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A World Without Jobs

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Technological advances are going to take away basically all of our jobs. This workless future should frighten all of us. It certainly worries Sun Microsystems cofounder Vinod Khosla. To say the least, Khosla’s solutions section is really murky because he can’t get past basically being a technofuturist libertarian, but his diagnosis of the problem is spot on. In part:

While the future is promising and this technology revolution may result in dramatically increasing productivity and abundance, the process of getting there raises all sorts of questions about the changing nature of work and the likely increase in income disparity. With less need for human labor and judgment, labor will be devalued relative to capital and even more so relative to ideas and machine learning technology. In an era of abundance and increasing income disparity, we may need a version of capitalism that is focused on more than just efficient production and also places greater prioritization on the less desirable side effects of capitalism.

Let’s look at the scale of change that the new machine learning and data revolution may bring and why it potentially could be different than prior technology revolutions like mobile phones, accessible computing and automobiles. Just in the Khosla Ventures portfolio alone, entrepreneurs already are trying to use machine learning technologies to replace human judgment in many areas including farm workers, warehouse workers, hamburger flippers, legal researchers, financial investment intermediaries, some areas of a cardiologist’s functions, ear-nose-throat (ENT) specialists, psychiatrists and many others. Efficiency in the business world generally means reducing costs, which results in using fewer well-paid but highly skilled minds and the technology they develop or capital to replace lower paid and less skilled workers.

In past economic history, each technology revolution—while replacing some jobs—has created more new types of job opportunities and productivity improvements, but this time could be different. Economic theory is largely based on an extrapolation of the past rather than causality, but if basic drivers of job creation change then outcomes may be different. Historically, technology augmented and amplified human capability, which increased the productivity of human labor. Education was one method for humans to leverage technology as it evolved and improved. However, if machine learning technologies become superior in both intelligence and the knowledge relevant to a particular job, human employees may be rendered unnecessary or in the very least, they will be in far less demand and command lower pay.

Machines with unlimited and rapidly expanding human-like capabilities may mean there will no longer be as much need to leverage human capabilities. In fact, there may be little for humans to augment or amplify even as productivity per human hour of labor increases dramatically all while far fewer people are needed for most tasks. This is not to say all human functions will be replaced but rather that many, and maybe even a majority, may not be needed.

What if machines, which may soon exceed the capability of human judgment, do most jobs better than humans even if people receive additional training? The magnitude of the problem of displaced workers and increasing income disparity especially in the face of abundance (increasing GDP) may become substantially larger. It is possible that this particular technology revolution does not allow for human augmentation and amplification by technology to a large enough degree and that education and retraining are not solutions at all, except for a very small percentage of the workforce. As Karl Marx said, “when the train of history hits a curve, the intellectuals fall off”. Extrapolation of our past experiences, a favorite technique of economists, may not be a valid predictor of the future—the historical correlation may be broken by a new causality. Efforts at estimating the number of jobs that are susceptible to computerization underestimate how technology may evolve and make assumptions that seem very likely to be false, similar to past “truths” (like the waning correlation between productivity and income growth for labor). Even with this underestimate, researchers concluded that of the 702 job functions studied, 47-percent are at risk of being automated.

If climate change is the greatest challenge faced by the human race, I would say that the elimination of work is the second greatest challenge. I know the usual critique, including among many commenters here, is to call any criticism of technology Luddism and continue in our blind faith in technology. But this is very real problem. There is no future for work in this machine-driven society. If machines can replace not only blue-collar but also white-collar work, what do we do to eat, to house ourselves, to live a decent life? We have already seen the impacts of mechanization on the American working class and the result is not pretty. We are able to ignore the endemic poverty and societal instability the loss of jobs has created because the white-collar, professional class has largely been unaffected. But that is changing very rapidly. Outsourcing jobs only adds to this. Is there any reason to pay Americans to do accounting work? Why shouldn’t that all be sent to India? Assuming we need any humans at all?

Sure, such a technological utopian near future could free us all from work and allow us to live the creative lives of leisure we all think we deserve. Hey, that’d be great! It’s also totally ridiculous to think that is the outcome here. Far more likely is the exacerbation of what we are already seeing: a new Gilded Age of extreme income inequality as the global 1% completely controls everything and the global 99% is a threat that is put down with police power. I have to say that anyone who says this is not the likely outcome is probably ignoring how power operates and the insatiable desire of the rich to horde resources.

I know this post sounds apocalyptic. But it’s not just me saying this is coming. It’s the business leaders ensuring it is happening.

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  • Malaclypse

    If machines can replace not only blue-collar but also white-collar work, what do we do to eat, to house ourselves, to live a decent life?

    Both Marx and Keynes had similar answers to this question. I don’t think 80% of the world’s population willingly starves to death, which means that the relations of production change, drastically. The choice is that or genocide on a scale never before seen.

    • c u n d gulag

      There’s also that chance of a huge pandemic wiping out the ‘surplus population.’
      Of course, that will consist of mostly poor people.

    • Linnaeus

      I don’t think 80% of the world’s population willingly starves to death, which means that the relations of production change, drastically.

      And that’s the step that Khosla doesn’t seem willing to take.

      • Right. He just can’t go there because it means everything he believes is bad. But have to give him credit for the diagnosis. We can go from there.

        • Rob in CT

          I wonder if theres some “know your audience” going on, too (see also the very brief, quiet mention of single-payer healthcare).

      • LeeEsq

        It isn’t a step that a lot of anti-market people were willing to take traditionally either. Many anti-capitalists still placed a great value in the idea of work even if they had different ideas about ownership and distribution than market people. Anti-market people might face an easier time with the leap but not that much.

        • Linnaeus

          Certainly, though “a change in the relations of production” can be a pretty broad category. It need not mean that we give up work. Thing is, folks in Khosla’s class tend to resist changes that are much, much less drastic than that.

    • DrS

      A boot stepping on a human face, forever

      • njorl

        a new Gilded Age of extreme income inequality as the global 1% completely controls everything and the global 99% is a threat that is put down with police power.

        What is left out (or perhaps implied) is that we are also making great strides in the automation of the tools of oppression. Every human internal security expert you have to hire, every police drone operator on the job is a threat to betray the ruling class. It is much more sensible to automate your intelligence gathering and robotic police than to risk betrayal by a human employee who might have relatives among the sub-proles.

        • burritoboy

          No, not really. What a ruler ultimately worries about is not the final revolution or coup (the violent acts), but how to control, suppress or redirect societal unhappiness long before any actual physical action happens. Think about how the very idea of royalism was undermined by the philosophers of the 18th century, whose only actions were writing and speech, long before any of the revolutions at the 18th century’s end actually came. Think about how the USSR collapsed while it had an astonishing military, organizational and espionage capacity partially by the opposition of poets, writers, economists and so forth – none of whom posed any physical threat to any regime whatsoever.

          The robot police can’t control or even easily monitor – by definition – human sentiments and emotions. Indeed, they are essentially irrelevant to the question of the just state.

          • njorl

            Why would there still be human philosophers, poets or writers?

            If enough resources are concentrated in few enough hands, you no longer need to solve the problems of scarcity. When the “haves” have enough to provide for themselves and to protect themselves from the “have nots”, they no longer need to hire problem solving talent. Without the necessity of educating creative people to solve new but practical problems, you’re not going to maintain the support system for educating people to solve abstract problems. You won’t need philosophers or scientists. You’ll only need technicians.

            • burritoboy

              Because the “haves” compete amongst themselves for status, honors, money, fame, respect, power, reputation and so on. Most political activity (and much activity beyond politics) – whether in the past, currently or in the future – will be (and currently is!) various members of the “haves” coming into disagreement simply amongst themselves. The ancient Roman Senators under the Republic all had more than enough wealth to cease conflict between themselves – if conflict were about supplying their basic physical needs. Of course, they didn’t do so.

              • njorl

                Rome was never at a point where minimal competence was enough to guarantee survival. We’re postulating a world where inheritance of capital guarantees a life of luxury. The “haves” are not going to be Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. They’re going to be Paris Hilton. They’re not going to be Caeser and Pompey. They’re going to be Elagabalus with no Alexander Severus to deal with, just more Elagabali.

                • burritoboy

                  Remember that most aristocracies across history were like what you describe. There was no level of competence you needed to inherit your father’s titles, as long as you were the first-born son and remained alive at the moment of his death. But there was still massive levels of competition between members of the “haves” even in the most hidebound aristocracies – even if all of the aristocrats have vastly more than sufficient financial wealth, they will not be equal (and can not be equal) in prestige or reputation or honors or respect or physical attractiveness or the affections of friends or a hundred other things that are difficult to simply buy outright.

          • BruceJ

            What they can do is kill us, remorselessly and tirelessly.

            “Listen. Understand. That Terminator is out there. It can’t be reasoned with, it can’t be bargained with. It doesn’t feel pity of remorse or fear and it absolutely will not stop. Ever. Until you are dead.”

      • mikeSchilling

        And if it stops, you reboot it.

    • Marcion

      I am more fearful of the transition state, where, say, 20% of the population has been basically rendered obsolete. Not so many that some people wouldn’t still be convinced things are basically fine, but still too many for our system to support. This is where the social breakdown will start.

      • Rob in CT

        Seems to me we’re entering this state now.

        It’s one thing to say to people “ok, imagine ~80% of the population simply isn’t needed for labor, what do we do?” and you probably get pretty socialistic answers from anyone who isn’t a hardcore wingnut.

        But you’re right: if it’s ~25%, I think you get very different answers, and this will likely result in serious problems.

        • If we navigate this crunch correctly we could get a world where a full time job is 10 or 15 hours a week, with guaranteed minimum income for all and free higher education for everyone. Or we keep going the way we’re going and have a permanent war on the poor.

          • Murc

            This would actually be ideal and solves a lot of the abstract problems. People are still working, and you approach something like full employment, because the hours worked per week are so low ten people are doing the work of one. And it hides the psychological problem of make-work because you still have a job and still go in to do it. This happens now, to an extent; we’d be working eighty-hour weeks if our corporate masters could make us, but nobody thinks “Me and my co-workers are doing work that I could do by myself if I just lived at the office, we’re so lazy.”

            These employees have the dignity of work, but also have loads of time to do other things. Maybe those other things will lead to them joining the creative class and making it big! And they can’t be overly abused, because the guaranteed basic income means they can say “Take this job and shove it.”

            Yeah. I like that.

            • Rob in CT

              Bingo. That’s our best-case endgame. I fear it will not happen unless the plutocrats fear for their very lives, though.

            • TriforceofNature

              I may be anomalous but I actually really enjoyed my last job. I’d prefer 25-30 hours and would be willing to trade with anyone who wanted fewer hours.

        • Marcion

          That will also be a 20% who will not be contributing to the consumer economy. Imagine the Great Depression, but basically permanent. Now, what effect will that have on the pace of automation? At some point you reach diminishing returns as automation kills more of the demand that your robot is supposed to supply.

          It will probably be a long, drawn out slog. The genocide might happen in slow motion.

          • ThrottleJockey

            Here’s my question: If the robots have never before led to a permanent underclass why do we think they’d lead to one now? Cars got rid of buggy drivers, but it created (well paying) jobs for mechanics.

            • If every step before the edge of the cliff didn’t lead to my falling, why do I think the next one will? Each step has led to a better view, too!

              The issue is whether there is a capability where humans will be competitive* (for total replacement) and whether there is perceived sufficient net benefit in maintaining the underclass (for the 20% case). We’re pretty close to the latter now.

              *Or that we do as Mal suggests above.

            • GFW

              Because
              a) The robots are being controlled by ever-better software, which is approaching human performance for specific tasks, and will eventually offer superior performance in almost every task.
              b) Resource limitations mean unlimited growth is impossible. Previously the labor freed by robots could move on to other, growing areas of the economy.

              Summary: This time it’s different and there are actual scale factors that say it’s different.

              • Brett

                b) Resource limitations mean unlimited growth is impossible.

                That’s only if growth requires a minimum amount of additional inputs. I think it’s likely that most growth will require energy, but we have a lot of energy. It’s not clear that further growth will require more natural resources beyond replacing ones in use that can no longer be recycled, especially with a population that is moving towards a stable state.

              • ThrottleJockey

                b) Resource limitations mean unlimited growth is impossible. Previously the labor freed by robots could move on to other, growing areas of the economy.

                The whole point of innovation is to increase the amount of bang you get for the same amount of buck. Finite resources are not a limitation on growth over the long term.

                • I don’t think that is the whole or only point of innovation. (Any case where you create a new category of thing has at least the potential for new bang which might new new bucks.)

                  Also, you might want less false formulations of whatever your point is. Finite resources are obvious a limit on growth in the sufficiently long term, like axiomatically. Bacteria will grow exponentially until the run out of the various finite resources. Growth *well within* a bound cam seem unrestricted and efficiency gains can dramatically transform the consumption bound. But if you try to grow beyond the limits of a necessary resource you’ll fail.

            • Anna in PDX

              Cars got rid of buggy drivers is the wrong metaphor. Think of current workers as the horses of yesteryear. The “humans need not apply” video that was linked below is really helpful in getting an idea of the scope of the problem for workers, no matter how indispensable we think our jobs currently are.

          • Brett

            If you’ve got tanking demand, you’ll just get less automation overall. That stuff has to justify itself in terms of long-term cost savings to make up for the capital and operating costs of having it. If it’s cheaper to use people, then companies will.

        • Barry_D

          Seconded, and the next 20% is only sorta needed.

        • mary who makes wiring harnesses

          I would think it would be a lot easier to support 20% of the population than it would be to support 80%.

      • ThrottleJockey

        I think you’re right about the transition state, transition states are hard to negotiate (just ask Czar Nicholas II), but in time we figure out how to make it work (eg, the welfare state, etc).

    • Barry_D

      “The choice is that or genocide on a scale never before seen.”

      Or just massive repression, where half of the population doesn’t die, but doesn’t really live, either.

      • njorl

        Surely it would be far more humane to release a genetically engineered plague for which you have inoculated your employees (as part of their wages).

    • ThrottleJockey

      Also innovation has always led to more jobs (over time), not fewer.

      Maybe more important to the solution of this problem, innovation has always led to more wealth (which if redistributed appropriately would solve the problem of fewer jobs, if that state ever comes to be).

      • DrS

        Past performance is no guarantee of future performance.

        • Brett

          No, but when the prediction has been made dozens of times and with similar rhetoric, you have every reason to be suspicious of it.

      • Malaclypse

        Also innovation has always led to more jobs (over time), not fewer.

        I dare you to make this argument while standing in any city in the upper Midwest.

        • ThrottleJockey

          I live in Chicago dude, is that upper Midwest enough?

          The Rust Belt’s loss has largely been the Sun Belt’s gain, and we’ve probably lost far more jobs due to outsourcing than we have from robots. Its hard to look at the improvement in the American standard of living over the last 150 years without chalking most all of it up to technological innovation.

    • Rick_B

      What will ultimately happen is that the machines will be organized to maintain society with the routine processes. But no machine is going to replace the human brain. (That’s something that would take a book or four to explain. But as a shorthand description – machines will never learn to tell stories at a masters level. They can’t be equipped for it. Stories and the narrative structure is the core of the brain and of what humanity is that makes us truly different from all other animals. The personal self, for example, is a story we create as we live and tell to ourselves. That story is what keeps our personalities consistent as we present ourselves to others.)

      Humans will be prized for their creativity and their uniqueness (from each other especially), both individually and as social groups. Teachers are going to come into the social position they should be, and training to become teachers, artists, playwrights and actors are going to be socially rewarded, while everyone will get a basic subsidy from society. Engineering is going to become an artistic profession, much as is true now for game programmers.

      Society itself is going to be made up of machines, cyborgs, and humans, with the boundaries between them very indistinct.

      Instead of survival, the purpose of humanity will become the study, improvement, and expansion throughput the space of humanity. There will be no other similar species discovered, but ultimately humanity itself will split into different societies currently unrecognizable.

      In the stories of the future Senator Jim Inhofe will provide the template for the Satan figure who attempts to destroy humanity.

      • the ordinary fool

        When you say the human brain can’t be replaced, do you mean that we couldn’t create an AI that would function similarly to humans?

        A priori, I don’t see why this would be true. If we perfectly understood the construction of our own brains, we could create a robotic / software version that simply replicated that functionality.

        From that, I don’t think it’s a huge leap to speculate that we would be able to create intelligences that are creative that are nevertheless distinct from our own.

        • Ahuitzotl

          If we perfectly understood the construction of our own brains

          If we perfectly constructed some unicorns, from that I don’t think it’s a huge leap to speculate that we could have unicorn cavalry.

  • c u n d gulag

    Unless machines can buy goods and services, I suppose a certain number of us humans will still be necessary.

    It’s like the story about the head of Ford walking a union leader through his new factory, showing off all of his robots.
    “Look, these robotic workers never tire, never need time off, they don’t get sick, they don’t ask for vacations – they just work. And they won’t be able to join your union. What do you think of that?
    “Well,” the union leader responded, “That’s fine. But will they be buying the cars you’re selling?”

    That, of course, is not the exact wording. But I’m too lazy to look the actual story up. Sorry…

  • c u n d gulag

    Unless machines can buy goods and services, I suppose a certain number of us humans will still be necessary.

    It’s like the story about the head of Ford walking a union leader through his new factory, showing off all of his robots.
    “Look, these robotic workers never tire, never need time off, they don’t get sick, they don’t ask for vacations – they just work. And they won’t be able to join your union. What do you think of that?
    “Well,” the union leader responded, “That’s fine. But will they be buying the cars you’re selling?”

    That, of course, is not the exact wording. But I’m too lazy to look the actual story up. Sorry…

    • And of course that conversation did not stop the car company (I think it was GM and Reuther, also without looking it up) from automating one tiny bit.

      • Linnaeus

        The source of the anecdote is Walter Reuther, who told slightly different versions of it beginning in the 1950s, but the main point of each version was the same: “How are you going to get these robots to pay union dues?” “How are you going to get these robots to buy cars?”

        The exchange was with a Ford official. In some versions, it’s with Henry Ford II, but that may be an embellishment, since Reuther never mentioned him specifically.

        • c u n d gulag

          Linnaeus,
          Yup, that’s the one I was referring to!

      • Baby Needs-A-Nym
  • Turkle

    At times like these, I always turn back to the famous passages in Marx’s Grundrisse that deal with technology… Technology isn’t just some mechanical implement, it is the worker’s own abilities alienated from them and standing over them as an oppressive power. At first, it is only their physical abilities that are alienated, but eventually their mental abilities too stand over them as an alien power. As we witness now with the automation of formerly white-collar mental work.

  • Rob in CT

    Trolling your readers again, I see.

    I know the usual critique, including among many commenters here, is to call any criticism of technology Luddism and continue in our blind faith in technology

    This is wildly overstated on a blog read by and commented on by a buch of lefties. Christ on a cracker.

    I agree this strikes me as a top-3 challange for the future. I agree with AGW as #1. #2 for me is “other environmental pollution issues. Even if we avoid frying ourselves, we’ve got major problems there. #3, then, would be the implications of ever-increasing automation for human labor.

    In the abstract, this is wonderful. We don’t need to work nearly as much. Yay! But then we get back to human nature, and it gets ugly fast.

    • I have never trolled the readers of this blog. Outside of condiment-related posts anyway.

      • Murc

        So what you’re saying is, with notably rare exceptions, you’ve never trolled the readers of this blog.

        • Exactly!

          But certainly never on economic issues.

        • Lee Rudolph

          With notably rare exceptions…and to the dismay of some on the left!

      • rea

        Chorus.
        What, never?

        Blogger.
        No, never!

        Chorus.
        What, never?

        Blogger.
        Well, hardly ever!

        Chorus.
        He hardly ever trolls this blog!
        Then give three cheers, and one cheer more,
        For the hardy blogger of LGM!
        Then give three cheers, and one cheer more,
        For the Blogger of LGM!

  • Rob in CT

    Fuck me. The “quote of the day” at Forbes:

    A good education prepares a child to be a good employee and a good citizen-in that order, with the importance of the former never exceeding the importance of the latter.

    I just… what the fuck, you assholes.

    • jben

      That quote seems to actively contradict itself.

      I mean it first states that ” good education prepares a child to be a good employee and a good citizen-in that order”, but than says that one is not more important than the other, which would rather negate the “in that order” part.

      Which is it?

      That said, educating to be a “good employee” is what the business class has thought the purpose of the educational system should be for generations, so it’s not surprising that Forbes would like this quote.

      • Rob in CT

        I love the “but the former shouldn’t exceed the latter in importance” bit. It’s such a bullshit CYA afterthought so the quoted asshole can pretend he isn’t *really* saying that the former is the real goal and, really, indistinguishable from the latter.

      • Origami Isopod

        The part after the comma is meant as a weak-tea disclaimer. If you were to challenge the hack who came up with that quote about its logical incoherence, they’d claim they miswrote but you know what they meant and you were reading them really uncharitably.

      • Malaclypse

        which would rather negate the “in that order” part.

        Hard to believe that the author of that quote would consider logic superfluous.

        • BigHank53

          Be quiet and do what you’re told. That’s all the logic you need. If you’re a serf.

    • Origami Isopod

      This deserves a post of its own.

    • Hogan

      But you need a really crap education to become an employer. That’s what B-school is for.

    • Lt. Condition

      This quote deserves a guillotine.

      • Rob in CT

        Right?

        I’m very much not a revolutionary. My personality doesn’t work that way, I’ve always had money, and I’m a History guy so I have an idea of how revolutions typically go. But that quote worked me into a rage. That quote is fucked up and bullshit.

    • Barry Freed

      Who said that? I need to update my “First up against the wall” list.

  • The Pale Scot

    I wrote this a while ago,

    Retail, food service, law related, most of middle management jobs will not exist by 2050, the hordes of desperate people seeking any kind of job will make employees disposable and wages minimal.

    In this capitalist society as it is currently structured, the owners of the robots will insist that all of the profits derived from robots belong to them. So what will form is a society able to produce goods at a low cost that still won’t be cheap enough to sell because the consumers are penniless. To survive society here the USA would have to change the puritanical beliefs that connect work to status and personal worth, i.e. who are the makers and takers when everything is being made by automation.

    The owners of the robots will insist that they are the makers and everyone else is a taker, ignoring that a consumer based economy requires consumers to have money to spend. The only way to keep this running would be to have Basic Guaranteed Income provided by taxing the owners of the robots. Or somehow give everyone ownership of some robots to provide an income stream, which develops into a competitive market with people having a say in what their robots produce.

    So short version, machines are becoming the primary producers, meaning drastically reduced opportunities for a career and advancement. Unless you’re a talented artist or scientist there will not be many jobs except for medical, child and senior care. Rendering a large part of the population useless.

    Burger Robot Poised to Disrupt Fast Food Industry

    “Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient,” cofounder Alexandros Vardakostas has said. “It’s meant to completely obviate them.”

    • Rob in CT

      Sovereign wealth funds (funded via taxes on resource extraction) are another tool in the kit, IMO. We need to push that idea more in the US, IMO.

      Not a silver bullet by any means, but something that could help.

      • Brett

        I’d say they’re the end goal. It would take some time, but you could eventually build up a US sovereign wealth fund so massive that it could pay out dividends to every citizen and legal resident despite earning very low returns above inflation.

        • njorl

          It would certainly make immigration legislation much more exciting.

          • Brett

            You could just make it so only applies to citizens and legal residents.

      • NYD3030

        On Socialized Ownership of Capital

        A good read I think, one of the better Jacobin essays.

    • Linnaeus

      That’s a good quote to remember the next time we hear about “job creators”.

    • Origami Isopod

      The comments on that piece suggest that bright young adults should consider a career in building tumbrils, guillotines, and gallows.

      • Rick_B

        Can’t we just outsource those to China? Much cheaper and just as efficient.

        Only the operators and targets (Bankers) need to be local.

    • Have you read Player Piano? Vonnegut is very much himself when he explores the What ifs surrounding a completely mechanized production system.

    • You forgot trucking and any delivery/driving job as well. Google self driving cars are already legal in CA.

    • xq

      the owners of the robots will insist that all of the profits derived from robots belong to them.

      This will only matter if producing the robots is very capital-intensive. If making robots is cheap, no one will be able to limit the production of robots and so no one will be able to make much profit. A lot seems to depend on the fixed costs of the robots (or the robots who make the robots) and I don’t know that this is an easy quantity to predict.

      • The Pale Scot

        The “robots” aren’t going to be individual walking around units that can be parceled out. For manufacturing purposes, they will be built into a building or artifice. I suspect that the design will be patented.

        If a cheap useful manufacturing robot did exist, say a 3d printer that could make circuit boards or a consumer item like a singing bass you can hang on a wall. The bottle neck will be raw materials, who gets access?

        Unrelated, imagine the havoc self driving vehicles will have on car insurance.

        • xq

          The patent issue is an interesting one, and I can envision a few different ways it would play out if patents were the barrier. I think states which saw themselves as not benefiting from the patents would break the monopoly, and there would be little the winner-states could do about it, if the patent-breakers had access to WMDs. See Pharma patents today.

          If raw materials are the bottleneck, it depends how cheap the raw materials are, and whether they can be monopolized…again, hard to predict.

          • Redwood Rhiadra

            Raw materials are produced by land – farming, mining, drilling – and land ownership is already rather monopolized.

            • xq

              Land isn’t monopolized, which is why food is pretty cheap–land owners were not able to capture the gains of the tremendous improvements in agricultural productivity over the last few centuries.

              I don’t know enough about robotics to predict which raw materials would be limiting. I hope not energy.

      • Rick_B

        It will be very soon that it will be possible to PRINT useful robots on the spot, and even to print the printer that is doing the job.

        • DocAmazing

          That’s just a refinement of the lathe, “the tool that can replicate itself”.

  • Rob in CT

    I note that he plugs universal/single-payer healthcare in the article, but doesn’t call it that (centralized healthcare is his term). I wonder how that goes over with the Forbes readership, though I don’t wonder enough to read the comments.

    • Lee Rudolph

      “Centralized” need not imply “not capitalized”. He may foresee a future of huge monopolies, one for healthcare, one for prisoncare, and so on. Why not?

      • Rob in CT

        Perhaps, but he specifically referenced European centralized healthcare.

      • DrS

        This is really it. The nature of health care administration is most efficiently handled by a large, single organization.

        It’s either a rent extracting monopoly or it’s something managed for the public commonwealth.

        • DocAmazing

          How painfully true that is.

  • royko

    It all will come down to who wins the revolution, won’t it?

    • rhino

      Can anyone think of a revolution that wasn’t won by the rich?

      • Hogan

        In the words of C. L. R. James, “the rich are only defeated when running for their lives.”

        • Rick_B

          At which time it will become a big survival factor to be NOT RICH. Soon that will become the only moral social position to exist in.

          It will not be a survival factor for them if you give wealth to your children.

  • I have to say that anyone who says this is not the likely outcome is probably ignoring how power operates and the insatiable desire of the rich to horde resources.

    O.K.

  • Murc

    You know, this is a very dark resurgence of an old theme that was once very bright and optimistic.

    From the postwar up until the sixties, in the Western world, a constant refrain among futurists of all types, from sci-fi writers to actual “lets use technology to make things awesome!” bright-eyed types (of which I am one) was “There’s going to be a laborless future thanks to automation, and it is going to be totally sweet, you guys. Nobody will labor if they don’t want to, and those that chose to will do only things they’re passionate about!” The assumption was that of course these gains from automation would be used to benefit society broadly. If you have free labor, everyone gets a taste, right? You couldn’t just concentrate it in the hands of an elite cadre of robot-owners; that would be unconscionable. Even speculative fiction writers wouldn’t go there, it seemed to unrealistic.

    That was a thing for awhile, but then became obvious that, no, we really weren’t there yet. Part of it was that we really weren’t there yet; automation could only do so much and it turned out there actually is a ton of work to be done and automation just made it possible for people to go and do that. Another part was that we didn’t use gains in efficiency to reduce our working hours or increase our wages, but rather to pile up wealth in the hands of a lucky few.

    (That was a deliberate societal choice we made. If you think otherwise you are kidding yourself. There were others we could have made. We did not.)

    Fast-forward about thirty or forty years, to now, and “There’s going to be a laborless future thanks to automation” is back… and instead of “and it’s going to be totally sweet” the corollary is “and it’s going to suck.” Because unlike in the past, people are thinking “of course the robot armies will be held in the hands of a tiny slice of the ultra-rich. It would be naïve to think otherwise.”

    Now, I personally think we’re further away from this than Erik does. We still can’t really make computers that think and reason at all (no, we really can’t. AI is as much of a pipe dream now as it ever was) which means humans are required. I mean, hell, we can’t even reliably make computers that can look at a person, then look at the same person with a beard, glasses, and cap, and go “Yep. Same guy” yet. This means there’s still lots of work for normal people.

    But before we reach Robot Hell, there’ll be a transitional period where robots basically take over all tasks that don’t require independent judgment and reasoning. I forsee “humans decide on a course of action or render a diagnosis or judgment, actual work is done by machine” world arriving in short order. And that’s going to be awkward, because enough people will still be employed that folks can still piously say “There’s jobs! You just don’t want it bad enough, moocher. Hey, you look like you ate today even though you didn’t work. Leech.” but unemployment is naturally around 20%, probably higher for people with no skills but the strength of their arms.

    That’s gonna suck.

    Also too: if and when we reach the point where they try and deploy robots to do menial work that brings them into contact with the general populace (I’m thinking the service sector here) I forsee a vast wave of vandalism. I’d never harm a fast-food worker, or take away their livelihood. If my local McDonald’s were to ever become entirely automated, I would have no qualms about firebombing the place, because fuck you.

    • I wouldn’t say we are at this point tomorrow. I would say we are moving closer to that point everyday and more and more people are being replaced all the time. The cumulative effect is already significant.

      As to the utopian strain about technology and labor, it’s much easier to make those statements if you have never known unemployment. So it makes sense such ideas would have power in a society like the 1960s that hadn’t known widespread unemployment for a long time. A sort of version of this was prominent even among a lot of workers in the 70s who hated their industrial jobs. It disappeared pretty fast when they started actually losing their jobs.

    • Rob in CT

      I agree with you that the end-state discussed is still a ways off. But I also agree with you and Marcion, who said basically the same thing: the transition state is the really scary part, because tons of people will deny what is happening and keep right on blaming unemployed people for their unemployment.

      People will look at people for whom the (holy, blessings be upon it) Economy has no use, and determine that they are therefore useless.

      • Murc

        The transitional state is also going to be really shitty because it is going to seem unfair to the still-employed, who are probably going to wield the most power, and it is going to lead them in ugly directions.

        The skilled professional and creative classes are often staffed by people who work hard. And they’re okay with that. They may not be okay with things like guaranteed basic income for people for whom there is, literally, no work to be done that they can do with their skills. The attitude will be “I go to work every day, they should as well.”

        Now, this may lead to things like guaranteed work; society will provide you a job, even if it is useless, in exchange for your cut of the robot labor gravy. This is, actually, a documented real-life phenomenon. Example: the American sugar industry. It literally should not exist, and only does because of massive subsidies. It would be far cheaper to give all the workers involved a lifetime of wages and a huge chunk of change to the owners and close the doors.

        Only even the owners don’t want that. Because they do work, you see. And their workers do work! Work work work. They can’t just take your free money. They earn their money! Sure, they need Uncle Sam to help them out a bit, but that’s not a handout. That’s being paid.

        So we might actually pay people to do make-work for forty hours a week.

        Of course, that’s the rose-hued view. The other view I can see people adopting is “if there’s no work for you to do, you’re useless and will likely produce people who are useless. We’re sterilizing you, and while we won’t go so far as to kill you, we’ll make your life so hard you should seriously consider suicide. Count yourself lucky I’m so nice, my buddy over there thinks we should render all of you down for parts.”

        • Rob in CT

          Agreed all ’round.

          Centrist and people left of center take the question of “what do we do with all these [potentially unemployable] people?” seriously and attempt to answer the question with a modicum of compassion and decency.

          The RW reaction is another thing entirely, and scares the shit out of me.

          • DrS

            A bunch of people who think that Ephesians 6:5 is the greatest thing jesus ever said…what could go wrong?

            • DocAmazing

              Jesus didn’t say that, Paul of Tarsus did.

              You know, Paul, the source of much of what’s wrong with modern Christianity.

              • DrS

                Oh, I know that. :)

                Little fun with the southern fundie set

                • DocAmazing

                  The problem is that the people you describe think “epistle” refers to a handgun.

    • Malaclypse

      From the postwar up until the sixties, in the Western world, a constant refrain among futurists of all types, from sci-fi writers to actual “lets use technology to make things awesome!”

      And this was mainstream. George Jetson had a work week of 3 hours.

      Another part was that we didn’t use gains in efficiency to reduce our working hours or increase our wages, but rather to pile up wealth in the hands of a lucky few.

      (That was a deliberate societal choice we made. If you think otherwise you are kidding yourself. There were others we could have made. We did not.)

      Yep. To make the obvious point, every other industrial country except Japan has a much lower hours-work-per-year than we do. Most have lower retirement ages. There is no fucking way having long-haul truckers work until 67 makes sense. Lower the age. Lower it now.

      • Rob in CT

        Pretty soon (well, no, probably not for decades yet) those trucks will be driven by computers anyway. Problem solved! (I kid)

        • BigHank53

          The long-haul trucks will go first. Non-interstate travel will be dealt with by locals, the same way ocean freighters use harbor pilots. This won’t be done just because of the labor costs, by the way. It’s be because the autonomous truck never has to sleep, eat, or pee, so it can be on the road 24/7/365. And it’ll probably deliver 20% better fuel economy, too.

          • That’s the goal, but the Feds would have to refund highway maintenance. Robots are notoriously bad at dealing with things like potholes.

      • Denverite

        Yep. To make the obvious point, every other industrial country except Japan has a much lower hours-work-per-year than we do.

        I thought so too, but this shows that we’re pretty much in the middle. Though we are above Japan and most western European nations.

        http://stats.oecd.org/index.aspx?DataSetCode=ANHRS

        • Malaclypse

          Except for Ireland and Greece, all the countries who work more were either FSU or Third-World two decades ago. Granted that I should have specified advanced-industrial.

    • Schadenboner

      “Transhumanism is about how technology will eventually help us overcome the problems that have, up until now, been endemic to human nature. Cyberpunk is about how technology won’t.”

      Stephen Lea Sheppard

    • Brett

      If my local McDonald’s were to ever become entirely automated, I would have no qualms about firebombing the place, because fuck you.

      Do you fire-bomb ATMs or vending machines? I find it strange that menial labor in the Service Sector is where you’d want to make your stand.

      But before we reach Robot Hell, there’ll be a transitional period where robots basically take over all tasks that don’t require independent judgment and reasoning.

      I tend to think most people are capable of independent judgment and reasoning. As you and I pointed out elsewhere in this comments thread, people were doing that before most of the population became employees (obviously employees still do some of that).

      Think of what that offers in terms of goods and services, if you’ve got the population working atop and managing an ever larger structure of robots and machinery. It’s not really a bad thing if we all end up as various forms of robot shepherds.

      • Except without major changes, what will happen is 1% will own everything, 10% will be robot shepherds and 89% of us will be boned.

        • But hopefully not by the robots.

          • DrS

            Hmm, depends on the robot

            • Maria-bot in Metropolis!

    • NonyNony

      Also too: if and when we reach the point where they try and deploy robots to do menial work that brings them into contact with the general populace (I’m thinking the service sector here) I forsee a vast wave of vandalism.

      This has basically been my argument about why Amazon’s “drone delivery system” is going to be a boondoggle for them if they push it. It takes a hardened criminal to rob a UPS or USPS or FedEx delivery truck at gunpoint, and generally they’re not going to do it because the payoff is low.

      But shooting down a delivery drone with a bb-gun (or, hell, a slingshot) isn’t in the same ballpark as far as moral calculus goes. And while I wouldn’t do it you can bet plenty of other people who would never think of mugging a UPS driver will be just fine throwing a rock at a delivery drone and snagging the package.

    • ThrottleJockey

      I don’t buy the “we all thought no one would have to work in the future” biz. Didn’t you watch The Jetsons?

      For a period of time there was a Kennedy-inspired, man-on-the-moon demonstrated belief that anything was possible, but I never bought it. Politicians and venture capitalists will say anything to raise money for the new shiny object, but hold on to your wallet if you think its going to be much different than it was before.

  • Lt. Condition

    This is a problem we’ve been putting off (in the ways mentioned, by shuffling people into other jobs) for a very long time.

    Hell, the late Mr. Vonneggut wrote God Bless You Mr. Rosewater specifically around the question of “How do we love all of these useless people?” I don’t know that we can unless we as a society find a means to decouple our concept of worth from what we do for money.

    …Something that’s long past due, IMO.

    • Rob in CT

      So what you’re saying is that we’ll get to this right around the time we have our National Conversation About Race.

      • Lt. Condition

        Sadly, yes. This is really, to my mind, just an extension of the displacement problems begun with industrialization and mechanization. We’ve always solved it by finding new (and largely pointless, let’s be honest) “jobs” for people to do. Never mind that the work is largely unnecessary, it keeps the system as we know it greased and at least a little functional.

        The premise here is that we’re eventually going to run out of things for people to do. Personally, given how dysfunctional our economics are I’ve always loathed the way we tie human value to income, so this change can’t come soon enough, but given our unwillingness to address problems staring us in the face I’m not confident we’ll ever get around to it.

        • ThrottleJockey

          Can you elaborate on what jobs are largely unnecessary?

          • Jhoosier

            University administration? Law school prof?

    • Schadenboner

      “How do we love all of these useless people?”

      …In the butt?

      • Captain Haddock

        Your nym really brings it all together.

  • EvanHarper

    Technological advances are going to take away basically all of our jobs.

    Why does Loomis even write for LGM? Whose idea was it to have a blog that’s 5 parts sceptical left-liberal analysis and 1 part self-parodical ultra-left doomsaying?

    I need to make a remix of the RSS feed that just cuts this guy out of the discussion, I can’t stand it.

    • Hilarious.

      Note that the founder of Sun Microsystems is saying the same thing. But bring the hate.

      • In the future, we can design a robot to insult you.

        • ThrottleJockey

          Automated trolls? What will Jen Bob do?

      • mikeSchilling

        You say “founder of Sun Microsystems” as if it were a recommendation. These are the guys who lucked into control of the most popular programming language in history and couldn’t make a dime off it.

  • Malaclypse

    In the future, we can all design studies like this.

    • Ha ha ha

    • Davis X. Machina

      I’m sure that study was conducted by Reginald Iolanthe Perrin.

    • DrS

      “If we can just convert 10% of millenials that are now making apple pipes to potatoes, the streets of Boise will be paved with gold”

  • I just saw something the other day that has me wondering. Maybe this has been a thing for a while, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it.

    Restaurants having customers place their orders using a touch-screen and then swiping their credit card. No cashier required.

    I saw this at a couple of places in Philadelphia this week.

    • Quicksand

      Yeah, definitely a while.

      I remember trying one of those systems back then in 90/91 and it was dreadful.

      I’m sure they’re better now, but recent aggravating experiences with self-checkout lanes at supermarkets and Home Depot lead me to think we aren’t quite there yet …

    • cleek
      • Origami Isopod

        I once worked at a place that referred to such a machine as “the Wheel of Death.”

    • The Pale Scot

      There is a chain of sushi restaurants in Japan that are completely automated.
      PS, link may not be the outfit I’m thinking of.

      No humans in the preparation means better, safer sanitation, a bugaboo in the sushi biz.

      The model is going to be self driving trucks delivering pre-made magazines of ingredients that load out from the truck directly into the robot restaurant. Orders made from a Kiosk like major Kong saw. With a phone line for complaints.

      • Brett

        I saw “no cashier” setups in some regular chain restaurants in the Tokyo Metro Area. Instead of a cashier, there’s a vending machine where you insert your cash, press a button, and it prints you a ticket for a meal which you give to the cook when you sit down at the counter.

        I’m surprised that isn’t more common here in the US, particularly for sit-down “fast casual” places and food vendors pushing out really standardized fast food products (like fast food at sports games). It seemed like a really effective system.

        EDIT: The labor market in Japan must be weird. Places would have tons of service stuff just sitting around even when it wasn’t busy, but they’d also have a lot of automation elsewhere. Do they pay said staff entirely on commission or something?

  • Lee Rudolph

    We’ll build a world without jobs
    That no one else can share.
    All the workers we’ll leave far behind us there.
    And I know you will find
    There’ll be peace of mind
    When we live in a world of without jobs.

    Number One (with a bullet) for the Rent-Seekers, c. 2020.

    • wjts

      I don’t care what they say I won’t stay in a world without jobs.

  • LeeEsq

    Humans aren’t really equiped to deal with the problems of rapidly disapearing jobs. Most economies are based around the idea that most humans should work for a living. Even hardcore Marxist revolutionaries believed that “those who do not work, do not eat” even though they had different ideas on how the economy should function than capitalists. People who believe in a market economy are going to be stumped by this problem the most but the anti-market people aren’t going to have that easy a time either. The post-job society is going against thousands of years of human civilization, not a relatively recent ideological split on how the economy should be shaped. The political battles in how to deal with the post-work world are not going to be pretty.

    Another problem is that work provides a deep physchological need. Even people who aren’t that fond of their job usually take some pride in having a job barring some really bad and exploitative jobs. People who like their job or find their work meaningful take an even greater psychological joy in it. Even if we can get around the economic problems of a post-work world, the societal and psychological problems of a post-work world.

    • “Even if we can get around the economic problems of a post-work world, the societal and psychological problems of a post-work world.”

      Yes. The idea that work=slavery is one that pretty much only exists if you don’t have to worry about unemployment. No work is going to cause massive problems outside of just poverty.

      • LeeEsq

        The good thing is that humans do have more leisure time know that we did for most of human history and more things to do in our free time. The idea of a society where nobody had to work has long been a human fantasy and we are probably the most psychologically equiped to deal with a post-work world.

        The best solution to a post-work world is probably something relating around GBI. Everybody gets an GBI that would give them access to a relatively prosperous lower-middle class lifestyle, all the material necessities met plus a few luxuries, without work. Anybody who wants more than that will have to find some way of earning money. The human birthrate is declining and will hopefully continue to decline until we reach the right amount of people for everybody to have a GBI and some sort of job. Basically, you combine the socialist and capitalist response in some way and hope for the best.

        There are problems with the above scenario. One problem are the logistics behind determining what is the proper GBI for the entire world and running the program. The other problem is that humans are still humans. There going to be myriads of responses to the post-work society and nearly every group is going to demand and fight for full implementation of their solution rather than compromise on the mixed-market solution to post-work. The owners of robot capital are not going to want to share the wealth. The radicals aren’t going to want the market to remain at all when global anarchism is now possible in their view.

        • Brett

          A Basic Income is probably the best non-market income support system we could get, although I don’t know if we’ll get it in the US either in that form or in the form of a “basket” of various goods and services. It would be especially useful if we’re moving back towards an economy where people’s affiliation to particular companies and jobs is weaker, with lots of workers being either “self-employed” or “independent contractors”.

          The owners of robot capital are not going to want to share the wealth.

          Depends on what the alternative is.

          • LeeEsq

            Most capitalists fought claw, tooth, and nail against a modest welfare state and economic regulation against a convincingly threatening global Communist movement. During the height of the Great Depression and Cold War many refused to budge one inch. I don’t see why the new scenario is going to be any better.

            • Brett

              I never said it wouldn’t be an uphill struggle against, just like how it was with prior welfare state expansions.

        • Origami Isopod

          The human birthrate is declining and will hopefully continue to decline

          Hence the war on birth control and abortion (well, for white women, anyway, and that’s only one reason).

          • Brett

            The nastiness in certain Southern and Midwestern states when it comes to abortion aside, abortion support is actually much stronger than it seems from the polling. I think it was Scott Lemieux who pointed out that in the year before Roe, abortion rights were pretty shaky even in the states that had loosened or repealed their laws (like California and New York) – but now abortion rights are pretty solid in those states, the Pacific Coast states, and most of New England.

            The only real danger to abortion access there would be if Roe was completely flipped and the conservatives amassed enough votes in Congress to ban it nationally.

            • Murc

              The only real danger to abortion access there would be if Roe was completely flipped and the conservatives amassed enough votes in Congress to ban it nationally.

              The only reason that hasn’t happened already is luck. If Clinton had made a Souter-level mistake in his Supreme Court nominees we’d have lost Roe and had a nationwide abortion ban during the Bush years.

            • Origami Isopod

              Abortion access hinges on a lot more than legal rights thereto, and “certain Southern and Midwestern states” include a lot of women.

    • Rob in CT

      Wow, simultaneously…

  • Rob in CT

    I have a half-baked thought on this I want to throw out there…

    For a lot of people (perhaps nearly all of us?), doing work that is valued in some tangible way is really important. it gives them purpose.

    No, I’m not asserting Arbeit macht frei. But a lot of people retire and the loss of their daily routine and their interactions and work and whatnot are negatives.

    So it seems to me that even if we got the lefty-friendly version of all of this: a much reduced retirement age, we’d have some challenges to overcome. Better that than the alternative! But still…

    I’d much rather see a reduction in hours/wk than lowered retirement age, if it was a choice between the two. Obviously, one could go with both.

    I’ve thought about what I’m going to do with myself in 30 years… how I’m going to maintain healthy(ish) habits (my discipline goes to shit on the weekends) and not just drift into starting at a screen for too many hours a day and stuff, and the best I’ve come up with so far is that I should attain a part-time job of some kind and volunteer some hours each week too, such that I have something like a 20-30 hr “work week,” at least so long as I’m physically able.

    Like I said, half-baked. Kinda rambling too. $.02.

    • JL

      I think I could quite easily do enough volunteer work to amount to a very satisfying full-time job. I’ve sometimes wished that I could afford to do that. There’s no shortage of such work out there.

      Of course, if all that work gets automated too there’s a different problem.

      • Lee Rudolph

        A problem with that is that other people will also be able to have a very satisfying full-time job doing volunteer work: and for many of them, that job will be (just for one example) volunteering to obstruct Planned Parenthood offices, or (for another) volunteering as a Neighborhood Watchman with a concealed weapon and a flaunted Confederate Battle Flag; and so on.

        Of course it’s not just jobs. There’s plenty of room for lots more people to indulge themselves in lots more environmentally destructive, or otherwise antisocial, leisure activities, too!

        [Added just before time runs out: I’m feeling particularly grim this AM. Nothing personal.]

  • Brett

    Looking at the state of automation right now, I don’t see it. It’s just the same story as it has been for centuries with machines: you replace tasks with machine work, letting you do new tasks or supervise the machinery while integrating its work into something bigger. We are a long ways from having AI and robots that can realistically go beyond that, despite the high-profile use of them in new fields.

    It’s not even really hitting the unemployment and labor force participation figures yet nationwide, despite all the automation and computer usage we’ve had already over the past 30 years. As recently as 2007, unemployment was 4% and the labor force participation rate was ticking upwards.

    I suppose at the end of the day, I’m just more skeptical about the “machines taking our jobs” claim because it’s so recurring and constantly wrong – every generation that saw a bunch of new machines capable of doing stuff thought that we’d reach the end of our ability to think of new stuff to do with the machines, or with work in general. Hell, if it comes to it we might even redefine “work” – the whole “most Americans are employees” thing only emerged with industrialization anyways.

    • “Hell, if it comes to it we might even redefine “work” – the whole “most Americans are employees” thing only emerged with industrialization anyways.”

      That’s because most Americans were farmers and therefore worked. But that’s all been automated already outside of picking.

      • Murc

        They didn’t work for wages, though.

        Key difference. As I’m sure many of us are aware, when the country began to industrialize wage-earners were regarded as a suspect class. The term “wage slave” originally was meant to mean “if you work for wages, you’re no better than a slave.”

        • Brett

          Agreed.

          We could be moving back towards more self-employment and less attachment to any particular business, particularly with the use of more temp labor and “independent contractors”. You’d need to figure out new labor organization and have better government systems to back-stop the less stable market income with non-market income, though.

          • Barry_D

            “We could be moving back towards more self-employment and less attachment to any particular business, particularly with the use of more temp labor and “independent contractors”. You’d need to figure out new labor organization and have better government systems to back-stop the less stable market income with non-market income, though.”

            Note that this is not ‘self-employment’, but ‘temporary labor’.

            • Brett

              Either way, your employment situation is less attached to a particular employer.

      • Lee Rudolph

        But that’s all been automated already outside of picking.

        Daniela Rus at MIT (and I’m sure many, many roboticists, particularly in California) had students working on that, last time I was there.

        • Oh yeah, it’s been the desire of vegetable and fruit farmers for 100 years to find a way to automate the picking without bruising the produce.

      • Brett

        But think of what it was replacing – employees replaced people who were self-employed in one fashion or another. That may be changing again*, as Chris Dillow pointed out when looking at the UK data.

        * I’m not personally convinced that will happen – as I pointed out in a post down further, economies and companies that get a lot bigger and more complex tend to require more and more work just to manage that complexity, and it’s precisely that kind of work that isn’t as amenable to automation (in fact, it’s usually managing the computer systems and fixing stuff as it pops up). The people doing that may not necessarily work as part of a gigantic firm versus working for more specialized companies providing specialized services, but it will probably be there as work in some fashion or another.

        • ThrottleJockey

          Let me throw in this twist to your thinking. Its not that robotics will eliminate work–as you say above that’s not going to happen for a variety of reason–what, ahem, “technology”, will do is shrink the globe to enable greater outsourcing. In that scenario world labor participation rates would increase while American labor participation rates decline. I know of American companies who’ve outsourced their secretarial pool to India because and 800 number and Microsoft Outlook means that a secretary in Bangalore is as good as one in Boston.

          • Brett

            That works both ways, though – your American workers can conceivably do stuff for foreign clients as well.

            I’ve never heard of a company outsourcing the secretarial pool. It fascinates me, especially since there’s usually some heavy trust issues involved – do you really want an outside company handling all your correspondence?

            • Gabriel Ratchet

              Actually, I’ve worked at several New York law firms that outsource a lot of their routine document production to places like Mumbai or Chennai (Belfast in one case), with only a skeleton staff on-site for more immediate needs, so it’s not that far-fetched.

  • ChrisS

    Business elites were worried about too much leisure time in the 20s and 30s, right? That based on productivity increases the work week of tomorrow was going to be 10 or 12 hours. Didn’t quite happen that way.

    • Brett

      Yep. Businesses and consumers kept the same hours and just worked (and for a while earned) more instead of working less and earning the same.

      • ThrottleJockey

        The human capacity to want stuff is bottomless.

        • Brett

          It’s actually one of the reasons why I think we won’t suffer mass unemployment because of the robots. When it becomes possible we simply buy more and consume more (and in more diverse varieties), and while there are limits on how much food you can eat and – to a lesser extent – how much manufactured goods you can buy and own at any one time, there’s almost no limit on how many services you could use.

        • Manju

          I’m pretty sure some people like a good bottom.

  • AcademicLurker

    In the laborless future, we will all be free to troll each other on the internet full time.

    • Schadenboner

      Try being a CJ, it’s all most of us do 5×8 already…

    • Linnaeus

      We’ll be free to deal with the real problem of ethics in games journalism.

      • NYD3030

        Bonus points.

  • Owlbear1

    This shit isn’t magic.

    It takes millions of human beings working their asses off 24/7 to design, build, and maintain the networks, the hardware, the software, and that doesn’t include the millions more building and maintaining the infrastructure that is necessary just so a “smart” phone can send and SMS message.

    and this:

    Efficiency in the business world generally means reducing costs, which results in using fewer well-paid but highly skilled minds and the technology they develop or capital to replace lower paid and less skilled workers.

    is just self-aggrandizing tripe because everyone knows if were it true the first ones out the door would be the fucking executives.

    • Brett

      For that matter, as the automation gets better, it might actually allow firms to use more workers with relatively less training and lower pay in lieu of highly paid specialists (like the textile industrialization). Imagine if instead of one doctor earning $200,000/year doing surgeries for X number of patients, you could hire instead three technicians earning $50,000 each with machine assistance who could on to do far more surgeries per technician than the doctor could do on his/her before them.

      Of course, as you point out, this stuff requires a ton of back-end development and maintenance. I’ve always thought that managing the sheer complexity of an increasingly automated, large, and diverse economy would eat up tons of labor – it’s the same reason why bigger firms get increasingly bureaucratic and specialized the larger they get, just the manage the increasing complexity of operations due to their size. Lots of “robot shepherds” and “managers”.

      • DocAmazing

        Imagine if instead of one doctor earning $200,000/year doing surgeries for X number of patients, you could hire instead three technicians earning $50,000 each with machine assistance who could on to do far more surgeries per technician than the doctor could do on his/her before them.

        Get ready for some fascinating surgical errors.

        Anatomic variation is, as they say, a thing.

        • Brett

          I never said it was going to happen tomorrow, or that it would specifically take that form. It’s just worth remembering that automation and technology can definitely reduce skill barriers as well, so it’s not inevitable that we’ll end up with only a small number of super-educated super-earners making up the work force.

          • DocAmazing

            Even without increasing automation, there’s a lot of movement in healthcare away from very few/highly trained, at least in patient care. Hospitals have been trying for a long time to decrease the RN:patient ratio by using “nurse extenders” like CNAs; insurers and HMO administrators love nurse practitioners and physician assistants. Extenders work well for patients with predictable problems, who don’t have interesting anatomy and physiology and psychology and who don’t have unusual conditions. The extra time spent in nursing school and medical school learning the underlying science and studying the rare&wonderful things that can befall a person occasionally mean that extenders do a big disservice to a patient.

            Automation and down-skilling are similar in that they provide a less-expensive service for the largest number, but aren’t flexible enough to provide that service (and, often, to recognize that they can’t provide that service) to that minority that has a non-standard problem. (I imagine that a similar situation is seen with paralegals and police assistants.)

    • Lt. Condition

      I work in network admin so I’m well aware that “this shit isn’t magic” but at the same time, we have more and more people and it takes fewer and fewer to actually run shit. The whole point of automation *should* be to free people from slavish labor.

      The best thing that could happen to humanity would be freedom to explore things that interest them, to have time and resources to do what they want rather than simply what they need. Utopian ideals, sure, and unlikely to happen because we’re basically monsters as a species, but still, arguing that the population we have all actually need to work to keep this shit running just isn’t true, and it hasn’t been for a while.

      • Owlbear1

        That’s just it. The point of the automation isn’t to free people up it’s to make things cheaper.

        The “Very Few, Highly Trained” is a deliberate choice not an Act of Nature.

        • Lt. Condition

          The “very few, very highly trained” part wouldn’t be a problem if we as a society weren’t so wedded to the idea of paid job = worth. Of course that’d require societal restructuring on a grand scale and won’t ever happen, so we’re kind of screwed.

          Regardless, though, at some point we need to grapple with the reality that the quantity of working-age population isn’t necessary to create / provide Nice Things for the rest. I’m not exactly optimistic that’ll happen, pretty much ever.

      • ericblair

        Sure, a lot of research is being done now in Self-Organizing Networks that will configure and heal themselves, although I can’t see this being 100% effective any time soon. You can just end up with fewer but far more complex problems to solve.

        There’s pretty much an infinite amount of work we humans could be doing to make our lives better, but the problems are: is there the will to put resources into it; and who will do it. Sure, we could have enormous numbers of people involved in fixing ecological damage, caring for others’ education and counseling, building a frigging Mars colony for grins. But if the people and organizations that have control of the funds want to use it to build themselves another gold plated flying yacht, then what? It’s the problem of concentration of capital and we know how that’s going.

        The other problem is that not everybody wants to or is good at fixing odd complicated interface anomalies or designing high volume CO2 scrubbers and the like. The jobs that the future ultra-automated society needs to keep itself functioning, as opposed to those that benefit the people at large, may be few and highly specialized.

    • mpowell

      I think it can go in both directions. In advanced tech there are jobs for the extremely highly skilled and they tend to pay extremely well. There are also a wide array of support jobs. The mix of high or low paying is completely dependent on exact details.

      But I agree with what I think is your general point. This is an incredibly stupid concern in my opinion.

    • Morat

      No, everyone doesn’t know that the executives would go first because the executives decide who goes!

  • themadprince

    CGP Grey had a great video on this subject recently, called “Humans Need Not Apply.” It’s pretty amazing to see what things bots can already do.

    • Anna in PDX

      Another person brought this one into another similar comment thread a couple of months ago, it was incredibly thought-provoking and very well done. I agree that it is a conversation we really have not begun yet. Assuming this is happening anyhow what are we doing to prepare for it? I think a basic minimum income is a conversation that at least needs to start being acceptable for debate, whether or not it is a panacea (clearly not, as many here have said, you need to have something you feel that is valuable that you do, whether or not it’s for money) but it needs to be a starting point.

    • Morat

      Yeah, I was going to post that video, too. He’s right, the big technological changes aren’t from the really expensive cutting edge stuff, it’s from stuff that’s been around for a bit becoming cheap and ubiquitous. And so the video focuses on bots that already exist and just haven’t gotten everywhere yet.

      The machines that will replace much of food service work already exist. As do those that’ll replace the truckers, bus drivers, cabbies, etc. And the low-level work for research, legal discovery, etc.

      They don’t have to replace every job for it to become a nightmare. And in a generation, we will plausibly be looking at a permanent Great Depression-level unemployment rate.

  • DrS

    If y’all need me today I’ll be over here listening to “The Day John Henry Died” on a loop

    • OT, but looking at playlists, evidently Isbell never plays that song. I don’t know why because it’s one of his very best.

      • DrS

        That is strange, and I agree. Great song.

        William Gibson just cited that album (The Dirty South) as an influence on his new book. Been meaning to give that a spin, now even more so.

  • Murc

    It’s worth noting that even in a world where people don’t need to work, most people will still work.

    People want to work. They want to do things, fill the day! There are very few who can just wallow in hedonistic luxury all day even if they have the resources to do so. This is why you see well-heeled types starting weird little boutique businesses with dubious claims to profitability and starting odd foundations and suchly; “Get up, have a mimosa, spend the day by the pool” is actually not that fulfilling if you do it for months on end.

    Most people, of course, do not have the freedom to start a business around designing clothing for pug dogs or whatever. We do jobs we hate so we can keep living. But if we didn’t have to do that, the same rules would apply.

    Of course, a lot of this work wouldn’t be what we traditionally think of as work. Someone who learns everything there is to know about scrimshaw, or miniature painting, or restoring classic Hot Wheels cars, might spend eight hours a day busting their ass at what we would call a “hobby.” But they’re still working, working hard, and producing things that didn’t exist before. It’s just those things aren’t a big new factory or a product that will be in everyone’s homes or a flashy new business practice.

    • Barry_D

      “It’s worth noting that even in a world where people don’t need to work, most people will still work.”

      Note that these people have been highly conditioned for their entire lives, by family, school and the fact that if you don’t work, life sucks.

      • ericblair

        Yeah, I don’t think this is some sort of biologically wired imperative, either. Originally the “working class” was called that for a reason. I think that it’s better to say that people don’t want to have a life without purpose, but purpose can be much broader than work (for example, the tireless social climber or mountaineer).

    • burritoboy

      I would have to question that. There’s no shortage of people historically or currently who didn’t or don’t work in the senses you describe – aristocrats, people in religious orders, retired people, some aspects of the military and etc. Substantial numbers of people have always been engaged in what we might call ritual work – religious ceremonies and rites, ceremonies of demonstrating ruling and power, praying to and assuaging the gods and so forth. Also, of course, there’s the work within the family.

      • Lee Rudolph

        So, bringing back extensive ritual human sacrifice would be a win-win, then?

        • burritoboy

          Several eras of history actually had about 1 in 10 people in some sort of religious ritual occupations. Some of these also did what we might call “normal” labor today, of course. But their hours devoted to “normal” labor were usually limited. That doesn’t mean they were unoccupied – they simply were primarily occupied with ritual or intellectual labor (ceremonies, prayers, study of religious texts, education of other religious, meditations, counseling others, etc). The Benedictine rule has something like 4 hours of “normal” labor per day (and this work can also be in religious education, study and so on as well).

          Buddhist monasteries, the Jewish rabbinate, the Aztec priesthood and so on had or have somewhat similar schedules, at least ideally.

  • Kathleen

    A subset of this discussion is how work and people that do work have become devalued in this society. The Horatio Alger myth at least valued the concept of hard work, a value most working class Americans have held sacred. But while individuals still believe it, the culture at large (media, business, Rethuglicans) has framed working people as “moochers” and the work they do as not important. These institutions at least paid lip service to the value of work but now don’t even do that. To me that is a massive cultural shift and the erosion of respect for work in the cultural mythology deserves further exploration and discussion. Many in the working class are still in denial about it because it’s so much easier to blame the lazy other.

    Great topic, Erik. Thanks so much. I’ve enjoyed the discussion as well. This has given me lots to ponder.

    • Yeah, this is a good point. The whole emphasis on the middle class in our politics is a swipe at the working class and central to this is an attack upon manual labor.

    • ericblair

      It’s more the Horatio Alger myth myth, since the well known stories consist of an eager kid impressing a rich old fart with some act of virtue, by which rich old fart then gives eager kid a pile of dough or sinecure job and he lives happily for the rest of his days. So it’s not “anyone can succeed with hard work and persistence”; it’s “anyone can succeed if he impresses his betters enough to deserve patronage.” Which, ugh.

      • Brett

        I always thought that was funny. Even Alger himself realized that hard work wasn’t enough – his protagonists climb out of poverty by jumping on an opportunity Jay Gatsby-style.

      • Kathleen

        Good point.

      • guthrie

        I thought that was how people got promotion at work, which then explains why I don’t get promoted.

  • Hot-diggity! Where do I sign up to Beta test the sexbots?

    • Murc

      No joke; human-form robots, to the extent that they’re useful at all, will likely be driven by the sex industry and the technological developments that result from the pursuit of more and better orgasms will then enter general industry.

      The human form is actually super hard to engineer. Do you have any idea how amazing our internal gyroscopes are? If you walk around the block, what you’ve actually done is, literally, falling down for five minutes. You just control that fall so superbly it turns into an efficient means of locomotion. And our hands are capable of some amazing fine motion that machines still have a bit of trouble with; machines tend to be a lot more stable (they can draw a straight line or a perfect circle a lot better than we can) but, as was mentioned in this thread, have trouble with things like firmly but gently picking produce without bruising it.

      A humanform robot wouldn’t be useless, because the world is designed for human shapes and so it would be able to go many places and do many things, but in terms of efficiency what you’d most likely want is some sort of spider-bot with arms that approximate human hands. Much easier to engineer, can still go most places humans go.

      But not many people want to fuck a spider-bot.

      • gawaintheknight

        Challenge accepted.

      • But not many people want to fuck a spider-bot.

        Speak for yourself.

        • Origami Isopod

          If the Ole Perfesser could be induced to fuck a black widow spiderbot, or even better a praying mantisbot, the world would be a better place.

          • UncleEbeneezer

            If the Ole Perfesser could be induced to fuck a black

            Reynolds: ABSOLUTELY NOT!

      • BigHank53

        our hands are capable of some amazing fine motion that machines still have a bit of trouble with

        The most complex machining tools have five or six axes of motion. Your hand has nineteen joints, twenty major muscles, and more minor ones than I can remember. And that’s before we start counting things in your wrist. It’s going to be a while before anyone sees a robotic actuator with that level of complexity.

        • so…no masturbation bots right away?

    • Barry_D

      Once the alpha tests are no longer routinely mutilated.
      When the ‘involuntary permanent physical alteration’ rate gets down to ‘occasionally’, you’ll be called.

  • cleek

    never fear. if we have AI that actually smart enough to displace humans from all work, the AI will probably also be smart enough to find the people something to do (besides running on treadmills to provide electricity, that is).

    • Rob in CT

      Forward the Foundation!

  • Mike in DC

    I concur with several of the suggestions listed here above:
    1. A guaranteed basic income phased in over time
    2. Progressive taxation of the robot profiteering class to finance the basic income
    3. Gradually scaling down the definition of full time employment in order to keep the largest share of population employed as long as possible
    I would add
    4. A living wage, with cost of living adjustment built in
    5. A fundamental restructuring of corporate governance, with corporate social responsibility precepts and anti-collusion measures preventing inflated executive pay baked in.

    If we can get that stuff implemented, it could come out pretty well.

    • Brett

      1. Agreed.

      2. You could make it transitional, funding it with taxes while building up a Sovereign Wealth Fund over time that could take on more and more of the funding burden.

      3. Agreed.

      4. I think if we could ultimately get to about $18/hr adjusted for inflation, we’d be good in minimum wage terms. That would give you a real income of about $40,000/year if you were full-time, which puts you in the middle class.

      5. We could change the rules for incorporated businesses. There’s already “B Corporations” that explicitly include other purposes beyond making a profit and giving money to shareholders. More explicitly defining the legal responsibilities of CEOs and allowing the employees of the firm to elect half the board members would go a long ways.

      • I’ve been looking into B corps* and the easiest way to rack up points to qualify for the certification is to treat your employees well. Who knew?

        *If my partner and I take our business in that direction to spite our competitors, it still counts, right?

        • Brett

          Seems like it would be a good idea to shift all corporations into “B Corporation” status, with legal responsibilities to other purposes beyond just serving as a cash machine for their shareholders. Of course, the shareholders whine about it – I remember some whining about the law allowing B Corporations in California from corporate groups concerned that it might “cloud” company priorities.

  • Barry_D

    BTW, the strawman position is ‘what happens when humans are almost not needed at all?’; the reall position is ‘what happens when larger and larger chunks of the labor force are not needed, and have no power?’.

    • Srsly Dad Y

      +1. The comments you typically see in threads like this to the effect of, “Trust me, we’ll never not need lawyers and artists,” and “But AI can’t do THIS job!” are like grandpa advice.

      • Srsly Dad Y

        See, e.g., StuckinOz and Martin Wisse below.

      • FMguru

        Isn’t one of the causes of the Great Legal Job Market Collapse the fact that increasing amounts of work that lawyers used to do (like indexing and organizing discovery dumps) are being handled by computers (OCR and email scanning, building searchable databases and timelines)? All those jobs for young associates, all those billable hours, now being done by the humming LegalTron 6000)

  • DocAmazing

    The realization that automation has/will continue to render much human labor redundant and that’s potentially a good thing is not new: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Abolition_of_Work

    and Vinod Khosla is still a disgusting piece o’shit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vinod_Khosla#Martin.27s_Beach_dispute

  • so-in-so

    Seems we found the solution to the issue noted some time ago here, who cleans the toilets and grows the food in Galt’s Maker’s paradise?

    A side question is if the 1% can run the world/make money without selling to the 99%. If the answer is no, then even the genocide solution doesn’t help. If they can, it was nice knowing you all!

    In Science Fiction, Michael Moorcock’s “Dancers at the End of Time” explored a future in which the few remaining humans struggled to avoid boredom while hidden machines provided their every wish.

  • NYD3030

    I’m sort of surprised to show up so late to the comment party and yet this fantastic Jacobin essay remains unlinked:

    Four Futures

    Give it a read, it really breaks down what I believe is a very accurate view of our options in a post-work, post-scarcity society. Of course it seems like a paranoid fever to us now but I sometimes think a genocide of the “parasite” classes is a serious possibility.

    We need to articulate a moral vision in which freedom FROM work, rather freedom TO work, is a basic human right. We are quickly approaching in which billions will have no productive potential, while clinging to ethical and economic systems which have no mercy for the non-productive. I fear it’s going to be a disaster.

    • I really have no patience for freedom from work arguments. I know how horrible unemployment is. I have to wonder whether people articulating this have ever wondered where their next meal is coming from.

      • NYD3030

        The answer to that question is yes, I have. It was called 2008 and I’d have starved if it weren’t for big daddy government giving me my 47%er gub’mint food card.

        Being out of work sucks in an economic and social system that requires you to work to feed yourself and to have any semblance of respect from either yourself or your peers. If you don’t believe another system is either possible or desirable then there is no solution to the problem posed here other than genocide.

        As the article I linked points out, the mere existence of billions of non productive people is too great a threat to the power structure to allow them to live, assuming we live in an extreme version of today’s system.

        • I am about as anti-utopian as a leftist can be.

          • NYD3030

            I read your blog every damn day and really enjoy it, believe me that I know that. I’m not advocating for some kind of utopia that solves all our problems, and I’m fully aware that past attempts to bring about utopia have quickly (like immediately and completely) devolved into a totalitarian nightmare.

            But I don’t think this problem can be solved using today’s economic system that forces you to work 40+ hours a week in order to feed and clothe yourself. We can either do away with mandatory labor in exchange for survival, force people to do purposeless non-productive labor, or exterminate them either actively or passively.

            • Those are great choices!

              • NYD3030

                Option one seems to me to be the best of the three, something like basic guaranteed income that decouples survival from the requirement to work. Forcing people to move rocks from pile A to pile B and back to earn the right to continue living seems cruel.

                If there’s some escape hatch here that allows machines to take over 50% of our productive tasks without running into one of the three scenarios (no job required, forced unnecessary labor, or genocide) I’m totally willing to listen. I don’t see it but maybe you do.

      • Lee Rudolph

        Freedom from eating!!!

        • NYD3030

          You need to think this through fully. As has been pointed out, there will be exactly nothing for a significant portion of the current human population to do that contributes to the economy. If you aren’t willing to entertain ways to provide for their human needs without their earning a wage, what is the solution?

          • Lee Rudolph

            Freedom from irony!!!

            • NYD3030

              Well that was one of FDRs four freedoms wasn’t it?

              • Lee Rudolph

                Yeah, but once the Great Patriotic War was won, it was irony curtains for those.

      • The only thing worse than being employed is looking for work.

        • Lee Rudolph

          Enter the ROCK, led by a BOY:

          The ROCK: The lot of man is ceaseless labour,
          Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,
          Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.
          I have trodden the winepress alone, and I know
          That it is hard to be really useful, resigning
          The things that men count for happiness, seeking
          The good deeds that lead to obscurity, accepting
          With equal face those that bring ignominy,
          The applause of all or the love of none.
          All men are ready to invest their money
          But most expect dividends.

          (from T. S. Eliot’s The Rock)

  • MikeJake

    God help us, we’ll all have to become thought leaders.

  • guthrie

    In one sense it doesn’t frighten me, because I get all my high ranking Maslovian needs from non-work situations, e.g. research into history.

    In the other, rather important sense, it’s a very dangerous prospect, because unless we the jobless underclass force the owning class to give us stuff, I won’t even have the resources to be able to pursue my hobby, I’ll be sitting in a room all day waiting for the free gruel to be ladled out to me.

  • so-in-so

    You have a room?! Luxury!

  • xq

    A bunch of people in comments above are suggesting that long-term economy-wide technological unemployment is not just a future problem, but already starting. I don’t see how this can be the case. Australia has $17 minimum wage and an unemployment rate close to the US. That tells me that basically every physically and mentally healthy adult in industrialized societies is able to produce at least $17/hr worth of value. That’s enough to live a pretty decent life.

    If you think we’re already at a point where technology is destroying jobs not just in individual sectors, but over the entire economy, you should explain why raising minimum wage doesn’t cause unemployment. Maybe also why activist macroeconomics policy is successful at reducing unemployment, which is consistent with our current troubles being caused by poor aggregate demand management.

    It’s important not to confuse unemployment caused by bad macro policy with unemployment caused because the productive value of labor has become near zero. These problems have different policy solutions.

    • Srsly Dad Y

      an unemployment rate close to the US

      Because of how it’s defined, the unemployment rate is misleading. You need to watch the labor participation rate. “A little over 101 million Americans are unemployed or out of the labor force.” http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2014-11-07/participation-rate-rebounds-36-year-low-only-924-million-americans-not-labor-force The U.S. participation rate has been this bad before, in the mid-70s, but the trend since the end of the Clinton administration has been just about straight down. I know nothing about Australia, but I’m guessing the low-wage industries there are still less capital-intensive than those here.

      • xq

        Simple google search says Australia labor participation rate is 64.6%, higher than the US, so that supports my point even more than the unemployment rate does. Australian industry may be less capital intensive–I don’t know the answer to this question–but its hard to believe their economy is different enough from our that we would be unable to, say, double the federal minimum wage and maintain our labor participation. I guess we’ll see what happens in Seattle.

        • Srsly Dad Y

          Yeah, I’m not anti-minimum-wage and $17/hr sounds fine to me. I was trying to say it’s not intuitively obvious that $17/hr wouldn’t cause more robotization of low-wage jobs here than it did in Australia, since it appears we might already be further down that road than Australia is.

  • StuckinOz

    I’m not seeing much discussion here of caretaking work – you know, that unpaid or miserably paid work of caring for the physical and emotional needs of others that’s mostly done by women and minorities in the U.S. The work that’s mostly invisible. Are we planning to automate that? I mean, I know Harlow showed that terry cloth-covered wire “mothers” led to less psychosis for infant monkeys than bare wire “mothers” with sharp edges, but are we really thinking of replacing child caretakers with robots? I don’t care how warm and fuzzy a robot is, it cannot do the same caretaking labor that a real person can do. Unless, that is, it has genuine artificial intelligence, in which case it would count as a person, too, and then the problem is simply overpopulation, not automation per se.

    • Japan certainly is.

    • Lee Rudolph

      I don’t care how warm and fuzzy a robot is, it cannot do the same caretaking labor that a real person can do.

      Eight years ago, at my very first robotics conference (Robots: Science & Systems II, Philadelphia), I learned that the Japanese government had—with support from every major Japanese corporate behemoth except Sony—established as a national priority that within 10 years 80 percent of all elder care would be performed by robots. (The pressure to have some such program was said to be a combination of demography and social changes: an increasingly large fraction of the Japanese population is elderly, and adult children of elderly Japanese parents are increasingly less inclined to take care of them. Several years later I heard, from a non-roboticist, that another source of pressure was Japanese racist displeasure at the increasing number of Korean human caretakers.) Well, with two years to go, it ain’t lookin’ good for that National Priority. (And the utter failure of the Japanese robotics community to cope for over a year with aspects of the Fukushima disaster that they were purportedly well prepared for probably hasn’t helped them to keep their funding levels up. But I’ve gotten out of touch lately.)

      So, yeah, you’d seem to be right, for now anyway.

      • StuckinOz

        I can understand why a country might need to do that for demographic reasons, but I would hope that the people involved would see it as a tragedy, not an advance.

      • guthrie

        So Noble Rot citisens is going to be a real thing? / anime reference.

        • moops

          Ah, I was wondering when GitS reference would pop up about a robotic future.

    • JustRuss

      This, and it goes far beyond what we traditionally think of as caretaking jobs. Humans are social animals, we like interacting with other humans–with exceptions, of course. As long as consumers have money to spend–and this is critical–there will be jobs. If all the money is going to the Walton family and their ilk, we’re boned. I think a government-mandated minimum salary and shortened work week will be critical. How that happens, I don’t know.

    • StuckinOz

      I remember Carole Pateman saying in The Sexual Contract somewhere that a common complaint johns have about prostitutes is that they’re too “robotic” or cold. As if part of what they’re paying for is the feeling of another human being genuinely wanting to please them. *That* kind of labor is not easily replaceable. I don’t think it should be commodified, either (though of course it is in all kinds of service professions), but we shouldn’t forget that it is labor and it has high value for most people.

    • Brett

      It wouldn’t be “robots” in most cases, as opposed to technology that assists the elderly in getting around and living (think exoskeletons, etc). That’s actually drawing a fair share of the money spent on retiree assistance research in Japan, although it’s not as high profile as the robots.

  • As somebody who actually works at the coalface in IT, colour me skeptical about any claims that robots will replace us all.

    • Srsly Dad Y

      See Barry_D above.

  • DonN

    My first professional job in the early 80s was automating sawmill equipment. We managed to turn what was once a highly skilled position into something pretty close to “align wood to cut and push a button” (figuratively). I remember getting these really angry looks and being puzzled when we went to a sawmill to understand their flow and what we’d have to customize for them. I was really young and didn’t understand the direct impact we were having on lives. We substantially deskilled (if that’s a word) a bunch of blue collar jobs that allowed a very solid middle class life. When you’re in the middle of the project it all sounds goods. More efficient, lower cost, better product. I don’t believe we talked once about the people affected, which only seemed weird in hindsight.
    DN

    • Srsly Dad Y

      Deskilled is a word, and that’s a memorable story, thanks.

      • Rick_B

        I concur with both statements. Deskilled is a word often used in the historical study of management – and in the labor responses.

        And yest, the story is quite memorable.

    • Zamfir

      This example is quite in contrast with the standard Silicon Valley robot story. In those stories, the robots will only need robot experts (and venture capitalists) to function. And everyone else is useless and their jobs are on probation while they are perfecting the robots.

      But your example goes in the opposite direction: it makes a job less complicated, more accessible, but still necessary.

      I have seen the same effect in industrial automation itself. Less confusing tools, more standardized approaches, better vocational schooling, and jobs in automation have become more accessible and less restricted to very smart people. I suppose that quite some part of the automation workforce are similar people as used to run complicated machinery in sawmills.

  • thisisgettingtiresome

    ” If climate change is the greatest challenge faced by the human race, I would say that the elimination of work is the second greatest challenge. ”

    You needn’t worry then, because if Climate Change really is a problem it’s already keeping masses of bureaucrats, politicians,social scientists & computer modellers busy.

  • j_kay

    But there’s the BIGGEST contradiction at the heart of it. Since it’s HUMAN simulation, clearly we could speed ourselves using those same kinds of processors the AIs use, stupid. And so far it’s turning us artist and enterpreneur.

    His species of religion is probably Singularitarianism, a computer religion that especially annoys becauase it’s deliberate math stupid, and a sadly big fraction are evil and stupidly hoping to take over with the R ise of the Machines.

    One thing that’d help is antislavery amendments for AIs.

    I suggest some SF reading to the thread – Stross’ Accelerando and Gilded-Age novels Halting State and, yes, Rule 34. And Banks’ deep-red Culture novels.

    And let me repeat, son, remember, it’s about in nanotech next. That’s your least bad hope for a future.

  • The Pale Scot

    Digby posted this today

    In reality there will be no need for all of these people. The vast majority of objects will be designed off-site by a few designers, who will send the designs wirelessly to the printers. A few very low-wage employees will push whatever buttons are necessary. A few more very low-wage employees will move around or assemble the stuff the printers spit out, which will then be shipped in self-driving trucks to a destination of choice………….

    ……………..But let’s not kid ourselves. The jobs are simply going to disappear, and they’re not going to be replaced with “design” jobs–even if those blue collar workers could be retrained as designers, which they mostly can’t be. Capitalism as we know it, centered around a delicate balance between labor and ownership, is going to start fraying at the seams before it ultimately breaks down. Not because of anything Karl Marx or Thomas Piketty predict, necessarily, but because there just won’t be enough viable, high-paying jobs to sustain a customer base.

  • moops

    GO back and read Barry_D‘s comment. I don’t care how many anecdotes you dole out about some particular career can only be done by a human.

    Fine. You can manage to identify 25 million jobs that really need a human. (Worldwide health care workers currently number 59 million, automation and robots will likely cut that by 10x). What do we do with the 2 billion able-bodied people and 7 billion dependents?

    Go ahead and change 25 million to 200 million. The problem just gets deferred.

    Growth in employment has been less than economic growth worldwide since 2000. The two used to oscillate about each other in the boom-bust capitalism world, but that seems to have stopped and I don’t think anything will naturally shift it back.

    The non-participating population has been growing steadily since the 80’s.

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