Robots are going to put us all out of work!

That is a refrain I hear all the time.  Automation, will take over people’s jobs and put them out of work and we’ll end up with endless numbers of people for whom there are no jobs.

But is that really how it works?

Liberal political commentator Sally Kohn seems to think so:

Solar labor inefficiency crop

She is clearly advocating here a means of producing energy that requires 40-80 times as much labor to produce a given amount of “product” (in this case energy).  Exactly the opposite of what automation does.

Automation, the use of robots, produces more with less labor than was possible before.  That means we don’t need as many people to fill the need for whatever we’re producing.  And that means the “excess” people are out of work, right?

Sorry, but that’s not how it has ever worked except in the very shortest of terms.

Producing more with less labor has been the spur for economic growth since before recorded history began.

In early agriculture, farmers planted crops by poking a hole in the ground with a stick, dropping seeds into the hole, then closing it by stepping on it.  One person could raise enough food that way to feed him or herself with very little surplus.  Just about the entire population had to be full-time farmers.

Along the way somebody discovered that if you dragged the stick along the ground you could create a furrow, preparing a field for seed in less time.  This rapidly turned into the scratch plow pulled at first by other people and later by animals.  One person could keep more land in cultivation, meaning you needed fewer people to produce the food for your population meaning more people were freed up for other activities.  People could become artisans, and craftsmen–specializing in those activities and not simply performing them as a sideline between stints in the fields.

It is no coincidence that the flourishing of the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, the Nile valley, and the Levant arose following the invention of the plow–other things too such as the potter’s wheel, which also allowed fewer people to produce the pots and urns that people needed.

So it has been throughout history.  Western (i.e. European) civilization took off when extensive use of water mills, and later steam power, took the place of muscle power for industry.

One of the steps along the way, an early example of automation, the use of punch-card controlled looms for making textiles, led to actual protests.  A movement started by a probably mythical individual by the name of Ned Ludd, protested the new looms, claiming that it would put weavers out of work.  The protests involved both violence and sabotage.

Of course, the use of the new looms proceeded apace and, contrary to the fears, the economic growth more than absorbed any weavers displaced by the automation process.  Nor was the displacement as bad as expected because by producing more textiles more cheaply, international trade increased the quantity demanded.

Interestingly enough, a number of former third-world nations (even before the term “third world” was coined) have used textiles as an entry point in bootstrapping an industrial and manufacturing economy.

And so it has gone ever since.  Machine tools.  Assembly lines.  Railroads.  Modern shipping (compare the crew to cargo ratio of a modern container ship to an old merchant sailing ship).  Industrial robots of increasing sophistication.  And now robots that are poised to take your order and make your food in fast food establishments.  All of them ways to get the same job done with less human effort.  The latest round is no different from any of the previous ones.

What all of them do is to free up people to do other things.  This is the core of economic growth and we all benefit from it.

If you don’t believe that, I invite you to try to live as that prehistoric farmer family did–feeding yourself by poking holes in the ground with a stick (no cheating by dragging the stick to create a furrow).

Good luck.

 

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54 thoughts on “Robots are going to put us all out of work!”

  1. This is all true and valid, in the sense that it has been so far, but it is also legitimate and valid to question whether this plateaus out at some point.

    To put it in plain terms: is it really likely that all those unemployed truck drivers are suddenly going to start fruitfully programming new, useful apps in Java?

    IOW, one can easily see how a worker made redundant in one form of manual labour can shift to a new, unprecedented form of manual labour that’s been opened up by progress – but what happens if all forms of manual labour are rendered obsolete? And shifting up a tier to the white collar level: where are all the lawyers going to go? Where, eventually, the programmers and legislators?

    In a weird way, shifting all the work (physical and intellectual) to robots is the fulfillment of Marx’s prophecy regarding the impoverishment of the working class (robots only need “subsistence,” they don’t complain). But what’s left for people to do? One might say, “a life of leisure.” But for many people, work is a major source of fulfillment. What happens if you take that away from them?

    1. but what happens if all forms of manual labour are rendered obsolete?

      Every time an increase in productivity–doing more with less labor–the same argument has been made. And it’s always been “this time for sure.” And they’re always wrong.

      If we really got to the point where all manual labor disappeared, then expect to see a rise in personal service as a point of prestige–an extension of what we’re already seeing with “hand crafted” often being worth a premium over mass produced. But that’s just a guess. Throughout most of history we didn’t know going in what the new tasks would be. Yes, there was disruption along the way–price of progress. But people are clever. They came up with new things to do. But if we waited until we knew what we could have the people freed from some task do before making a productivity improvement we’d still be poking holes for seed with sticks.

      1. Never before has every skill from anesthesiologist to zookeeper been threatened with obsolescence within a generation. Never.

        So no, the same argument has not been made.

        1. Do cite your references on this. Seriously, tell me how every skill is being threatened obsolescence. Not empty rhetoric, I want to see actual evidence that all of those skills are threatened.

          Where is the technology that will deduce what’s wrong with your air conditioner and repair it?
          Where’s the tech that will do the same thing for you are?
          Where’s the tech that can replace surgeons successfully?
          Where’s the tech that can write sports articles for the local paper?
          Where’s the tech that can diagnose and provide counseling for depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses?
          Where’s the tech that will direct automated computer programming?

          Where are they? If every skill is threatened with extinction within a generation, an incredibly short period of time, all things considered, where is it? Where’s the information supporting the supposition that every occupation is threatened?

          Or are you just making this crap up?

          1. Physicians (diagnostitions, radiologists) surgeons (micro surgery), school teachers, lawyers, stock clerks, vehicle drivers for every vehicle including ships and aircraft, farmers, herdsmen, news reporters, news writers, janitors, sales clerks, home health care givers, ditch diggers, all of these jobs are currently being done by early model AI and robots, more to come, not less, I think.

            Tom, it would be far easier for you to suggest WHAT jobs are immune to AI and Robots. Not even thespians are exempt as far as I can tell. Preachers? Perhaps to some degree. Entertainment writers, maybe until late stage AI development.

          2. So, more vaporwhere. Funny thing is that AI, like controlled fusion, has been “just around the corner” for a great many years. They keep finding ways that it’s harder than they thought.

            And do note that repeating your list and asserting that it’s being done by early model AI and robots does not constitute an answer to “cite your references”.

          3. Precisely on all counts.

            I’ll concede that I can see something like ditch digging being replaced by AI…theoretically, but it’s also important to remember that just because a computer or robot can do something doesn’t make it economical to have them do so. So long as it’s cheaper to hire a person to dig a ditch than have a robot do it, people will keep digging ditches.

            And until an AI can really troubleshoot a problem–not follow a decision tree, but actually get down and troubleshoot–they’re unlikely to replace anyone in any kind of diagnostic capacity, from doctors to HVAC repairmen. At best, they’ll be a aid to the PEOPLE doing that work.

          4. You’re asking the wrong questions. Take this one:

            Where is the technology that will deduce what’s wrong with your air conditioner and repair it?

            Sixty years ago, someone might have said “Where is the technology that will deduce what’s wrong with your toaster and repair it?”

            Probably nobody at the time was thinking “That technology will be unnecessary.” Nobody repairs toasters anymore. When your toaster breaks, you toss it in the trash and you buy a new one.

            In an era of increasing automation, increasingly complex manufactured items become cheaper and cheaper.

            I predict that in the future, nobody will deduce what’s wrong with your air conditioner. You’ll simply order another, modular, Coolbreeze Mark III, and you or a robot, or a low-paid tech will pop out the old one, throw it away, and plug the new one in place.

            Where’s the tech that can replace surgeons successfully?
            I’m pretty familiar with robotic surgery at one remove, because my daughter is a surgical technician. It’s coming. Less and less human oversight needed for more and more complex tasks. They are already very, very close to automated anesthesia machines that can perform the duties of an Anesthesiologist (already frequently a Nurse Anesthesiologst, because existing technology has made it possible for a lower-skilled individual to be used instead of a full M.D. in most cases). So what you are proposing is well within the realm of possibility for larger and larger subsets of surgical functions.

            Where’s the tech that can write sports articles for the local paper?
            1. There are already AI programs that churn out legible news articles based on the input of salient facts.
            2. Paid news reporting is already a dying profession. Do you really think there are legions of employment opportunities there?

            Where’s the tech that can diagnose and provide counseling for depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses?
            Expert systems can already diagnose many ailments more accurately than a human. And, as we better understand the actual medical and biochemical bases for more and more mental maladies, more and more are successfully pharmaceutically treated, leaving psychotherapists and psychoanalysts out in the cold. Already many practitioners and patients complain that the days of lying on a couch for an hour telling your therapists about your problem are dying. It’s more often, “Try this pill and let me know in a couple weeks how you’re feeling.”
            But, again, do you really think therapy (or anything you’ve mentioned) offers a viable source of mass employment for sub IQ 100 working class people, people of high IQ aside?

            Where’s the tech that will direct automated computer programming?
            That’s simply here. Today. And it’s just getting better.

      2. “Every time an increase in productivity–doing more with less labor–the same argument has been made.”

        Has it? Cite please.

        I understand the economics argument, I’m a libertarian and to some extent I’m playing devil’s advocate. But I’ve been getting more and more uncomfortable with the way this question has been handled by “our side”. There’s a hint of quasi-religious blanking-out here.

        There are any number of factors that could make a difference “this time round” – and may have been making a difference OVER TIME. (Is the unemployment rate EVER going to go back down, or is it just going to continue climbing gradually and inexorably? If it did – even supposing things like deregulation and tax cuts – wouldn’t that be prima facie evidence of a limit to the logic of this line of argument?)

        Plus also, it’s a curious thing that an individualistic argument expects some degree of reverential self-sacrifice on the part of poor and working class people who are going to lose their jobs now – so that they ought to be satisfied with their lot, because the next generation or two will pick up the new opportunities their loss has freed up. I find your “price of progress” a bit too blithely dismissive of the disruption of peoples’ lives. (Nor would I have laughed at the Luddites quiet so callously.)

        1. Is the unemployment rate EVER going to go back down

          Can’t speak to where you are but:
          https://data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNS14000000

          If it did

          If we had some ham we could have ham and eggs if we had some eggs.

          I find your “price of progress” a bit too blithely dismissive of the disruption of peoples’ lives.

          So go back to poking a stick in the ground. Any change is disruptive for some folk. And I’m hardly dismissive since at my day job one of our big previous revenue sources has been rendered obsolete. We’re having to scramble to make up the revenue (and ensure my boss can continue to employ me). But, you know what, the item that replaced our previous product is, frankly, better and more generally applicable. So, we have to look to other areas to keep the revenue coming in. But, as a libertarian, I recognize that it’s on me to do that. Nobody has the responsiblity to avoid putting out better or more efficient products in order to ensure that I retain my job. That’s on me, no one else.

          Change is always disruptive. It’s chaos. But the alternative is stagnation. And the result of stagnation is decline.

          1. poking a stick in the ground does not a family feed, clothe or house, much less keep the proles from revolting to establish a new order.

        2. Thank you, Peter George Stewart for a well thought out reply. Hear! Hear! to “There’s a hint of quasi-religious blanking-out here.”

  2. I recently read that the earliest Homo sapiens found were dated to 300,000 BC. 290,000 years to get from hunting/gathering to agriculture with excess production to have cities. I’ll take technology, thanks.

  3. So this Kohn idiot is admitting that green energy is massively inefficient and only sustainable by coercive tax subsidies, and she thinks that’s a good thing? I’m reminded of the time Milton Friedman visited China and saw masses of workers digging a canal with shovels. He asked why they didn’t use steam shovels, and was told they wanted to offer maximum employment to the peasants. “Then they should be digging with spoons” he replied.

    1. And Friedman was wrong. Everyone needed to be employed (idle hands are the devil’s workshop) but the job had to be completed within the lifetimes of those living. Friedman was being a snarky ass.

        1. No Mr. thewriterinblack, you didn’t. I was responding to Mark, the same fellow you were responding to. Your commenting software doesn’t support threading, I suppose.

          Regards

          1. The direction I came in masked the threading. Now I see it. “Everyone needs to be employed.” Isn’t that special. Here’s your bucket of sand and a hammer. Go pound on it for eight hours. At least you’d be employed right? You wouldn’t actually be accomplishing anything of value, but you’d be employed.

            By using workers with shovels instead of mechanized digging equipment, China was preventing those workers from being used in other economically valuable endeavors. See Bastiat’s “The Seen and the Unseen”. It’s called opportunity cost.

            But thank you for demonstrating that it’s not the uniquely different nature of future automation that you consider the problem but any labor-saving advantages. Because for Friedman to have been wrong (He wasn’t. He was engaging in reductio ad absurdam–a form of logical argument where one presumes that a proposition is true and carries it to its conclusion to show that it leads to an absurdity), then the people in the past complaining about previous “it will put us out of work” must also have been correct because that’s exactly where China was when Friedman made that observation.

            So, in your effort to support your “this time is different” case, you demonstrate that you agree with the naysayers in the previous cases as well.

          1. Aren’t you failing to look at the results of say, all long haul trucks being automated, all taxis and buses being automated and all UPS/Fed-Ex et. al. being automated within 10 years? All construction, all mining, most physicians and surgeons within 20 years?

          2. Long-haul trucks being automated—you mean the trucks they’re already having trouble finding sufficient truckers for? Sounds to me like two problems which solve each other.

          3. There are approximately 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the United States. There are approx. 9 million unemployed. Does that help you, Joel?

          4. Well, it looks like a couple of hundred of them should relocated to ND, because pretty much every trucking company around here has a sign out “Truckers wanted”.

            I see the same with the restaurant business as well. Nearly every single one around here is looking for help and offering $10-12 starting.

            Honestly, it’s not something unique to any business or individual. What seems to be keeping most of those claiming unemployment unemployed is an unwillingness to go where the jobs actually are. They might have good reasons for not accepting those jobs (maybe their spouse has a better job than could be found if they moved, or they can’t handle the climate, or the politics of the area is too looney, etc.), but the jobs are available. The only out of work tradesman (electrician, HVAC, plumber, welder, etc.) I’ve seen have been because they didn’t want to take the available jobs.

          5. How do those numbers, as a fraction of the total population, compare to the change in relative population involved in, say, agriculture in Western civilization. We’ve gone from the vast majority being involved in producing food for the rest to something like 1-2 percent (depending on how you count them) with, before the fact, commensurate uncertainty of what all those people would do.

            Even if we add everything you list there together and every bit of the current vaporware involved works out exactly as predicted that’s still nothing compared to the displacement of the agricultural revolution where the majority of the population was put out of work by farm mechanization.

            Each generation tends to be like a teenager, thinking that their problems are unique and nobody has faced anything like them before. For the most part, each generation is wrong.

          6. “How do those numbers, as a fraction of the total population, ”

            Mr. thewriterinblack, hunter-gatherers weren’t “put out of work” in a society where work defines so many people’s self-worth. they continued to hunt and gather and died out.

          7. did you write this? “compare to the change in relative population involved in, say, agriculture in Western civilization.” ’nuff said

          8. Ah, so reading comprehension is your problem. Got it.

            See those words “Western Civilization”? By the time we had anything that could be called “Western Civilization” the civilization was a couple thousand years past being hunter/gatherers.

            And we went from the vast majority of the population being involved in farming and ranching to about 1 to 2 percent of the population so involved. That’s a far bigger disruption than everything on your list put together–assuming it all happens as you predict, something I am not prepared to stipulate without a lot more than just your assertion.

  4. Eventually inexpensive all-purpose utility robots will appear on the market. You will be able to buy such a robot on credit. You will then send your robot out to do productive work that generates income for you. You will use that income to buy what you need in life and to pay off your robot loan. (Think of the person who buys a Toyota Camry on credit and then drives for Uber.) Then you go out and buy another robot. Actually you will just send your robot out to buy another robot. You just have to careful that they don’t get into mischief on the way home.

  5. The only problem that I see with the productivity rise with automation is that we already have too much production chasing too few consumers, with the numbers of consimers getting smaller as the world wide Baby Boomer demographic bulge ages out of the consumer class.
    That and, as a truck driver, I really like my job, and I don’t want to go learn coding or data entry and sit in an office somewhere, or say “Do you want fries with that?” the rest of my working life…

    1. I really like my job

      And I bet some of those people making buggy whips loved their jobs too. The advances that made your job possible put them out of business except as an extremely tiny niche market.

    2. As for “too much production chasing too few consumers” that’s only if you keep producing the same things. Show someone in prehistory a modern ceramics plant and they’d wonder what you would do with people making more pottery than anybody could possibly use. Answer: only a few people are making pottery and the rest are making other things, things they couldn’t even have imagined back then.

      Go back a bit. Look at, say, Cornelius Vanderbilt. The richest man of his day. With a couple of exceptions (he had big houses, and perhaps a lot of jewelry) his wealth bought him a lifestyle that would be crushing poverty today. Making more of the same stuff he had is not how we became richer as a society. It was coming up with all sorts of new things that nobody had ever had before.

    3. Countless bank tellers and telephone operators probably felt the same way. I can’t remember the last time I did my banking inside the bank or spoke with a telephone operater. My first job after the US Army was meter reader for the gas company in Philly. Newer meters everywhere communicate digitally. My electric meter was just replaced by such a device. No more meter readers. I imagine benevolent government could perpetuate such professions by fiat, but then truck drivers would have to pay more for banking services, telephone service, gas, electricity, etc. I don’t think this process can be stopped. I don’t think it makes sense to try to.

  6. Automation, the use of robots, produces more with less labor than was possible before. That means we don’t need as many people to fill the need for whatever we’re producing. And that means the “excess” people are out of work, right?

    Sorry, but that’s not how it has ever worked except in the very shortest of terms.

    Producing more with less labor has been the spur for economic growth since before recorded history began.

    I think the above passage is a pretty good summary for the entire article, so let’s start from there.

    This thesis is attractive. And it has the important evidential support of having been observably true for the past several centuries of extreme civilizational improvement.

    But it’s not really a theory. I’m sorry, it’s just not. It’s an observation of past incidents projected into the future. That is, at most, a basis for a theory. An “Ah ha!” moment that should give rise to further study.

    If producing more with less labor is always the spur for economic growth, then we should be able to identify an underlying principle — an actual theory — of why this will be so in a variety of different circumstances. In other words, to say that a cause (producing more with less labor) to result in an effect (economic growth), we have to identify why the cause leads to the result logically and inevitably. Also, it’s not clear that “spurring economic growth” is the metric that’s most important, moving forward. You can have, numerically, economic growth, while still end up with more people out of work or in misery than before, simply by concentrating the benefits of that economic growth in a small subset of the population.

    This article never identifies an underlying principle. It simply recounts anecdotes.

    Let me try some anecdotal projection of my own.

    The Gold Medalist for the men’s high jump at the 1896 Olympic Games was Ellery Harding Clark. His winning height and personal best was 1.81 meters. the current world record for the high jump is 2.45 meters, set in 1993 by Javier Sotomayor.

    That’s a .64 meter increase in 97 years. Let’s round for the sake of argument to .65 meters per century. By that reckoning, by the year 2200, men should be able to high jump 3.75 meters — about 12.3 feet in the air for us Americans. Eventually, through steady, linear improvement, humans will be able to achieve low earth orbit simply by jumping very high!

    Can we agree that this is ridiculous?

    Similary, if you read any stock prospectus, there will be a disclaimer, “Past performance is not indicative of future results.” That’s because economic systems are complicated and contain unpredictable variables. If you could use past performance as an indicator of future results, we’d all be using IBM computers, shopping for household goods and Sears and Yahoo would be the dominant search engine. Heck, the East India Tea Company would dominate international trade!

    So, back to the question. Will labor-saving technology always result in increased or at least substantially equivalent employment opportunities? The most common near-theory I see is related to opportunity cost: labor being used to perform any given task can be used for alternate purposes. When you automate a task, or find a better way of doing something, you free that labor for alternative uses.

    That’s great, as far as it goes. But, like high-jumping, such an effect presumably has limits.

    The alternative uses are, almost by definition, of lower value in the heirarchy of needs (warmth, shelter, water, food, protection, etc.), otherwise they wouldn’t be the alternative uses of the labor, they’d be the primary uses. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — in a growing economy there may be plenty of money and interest in those alternative uses of labor.

    Just as there’s a limit to how high people can jump, there may be a limit to the alternative uses which people of certain capabilities can be utilized. Some people are only suited for work that requires nimble fingers, the capacity for accurate repitition or strong backs — the kind of work that is most easily targeted by automation.

    I don’t mean to demean any humans by the comparison, buts lets compare the use of muscle power. A long time ago, the great innovation for accomplishing tasks that required muscle power was the use of domesticated animals. Horses, oxen, camels and elephants can all generate far more focused power than humans. When we developed steam engines and eventually internal combustion engines, however, we did not find equivalent alternative uses for all the domesticated beasts of burden. Nearly overnight, horses and oxen went from essential economic participants to leisure-time playthings. Nobody needs horses anymore.

    Now, humans are far more versatile than horses, but they’re not infinitely versatile. A significant portion of the world population is below IQ 85. A significant portion of those are already producing nothing of economic value. We already have a chronic economic underclass that functions, bluntly, as a burden on society.

    Past technological innovations generated so much alternative opportunity for labor because we were so heavily focused on the lower tiers of the heirarchy of needs. There was so much we could do that we weren’t doing that provided direct substantive benefit to the lower tiers of the heirarchy! Now, not so much. Lest I get accused of lack of imagination, I can imagine tons of things that humans could do with all the new free time. Space exploration! Amazing new virtual reality applications! Research and development into fields we’re barely aware exist yet!

    … But how many of those new careers will be friendly to people with sub-85 IQs?

    How many will be friendly to those with 100 IQs?

    I can’t prove it, but it seems a reasonable proposition that the available jobs in the wake of increasing automation of mundane tasks will skew to those requiring either high IQ or specific hard-to reproduce human capabilities. Neither of those categories seem to me to be promising sources for mass employment of the lower IQ half of the human population.

    1. I work in an industrial field and we work with automation on a regular basis. Frankly, most of the work available after you automate is easier if you dont understand the theory behind what is being repaired. My job involves programming, electrical work, troubleshooting, diagnosing customer work flow, relatively complex calculus, AND various traditionally lower skill tools and work.
      I understand very little of the higher end stuff, but those that DO have worked it into our procedures and the process by which we troubleshoot. I think you are underestimating how much of the high IQ stuff happens invisibly as a field starts to expand. I know I did, I freaked out a bit when they told me that troubleshooting and calibrating equipment involved math I flunked out of the prerequisites for, but it doesn’t actually affect my day to day work.

      1. I’m going to guess that you are not below IQ 85. I’d be pretty surprised if you’re below IQ 100: you’re here arguing the speculative effects of automation on human civilization. You can program. If you have a job requiring “relatively complex calculus” you’re waaay into the cognitive elite. Not 1 in 10000 (statistic scientifically pulled out of my butt) people ever touches calculus again after taking it in college.

        As Charles Murray notes in Coming Apart, we in the West, especially, live in very cognitively-separate worlds. A person like yourself, say 130+ (higher?), has very little close social interaction with people of IQ 85-. It is easy to misunderstand what those people are really like. I recall one person saying — and it’s been my experience, too — that people more than two IQ stddevs apart have a very hard time even comprehending each other. Their experiences of the world are too different. They don’t even share many social interests.

        You understand that much of the underlying infrastructure that allows you to do your job is the result of applied mathematical theory you aren’t capable of yourself. You can probably, if not perform the calculations, at least understand, in theory, how the output might be calculated from the input. Someone two stddevs below you can’t understand that, and probably can’t do your job.

        In my life, I deal reasonably frequently with such people — people sometimes maybe four stddevs below me. They just can’t — ever — do what I do, or even work with the tools produced by my efforts (at least, in the days when I did develop). On multiple cognitive levels. Not even considering raw skill in mathematics, there are a whole slew of cognitive behaviors that surround and precede that.

        But, even imagine a world like Idiocracy where the secret geniuses behind the scenes (I know they have to be there. Otherwise everyone would be dead already.) have constructed a world where an absolute moron can be a “doctor.” (Doctor: “Right, kick ass. Well, don’t want to sound like a dick or nothin’, but, ah… it says on your chart that you’re fucked up. Ah, you talk like a fag, and your shit’s all retarded. What I’d do, is just like… like… you know, like, you know what I mean, like…”), how many doctors, exactly, do you need? Surely, with a system so automated, one IQ 140 skilled doctor is worth scores of “doctors” who can barely read the automated output. Is the Idiocracy doctor actually productively employed or has he just been given something to do to occupy his time?

    2. Gee, I have to admit that you’ve set out a very good argument, especially that bit about IQ. There is an entire continent wherein the average IQ is about 70. (PC precludes ever identifying which continent that is.) You may well be right. It’s hard to imagine how the inhabitants thereof can have a good future in the robot age.

    3. Follow up … will a cognitive/productive elite employee half the world as domestic servants? I’m pretty wealthy. I can imagine a future me having an abundance of butlers, maids, nannies, ranch hands, etc. doing jobs I now largely do myself. I don’t necessarily *need* them, but in a post-scarcity economy where humans are a cheap, abundant commodity, what else will all those people do? My ranch would look great if I was able to comfortably employ a half-dozen ranch hands to be just hanging around to repair any fences, cut any weeds, groom the pastures, just because it was so cheap to be able to do so.

      Is that a sustainable economy? As long as all the servants are happy, I guess. But I don’t think it’s human nature for them to stay happy. Envy is a fundamental component of humanity. Sooner or later, a bunch of servants at my beck and call are going to, rightly or wrongly, get annoyed that they’re doing all the grunt work while I lounge around drinking mint juleps and collecting on my investments or doing whatever it is the elite do in those days. This is not even taking into account that Rosie the Robot Housemaid may be prettier, more compliant and make better mint juleps than all the human candidates….

  7. Im seeing the argument of “but unemployment!”.
    So what? Who gives a crap? The fact that unemployment-or, rather, not working-is even a thing for people that are alive is astounding. Before technology, everyone worked, brutal hours, at a brutal pace, in worse conditions for less results than the meanest menial laborer of 200 years ago.
    Artisinal crafts, personal services, actual face to face counseling, and uncountable clever ideas and schemes are already beginning to bloom. Many will fail, some will succeed, and a few will boom uncontrollably just like every single advancement ever. The simple fact is that change is coming, it will seem to suck for some people, but even they (except for those Luddites who will ritualistically suffer to show their purity of purpose) will be better off. More resources for less effort is a good thing, and just because we cannot see the exact form the future will take is no reason to fear it.

    1. People need to be kept busy. People need purpose. People need to struggle, to have challenges.

      Artisinal crafts, personal services, actual face to face counseling, and uncountable clever ideas and schemes are already beginning to bloom.

      Jamal from the hood isn’t an artisanal organic candlemaker waiting to be discovered. He’s impulsive, aggressive and struggles with basic reading comprehension and simple arithmetic.

      He might have made a decent factory worker under the old paternalistic, supervised model, but most of the factory jobs left town a couple decades before he was born. Now he sponges off the welfare benefits of his three baby mommas, and does intermittent under-the-table work, legal and illegal. He fantasizes about a variety of unattainable dreams — rapper, sports star — that his culture has taught him. Your future offers him…?

      1. Are you putting together an advertisement for abortion? Because, gee-whiz, you seem to be describing a person not only with no job, but no hope to ever be able to attain one because he apparently doesn’t have the cognitive skills of a small child who understands that in order to get something they might just have to do something other than sit on their ass moping about it.

  8. This time is different.

    The stick, the plow, even the punch card loom weren’t self-aware, sentient and one trillion times more intelligent than humans.

    Yea, I’m worried about this next 25-50 years. Looks like Lights out for humanity as the super intelligent alien race – our progeny – take over as the alpha species. If they treat us as we treat lesser species, well…

    1. The stick, the plow, even the punch card loom weren’t self-aware, sentient and one trillion times more intelligent than humans.

      Well that’s just…special.
      Hint: Neither is anything that exists or on the drawing board.

  9. …am I the only person here who lives in the middle of nowhere among the sometimes-less-than-ideally functional?

    I know a bunch of waitresses–persons whose job is less accurately taking orders than being personable and making an experience of being cared for. I know farm hands–somehow, you never fully get around the need for them, especially as you chase labor-intensive premium agricultural products. (Odds this future doesn’t have an “Artisan Human-Grown!” label?) I know folks who basically “gig” for the next guy who needs a warm body (generally under the table)–there’s usually outfits, particularly in the sticks, that won’t be able to afford the tech but hold on anyway.

    (And that’s without getting into the black markets–I swear half the population up here has grown weed at some point, and smuggling cigarettes from the reservations is big doings. You can see how illegal activities are going to be harder to bring the big capital into.)

    You guys are thinking very high-level, but as long as folks like pretty girls to smile at them and need things moved from one place to another (but not enough to make a machine worthwhile), there’ll be cracks to fall into. And as things get cheaper, the be less and less you’ll actually need to accomplish to provide for yourself.

    (Funny enough, I’m one of the most automatable persons I know–years of data entry temping. But… so not concerned about it. I know people.)

  10. 1) Past performance is no guarantee of future results. But it does show a pretty accurate representation of what we can expect.
    2) Most of the grand theories of touted in the past of the demise of the human condition have tended to be spectacularly wrong. Oftentimes they are wrong because they failed to take into account human ingenuity and changing technologies.
    a) Malthus was wrong about how much food could be grown, and very wrong about how many people there would be on earth by the early 21st century. Not only did we expand the amount of land and water that could be used for agriculture, we drastically decreased the number of people needed to work that land/water to provide an even greater amount of food. And while current large scale urban agriculture isn’t economically viable, as the processes and varieties evolve it will likely have an increasing impact on available nutrition choices to the populations near them.
    b) We are not running out of resources. Paul Ehrlich lost his bet to Julian Simon on the price of metals. Anyone remember Carter’s prediction that the world would run out of oil by 2011? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nI8scHUxgoc It’s rather amazing what the human mind can come up with for solutions when presented problems.
    c) Remember all that talk about acid rain in the 1970’s and ’80’s?
    d) In the late 19th century horse manure/urine and equine carcasses in the streets were a significant problem. No one knew what to do. The situation was unsustainable. Within a couple of decades it wasn’t a problem anymore as automobiles took over. Now the problem is too many autos, and once again the planners have no idea what to do. History suggests in a couple of decades it won’t be a problem anymore.
    3) So called ‘experts’ in their fields are often wrong. The chairman of IBM predicted during WWII that there was only a market for a small handful of computers worldwide. Albert Einstein didn’t think we’d have nuclear power plants.
    4) Correlation is not causation. But one of the things we’ve seen over the last couple of centuries is that as industrialization increases the prosperity and living conditions of the affected populations has increased.

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