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July 24, 2003

"Robotic Nation"

A really interesting link from Slashdot today. While the title is a bit geeky, Marshall Brain makes a very clear argument that advances in robotic technology will have huge impacts on employment patterns within our lifetimes. It sounds terribly sci-fi, until you realize that all those ATMs and self-service kiosks and auto-check-out lines in stores are all basically robots. And they have already eliminated millions of jobs. Brain looks at a number of sectors (manufacturing, food service, construction) that he estimates will be, for simple economic reasons, devoid of human workers by mid-century. It makes me awfully glad to be a member of the creative class--our work is the last field slated for robotic replacement. Let's face it: when the robots start marketing to us, it's all over. As that Jane's Addiction song goes, "We'll make great pets."

Leaving aside Terminator-style doomsday scenarios, having 50% unemployment in developed countries will completely alter all of our assumptions about work, production, and citizenship. Brain's point is that we need to start wrestling with these issues now.

One point he doesn't touch on: perhaps by 2050, with all those robots, Americans will finally get more than 2 lousy weeks off a year. Of course, the Europeans are sure to beat us to the point where humans only have to work two weeks out of the year. Assuming the robots are kind and loving masters, it will be a great vacation.

Posted by jay at July 24, 2003 11:24 AM | TrackBack
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This reminds me of a few things.

"Star Trek" Economy - It seems that in the Star Trek universe, almost no one is doing any physically tiring, monotonous, or dangerous tasks, and everyone seems to have time to develop their talents and interests. Yay!

Jobs we don't want anyway - The argument we heard with NAFTA that the jobs that we would lose to other countries—low-tech manufacturing, for example—were jobs that we should let go anyway. The American worker should be able to retrain and do something more interesting and less dangerous (as long as a good portion of that productivity surplus pays for retraining).

Five Acres and Independence - Get some land, learn to raise crops and animals, and make the job economy irrelevant!

Gift Economy - I first learned this term from Burning Man and the movie Gifting It (both of which I highly recommend and might help you experience if asked). I also liked this essay about gift economy that I found, though putting "gift economy" into Google turns up too many reading opportunities to pick the best without a lot of reading.

Posted by: Gary on July 30, 2003 06:23 PM

I knew there was something else I had in mind last night. That was an article that I read sometime back in the '90s in which the author laid out reasons to consider higher unemployment good for a society—perhaps—and very low unemployment to be bad. I wish I could find that piece now. The only part that I remember was that the cost to the society of having very low unemployment was supposed to be greater the benefit. The key players in the equation would seem to be business and public assistance programs, but I can't remember...

Speaking of public assistance, I wonder if ubiquitous robotic replacement by 2050 is fast enough to benefit the common man? If humans are replaced slowly enough, I would expect the current economic structure to absorb the new found slack and distribute the profits upward; but, if we could magically jump forward to every major municipality having a good supply of robots capable of building public works projects at low marginal cost, maybe we'd see plenty of low- or no-income housing, farms producing food at almost no cost, and monorails going everywhere.

Can we ever eliminate money? I doubt it. It seems more likely that we'd wind up with a portion of society getting an allowance from the state, and business competing to see who gets to process it back into the system.

Posted by: Gary on July 31, 2003 10:14 AM
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