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.

[< Back] [Ming the Mechanic]



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.  

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 @ 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 @ 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.  

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.  

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 :)  

Other stories in
2010-07-10 13:01: Strong Elastic Links
2010-07-08 02:27: Truth: superconductivity for scalable networks
2010-06-27 02:28: Be afraid, be very afraid
2008-07-06 23:20: Laws of social networks
2008-06-20 15:40: Peer material production
2008-05-06 13:57: Why can't we stick to our goals?
2008-02-21 21:16: Open social networks
2007-11-08 01:49: The value of connections
2007-11-07 00:51: Diversity counterproductive to social capital?
2007-07-13 23:42: Plan vs Reality

[< Back] [Ming the Mechanic] [PermaLink]? 

Link to this article as: http://ming.tv/flemming2.php/__show_article/_a000010-000885.htm
Main Page: ming.tv