot”, but there is every reason to think that manufacturers will have humanoid robots with millions of potential functions.  At this point robotic workers, which will have all the mobility and none of the attitude of human workers, can easily be programmed to take care of virtually any task that used to require manual labor.

Some of us might feel insulated, convinced that our particular profession will be immune, but that is almost certainly false.  When asked when a computer’s processor will surpass the mental capacity of the human brain, most engineers and futurists give us at most another quarter of a century.  Once computers are better than us at overall logic will we really want to entrust the running of our businesses to fallible humans?  Relying on unimaginable stores of information, would a robot not be better suited to represent us in court?  Would a totally impartial robot serve as a better judge?

Not even professional Ping-Pong players are safe.
Most of us will automatically exclude robots as potential replacements for artists.  (pic of artist, caption: Okay, so being an artist is pretty much like being unemployed anyway, but still!)  But is it unreasonable to think that computers could be programmed to figure out exactly what makes a hit song good or a beautiful painting beautiful?  I mean, let’s face it, it’s hard to argue that a super computer would be incapable of doing something that Justin Bieber managed.
Not that there's a big difference between being
employed or unemployed when you're an artist...

Even without artificial intelligence, there are only a select few jobs for which robots would be ineffective.  The result could very well be that 50 years from now, our need for human labor could drop by as much as 90% leaving hundreds of millions unemployed in this nation alone.

But wasn’t that the point?  Didn’t we start this whole quest looking for a way to eliminate the need for humans to do jobs that they don’t want to do?  Wasn’t that the dream that spurred the whole endeavor?  Then why should the realization of that dream come with so much stress and uncertainty?  This is supposed to be the part where we kick up our feet, relax in our hammocks and tell Spacely Sprockets to go to hell.

...go to hell.
The question is who benefits?  Under our current economic system whoever bought the robot gets all the reward for its labor and anything else would seem ridiculous.  If a factory automates, it pays off the robots as it lays off the workers and eventually the factory’s owner will enjoy 100% of the profits of his endeavor.  Great if you own a factory, not so much if you work in one.

This is not a question for the distant future.  Heck, it’s not even a question for the near future.  As we speak thousands upon thousands of factory workers are retiring and no replacements are being hired.  What once took a hundred to do now takes only a dozen.  On some levels this saving is being passed on to consumers but this will become irrelevant if more and more consumers are separated from their incomes.  To survive, factories will have to find ways of ensuring that the goods they produce are purchasable and it isn’t likely that the robots are going to start buying.

But then again, what the hell do I know?

Today this question is generally cloaked in political partisanship.  The unemployed are looked down upon from the working class and labels like lazy and inept shield us from our coming fate.  Liberals scream for more aid to the poor while conservatives scream for more incentives for businesses to hire, but neither suggestion will solve this growing problem.

What is needed is a standard candle, a numeric base of labor from which future extrapolations can be made.  As of 2010 there are about 210 million working age people in this country.  By averaging out the past 10 years we find that generally 85% of these people are working and that they are working an average of about 38.5 hours per week.  This means that nationwide we work a collective 357.33 billion hours or so.  This labor force produces a GDP of (again, averaging the past 10 years) 12.2 Trillion dollars which means that right now we produce about $34.14 in GDP for every labor hour invested.

"Uh... they said there'd be no math."

This is an imperfect calculation, obviously, but for the sake of this blog we won’t delve into all the variables that make this number patently absurd.  In fact, it doesn’t matter how incorrect the number is as long as we continue to calculate an equally imperfect number in the future.  What matters is that we have a singular measure that will tell us the productivity of an American hour.

The goal, then, should be to maintain this number.  To ensure the continued success of our economy, the labor requirements should reflect a standard of production such as this.  If, by 2020, 10% of the existing jobs were overtaken by robots, we could simply adjust the standard work week from 40 hours to 36 and adjust wages accordingly.  If robots take 40% of the jobs, the standard work week can be reduced down to 24 hours.

On the surface many people would balk at such a notion.  The republicans among us would see the specter of socialism and ask where this money is coming from.  Surely it wouldn’t be taxed from the factory owners?

But why should it not be?  The accepted wisdom on economy and labor can’t be applied to the robotic economy.  Despite our increasing reliance on robotics, actual labor has not decreased in the past decade (except through the relatively recent rampant unemployment) which means that by now we’re just making things up to keep ourselves busy.  Not having enough jobs to go around should be a victory in the history of science, not a cause for concern.  We should be chilling, not stressing.

Now if they develop a robot that can chill for us, it's time to stress.

At present, we are not asking these questions which means that we aren’t solving our problems.  Disguised under the cloak of partisan politics, the income gap between the highest and lowest echelons of our economy continues to widen at break neck speeds.  You hear a lot of well reasoned arguments for this trend, but in truth it is a simple byproduct of automation and the decreasing need for human labor.  This trend can only be allowed to continue so far before the factories run out of customers.  It is in all of our best interest to tackle this problem before it becomes crippling.

My guess is that it will occur as soon as the college educated start losing their jobs to robots.  Until then, let’s hope the Japanese are working on a robot that can work at soup kitchens.

Aaron M. Davies


  1. Indeed, good questions to be asking. The one's who have the resources to answer or at least dive into these questions are usually the ones that dont want the answers in the first place. They want the world to themselves and to get there we (working class/ working poor) break our necks for them just so we can "get by".

  2. I think that the solution to the "machinization" (wouldn't mechanization work better?) of production is to alter the distribution of the benefits of the increases in productivity.
    Currently, the benefits flow to the top 10% while the bottom 90% see their incomes stagnate or decline.
    It was estimated by a study commission put together by President Lyndon Johnson, back in the early 1960's, that we were approaching an era wherein people would be able to work 20 hour weeks, and retire at 40; just from the increases in productivity alone. Of course, it would require a re-arrangement of how profits are distributed. Conservatives hated the idea and quickly moved to suppress it.
    This is the choice that I see: we can enter an age where all are provided with the necessities of existence and are free to answer the calls of their higher nature. Or we can continue to allow a relative handful to stand on the necks of everyone else while attempting to shove as much into their pockets as they can grab.

  3. I file it under the increasingly large "How the Hell is this a Partisan Issue?" drawer...