Ming the Mechanic:
Robot economies

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch
 Robot economies2003-09-01 17:03
picture by Flemming Funch

A fellow named Marshall Brain wrote a couple of interesting articles, Robotic Nation and Robotic Freedom. Essentially he points out that it is pretty inevitable that in a few years a lot of jobs will be done by robots. Particularly minimum wage low level jobs, like clerks at Walmart, the people at the counter at McDonalds, etc. So, a lot of people will become unemployed, because their jobs can be done without humans, or with much fewer humans. But the people who own those companies will make the same or more money. Wealth gets amassed into fewer hands and large masses of people will have no chance of playing in that game. And the author then tries to come up with some creative scenarios of how wealth might become more distributed.

Many good points in those articles, and some good ideas too, although probably not all workable. I'd insist that there are some fundamental problems in our economic system which would need to be solved, and which won't be solved by creative ways of paying people money so they can keep being consumers. The current system is rigged towards amassing money for large corporations and banks, and little sub-schemes aren't going to change that.

The robot problem indeed points out some of those design flaws in the system. Indeed, if a piece of work could be done well by robots instead of humans for 1/2 the price, few corporations will hesitate to make that choice. So, take that a bit further and imagine that at some point most work could suddenly be done by robots. The "rational" decisions for a board of directors, if there's a cheaper and more efficient alternative, will be to fire everybody, except for a few managers or designers or whatever would still be needed. Taken to its full conclusion, we end up with just managers, board members, business owners, investors, and we don't need everybody else. Automated factories can ultimately produce everything, and smart robots can do all manual work.

But hey, where's then the future we were promised? If most things end up being done by automation, we'd expect to be able to live lives of leisure, pursuing purely artistic or philosophic endeavors. Growing orchids, painting, traveling, studying ancient languages. If machines could produce in abundance everything we need, there would be no great reason why we shouldn't. Then why isn't it going in that direction?

Despite announcements of us living in an information economy, we're really still living in an economic system designed for the industrial revolution, meant to centralize the production power, and the capital needed to finance it. Under such a system, ubiquitous automation would mean that almost everybody's unemployed and that the owners of the production apparatus would be incredibly wealthy.

That is not going to happen, just for the reason that the capitalistic system doesn't work without most of us being consumers. I.e. we need to be able to pay for whatever is produced. The wealthy corporate owners enjoy being very wealthy, but they know full well that it in their best interest to keep most other people in a state of being affluent enough to buy the products that are being produced, but stupid enough to not be able to threaten their position. So they would naturally look towards inventing some more useless jobs to replace the jobs that are automated. Probably they won't create those jobs themselves, but they might persuade a government to increase its budget or start a war or something. Or they might think of ways of making life more complicated so that some new kinds of professions are needed to sort it out.

There's also the entirely more optimistic possibility that the new technology will become inherently liberating for everybody. Just like the Internet tends to flatten out hierarchies and give equal possibilities to a much wider group of people. Robotics, artificial intelligence and nanotech might possibly do that too. There's indeed a trend towards putting the means of production more into the hands of regular people. It won't be all that long before you can have a "printer" in your house which can "print" things that are actually useful. Right now you can buy such a thing for making prototypes, and it will make plastic models of computer design, and it has dropped drastically in price over the last few years. Just like desktop publishing revolutionized publishing, desktop manufacturing will too. Potentially the advantage of huge centralized production facilities will disappear for many purposes. You might be able to produce things just as cheaply in your kitchen. Or maybe, as with desktop publishing and website design, even cheaper on your own than if it were done by a huge corporation.

And maybe, along with all that change, somebody will come up with a new economic system that actually is good enough that it sticks. A system where it actually is a good thing for everybody if something can be produced more efficiently, rather than an unemployment headache.

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1 Sep 2003 @ 18:43 by Abe @ : hmmm
didn't Marx predict pretty much the same thing, that by increasing the number of machine the capitalists could increase the surplus labor they could extract out of workers?  

1 Sep 2003 @ 19:02 by ming : Marxism
I'm sure he did, and it seems like he described capitalism more precisely than any capitalist would dare. Not that it provides much solution. I think capitalism is pretty much just centralized communism with a better PR firm. I think we need free markets.  

1 Sep 2003 @ 19:36 by b : Free Markets
Indeed, we do need free markets.  

3 Sep 2003 @ 23:14 by phil jones @ : experiment with markets
Hi Ming,

interesting articles.

We (Optimaes) are trying to get a community of people together who think seriously about alternative economic systems and how they work, by building them in simulation. You can download the code at our site and argue about the results on our wiki.

It's pretty basic at the moment, but it's growing.


phil jones  

3 Sep 2003 @ 23:15 by phil jones @ : URL
Ah .. I see your comments system removes links.

Project here : http://www.synaesmedia.com/optimaes/optimaes.cgi?HomePage  

4 Sep 2003 @ 14:39 by Pat Beatty @ : Guaranteed Basic Income
I've been fighting for this for about 30 years in Canada but no-one's been listening so I'm delighted to see others taking this seriously. Bye-the-way, most of the costs of a GBI would come out moneys already being spent, either on transfer payments or administrave costs. Antisocial workers are VERY expensive.  

5 Sep 2003 @ 00:05 by ov : This Hour Has 22 Minutes
A few years ago a Canadian comedy show came up with a solution to this. The three biggest problems were an aging population, high unemployment and congested traffic. Their proposal was to feed the old to the unemployed so they would have enough energy to carry the workers to the office and back.

Used to be a common saying that the world doesn't owe you a living. Now with the NeoCons permanently entrenched this has been upgraded to the world doesn't owe you a job. Sure looking forward to the collapse of the first world; perhaps when we are all destitute we will have common grounds sufficient to create a future that is sustainable. One can always hope.


3 Nov 2003 @ 08:19 by stefanti @ : Growth - and other little flaws
I think there are more fundamental flaws to our current economic system - some structural and some psychological in nature. Risk is a problem - especially when combind with intellectual blindness. Another problem is the need for growth which appears to be mostly induced by the interest based monetary system. Nothing can grow forever within a limited System. I recently had the chance to interview the famous physicist Michio Kaku, and even a forward thinking person like him believes that we basically will be stuck on the planet - certainly the vast majority of mankind - for the next several thousand years. Everyone with basic mathematical knowledge can esily calculate what that would mean in the context of an economy that requires exponential growth. The aging population is an example. Politicians in Germany these days want to encourage families to have more children in order to solve the financial problems of the the health- and pension systems. Currently we have a population growth of 0.5 percent. If we'd only have 1 percent, in a mere 200 years our small country would have to house a population the size of that of Russia and the USA combined - on an area smaller than California! So what kind of nincompoop suggestions are that?

Another observation: The per capita GDP in most Western countries roughly doubled within the last 20 years, and yet survey after survey shows that in fact the average money families have available - the average livelyhood - decreased. And at the same time the global capital flow of one month in currency trading alone roughly matches the annual GDP of the United States.

I see a difference between capitalism and a free market society. capitalism aims at increasing capital. Capital - money that is - becomes the focus, an end in itself. In a free market society capital merely is a tool, a medium of exchange - needs and goods to meet these needs are at the center of all activity. The interest based money system in which money itself becomes the good attempts to create wealth out of nothingness at an every increasing pace. But in the long run the equation does not work. Someone has to pay the interest and that money has to be earned in the real world where endless growth is an absolute impossibility.

There is a superb ook about the topic by Prof. Bernard Lietaer - surely one of the world's leading experts on monetary systems and alternative currencies. For some unknown reason it appears to not be available in the US, although it in fact appeared at Random House. But it is available at Amazon UK and Amazon Germany. Here it is:



Stefan Thiesen  

3 Nov 2003 @ 15:37 by taranga @ : robots, taxation & interest
There is reluctance for most western (non) democracies in need of additional public revenue to consider a robot tax. The electorate would welcome such a tax but the corporate party funders would obviously not, but provided it was world wide and well enforced it would atleast slow the mass unemployment that a robot society would result in as well as enabling more generous unemployment benefit, so allowing the under employed to continue as consumers.

Perhaps a more important reform would be the adoption of Islamic [and early Christian] doctrines of outlawing usery. If you can only maintain or increase your wealth by putting into an enterprise that does something rather than just a savings account then you end up with a different perspective and money becomes what it really is - a means of exchange, you are also likely to develop a greater respect for the value of workers, and it is easier for society to become more equitable.

Have look at the new economics foundation web site {http://www.neweconomics.org}

great blog - taranga  

3 Nov 2003 @ 15:58 by ming : Outlawing Usery
Excellent point. Yes, I think that would probably be more helpful than anything else I can immediately think of.  

4 Nov 2003 @ 05:37 by stefanti @ : Filling empty lives
INDEED! It is little known among most people that usury/interest is a relatively recent invention - and certainly so for the general public. In fact the prohibition of usury was a Christian dogma that had been re-affirmed by the Vatican as late as the early 19th century. Principally it still is valid, but probably the temptation is just too strong for any organization that wants to play in the first league. Religions can be quite flexible...

A machine tax definitely is one way towards more justice. A problem I see is that economy is a circular system - a balance - and ever more machines will not result in ever more profit for their owners because the consumer base erodes (an euphemistic expression for rising poverty) and only ever lower prices will keep consumption rolling. Even then there is a saturation point.

What I consider sick is that quality is bad for the economy - or health is bad for the economy. It even is good for the economy (in this cas the "health Industry") if everyone is chronically ill and unhappy. We constantly have to purchase products against ailments and tristesse in order to fill our empty lives. Or if we imagine a product of perfect quality - say an affordable perfect stereo system with virtually unlimited lifetime. In our economic system such a product would be the death of the producing company if mass produced, because the market would quickly be saturated. What then if we all have all the things we need some day and they hardly ever have to be replaced because they are of such fantastic quality? Will we throw our perfect stereo away because fashion suddenly dictates to have a pink one instead of the black one we possess? What if our houses would last 500 or more years - which is the case wwith many traditional buildings? Quality is a factor that ultimately runs contrary to economic growth, which is more closely connected to the production of fantastic amounts of ever more garbage, sewage, exhaust - in short pollution.

A few absurd aspects of the interest system are easily revealed. The banks borrow money - for example from savers. On a savings account in Germany currently about 1 percent interest is all one gets. If I take a credit from the bank that starts at about 8 percent. The bank makes 700 percent profit. For what? If I don't pay, I even have to pay interest for the unpaid interest. Everyone knows that. But what actually happens there? Credit/debt or in other words wealth/woverty are created out of absolute nothingness. Nothing is done. No service is provided. No product is produced, no need is met. And this absurd debt-out-of-nothingness we have to pay eevery time we purchase something. The costs for credit interests and mortgage are hidden in every single product, every single service. And these costs have to be eaaarned in addition to the normal product price. This is the main reason why economic growth is required in order to avoid poverty. It is, in my eyes, a deeply absurd system. The only visible side effect are the glass towers in Cities around the world - growing ever higher into the sky and containing nothing of real value - nothing but organisations largely occupied with administrating themselves.

Stefan Thiesen  

4 Nov 2003 @ 08:37 by ming : Service Model
One model that has potential, even in the current economic environment, is if manufacturers sell a service rather than a good. I'd be quite willing to pay something every month for always having a high quality stereo system in perfect condition. That might be one system that lasts forever, or it might be that it gets upgraded automatically once in a while. Likewise, I'd be happy to pay for being kept healthy, and if I happen to not need any intervention to fix bad health, great. If I have a lawn and need a lawn mower to mow it, I'd be happy if a good quality, well-maintained lawn mower is at my disposal whenever I need it. It would be more simple for me if I paid, say $10 per month for that, rather than having to buy a new one once in a while. If I listen to music, I don't mind paying for that. But it is a bad model that I'm forced to buy the same music first on LPs, then on tapes, then on CDs, then on whatever comes next. That should be part of the service agreement, to facitate that I change formats when a new one becomes more appropriate.

I'd also prefer for the manufacturers to be responsible for the disposal of used up, broken products. As part of my service agreement, the manufacturer should take back the car or the CD or the toner cartridge that gets replaced. And they need to calculate the cost of recycling into their manufacturing costs.  

6 Nov 2003 @ 06:42 by stefanti @ : Service Model
Yes. Perhaps the service model is one answer, but not the only one. The German public health insurance system is one example for the concept you describe. Fees are based upon income - the solidarity principle. Children are insured for free. I pay the same - whether I am healthy or not. Normally in young adult years the members pay more and in the later years benefit more. Everything is - or used to be - covered, ranging from a tooth filling to a heart transplant. (Lately they ran a bit into trouble - partly due to population aging, but I'd say mainly because they built too many high rise glass towers and paid ridiculous wages to their managers...).

But okay - health care is an example where that works. In case of the mentioned stereo system - my problem with that is that basically I would pay forever. If everything were handled this way, I would be tied in ever more contracts to ever more corporations and other entities. Bureaucracy would grow infinitely, freedom would more and more be handed over to bureaucratic systems and I would not benefit much. On the contrary: I would have to pay a higher price than before, because the company would have to finance the products they lease to me, so I have to pay ever more interest. As I see it, the necessity for economic growth would even be pushed. In short: I pay more than now, have more hassles and never own the thing I pay for.

Using something corporatively with others is a totally different pair of shoes. Our lawn mower - like most lawn mowers - patiently sits in the garage 95% of the time. What could possibly be more unproductive! So in principle it certainly would make a hell of a lot of sense to somehow share the costs and benefits of the thing with others. There are problems of course. Responsibility, care for the thing - the famous "tragedy of the commons". But nothing that could not be worked out, I guess. Problem is that most likely everyone would want to mowe their lawn at exactly the same time on Saturday afternoon :). And if the mowing was distributed over the week, there'd be mowing noise every day... Well. Somebody is prone to not like that much. It is a complicated world... :).

Hewlett Packard by the way already takes their printer cartridges back to refurbish and refill them. There are more and more car pools forming - and also car sharing systems - in the big cities of my country and also more and more alternative - often time based - currencies. A few things are moving, but it takes time. Unfortunately it might take more time than we have, and currently we are still accelerating in the wrong direction while the brakes appear to be failing. When I recently talked to Michio Kaku he said

"I think there will be shocks. We’re gonna be running out of oil pretty soon, the atmosphere is heating up very rapidly. Most people do nothing about it because they like their SUVs, they like their lifestyle, but the Earth is changing very rapidly now, and I think nothing has been done about it. So - I think humanity, unfortunately, won’t do anything until there’s a big shock."

I think all externalized and risk based and long term costs should be incorporated into the price of a product. That is not only recycling - it is everything that the general public pays. Cleanup of environmental damage. Health damage etc. If that were done, many systems and products would not exist. What is, for example, the integrated long term cost of nuclear energy? Or that of the fossil fuel economy?

We'll see. We'll see. Alternatives exist, but they all gnaw on the thrones of the mighy and rich.

Stefan Thiesen  

10 Nov 2003 @ 03:51 by taranga @ : service model - recycling costs
The total cost may not be higher for a long term lease - as long as the manufacturor is involved in the loop - to ensure that they design the best longest lasting and reliable product that is easy to recycle. they can increase margins by offering customers an upgrade or the cheaper option of sticking with the old technology. Imagine knowing at the begining of the year what your definite cost of ownership is for your car, dishwasher etc. For a lot of people who use expensive credit for the initial purchase renting could be a lot cheaper especially if organised through a local non-profit community co-op. After all as soon as you buy a product you should really be putting money aside to cover its eventual replacement. In the uk the companies that used to rent tellies and videos now also rent washing machines etc. though i've not checked out the cost myself.

On recycling a classic example is the new EU law which is about to catch out all SME's in Europe, this makes it illegal to put fluorescent tubes or bulbs into the general waste stream due to the mecury gas they contain. Unfortunately as no one has planned the introduction of this law the current cost of recycling a tube safely is 2-3 times the original cost of purchase. This total lunacy will result in massive pollution of the environment as unscrupulous individuals dump them. As the can have a life of up to about 7 years, anyone with any sense would have first introduced a ringfenced polution tax for say five years so that there was plenty of funds to equip the the local authority refuse stations with appropriate equipment and the provide a "free at the point of disposal" recycling service.  

10 Nov 2003 @ 05:47 by ming : Cooperative Service
OK, so there's a point to a cooperative service model. Essentially we're looking at the problem of how we best satisfy certain needs and wants from a group of people, while using resources most economically, and cleaning up the mess afterwards. So, if all of that can get together in the same spreadsheet, things might become more sane. It has to be, somehow, nothing less than the whole thing.

Owning my own lawn mower seems at this point preferable to sharing one amongst everyone on the street. But the latter would be cheaper and less resource intensive. And, yes, we'll probably want to mow the lawn at the same time, and my neighbor doesn't clean the grass off the blades as well as I would like. But I'd be happy if some cooperative venture figured out how better to optimize the situation. It might be something in-between. 5 lawnmowers for the street, and somebody who cleans them. And maybe I can either pay for my share up front, or pay something per month. And maybe we'll get a surplus back if it all works out well.

It seems that most of the crazyness, like the fluorescent tubes, comes from not including the whole picture. Some well-meaning politician tries to make a rule to protect the environment, without thinking through all the pieces. Or a corporation finds a business in selling us long-life bulbs that use less resources, but that might be an even more poisonous mess to clean up later.  

17 Nov 2003 @ 21:42 by stefanti @ : big picture
Yes indeed - ultimately it is the big picture. The externalizations such as the long terms costs of global warming, air and water pollution etc. that currently burden general society have to be included. Many rental schemes make more sense then, if all those costs are figured in. Still - to return to the stereo example - in principle my daughter might inherit the stereo system I once bought and - if it survives - it could be passed through generations. The rental scheme appears to make more sense for products like cars and computers which have a limited lifetime and will have to be taken back for recycling etc.

Another problem I see is that it is not possible to think through all pieces. The attempt regularly leads to bureaucratic over regulation that often causes just as many problems as it solves and is a terrible burden for each individual. The state also regularly is unable to keep up with technological changes and/or market developments, so regulations tend to be unfit for the real world situation.

Nevertheless - a more fundamental point I'd like to make is that the sole economy ought to be to increase the livelihood of the people. Currently economy appears to have become an end in itself. Accumulation of capital became an end in itself, which strikes me as totally absurd. Humans are only employed as long as corporations have not found a way to replace them. In principle it is even conceivable that the entire economy runs on, keeps growing, keeps accumulating capital, without any humans partaking in that game… Economy would become its own simulation. A machine tax (like perhaps a tax on global financial speculations) re-distributing some wealth from the “apparatus” to the people would be a first necessary step towards a more humane world economy. But that would have to be a global step. Otherwise the corporations just move to a country without machine tax – just like they now move to countries without social welfare systems, environmental regulation, labor protection laws and the like, quickly eroding the established standards in those countries that slowly have established such regulations in painful processes over decades.  

22 Nov 2003 @ 22:43 by Rey Besson @ : Phil Jones
Ahhhh, Phil Jones..!!!!

Simple question 2 you: Are U the owner of a certain monkey.????  

30 Apr 2016 @ 01:10 by Mattingly @ : fpfqxCblmGuwVQwqM
lemony flutter is so nice on the lips overnight..i swear it feels like i still have it on, when i wake up in the morning.i tried to look for the shampoo you just picked up, while i was in lush tot#ihn..dgdn&i39;t see it..but i'll check again :)  

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