I, for One, Welcome Our New Robot <del>Overlords</del> Underlings

Michael at Half Sigma worries about a time when robots will render our less intelligent brethren obsolete:

The Robot Revolution will be different than the Industrial Revolution, because it's not going to simply be a matter of replacing certain jobs. Robots will be capable of doing any menial job that a human could do. Thus people who are not smart enough to do something more than just menial tasks will become economically worthless and unable to find any job at any wage.

I don't see this happening any time soon, if ever. We live in a world of scarce resources and unlimited desires. No matter how much robots can do for us, there will always be additional desires that they will be unable to satisfy, even if only because we can't build them fast enough, or because the raw materials are too expensive. In particular, it's unlikely that there will ever be any shortage of service jobs. If 10% of the people do all the real work, the other 90% will be able to earn a living by performing services for them.

But let's suppose for the sake of argument that scarcity is eradicated. Robots make everything, including other robots. They perform all manner of services as well as or better than humans, and no feasible desire, however trivial, goes unfulfilled. There's no work left to do except to maintain the robots, and a small minority will be sufficient to handle that. I don't see the problem. A world without scarcity would, by definition, be a world so fantastically wealthy as to allow the productive minority to support the idle majority at virtually no cost.

Note that a welfare state would not be necessary to achieve this. With no scarcity to temper the benevolence of the wealthy, pure charity would be far beyond sufficient to provide for the needs of the rest.

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When I first watched "The

When I first watched "The Matrix" I was optimistic that the reason they would give for neetding humans around was for human ingenuity and creativity, and that they needed to create a "real" world (as opposed to a utopian one) to stimulate that creativity. i.e. the humans would fill in for things that AI could not yet do. I was very disappointed with the whole battery crap.

We'd have a lot of the supposed benefits of roboticization today if it weren't for government "protection" of labor from techniques that require less labor, like cheaper construction techniques. Farm subsidies and protections also serve to make our food significantly more expensive because most subsidies take the form of price supports. This is not necessarily true of water subsidies, but if water weren't subsidized farmers would both use less of it and grow less water intensive crops, with water intensive crops being grown in areas with more water, so it's easy to see how food would actually be cheaper without them.

Anyway, I completely agree that robots are the same as every other labor-saving innovation. Not one of them has made society worse off in even the medium term. It's government "protection" of labor from change that makes us worse off.

Istanbul, not

Istanbul, not Constantinople.

Gene Roddenberry founded a

Gene Roddenberry founded a television show based on your premise. Replicator technology solved the scarcity problem for Star Trek.

That's a fine fantasy, but I

That's a fine fantasy, but I think it more likely that many of the poor would become serfs: mere set pieces in the idle delusions of RobotCo stock holders. I know that's what will become of the people who attend to my estate on Mars.

Increasing the productive

Increasing the productive capacity of a free society has never, not once, impoverished it.

I don't think that there are that many "not smart enough" people in developed or even semi-developed societies. What we have are people who are "not educated enough." A robot-ubiquitous economy would simply exacerbate that phenonemon and catalyze the reform of educational systems -- which is nothing new: it happened in the Industrial Revolution and again in the Digital Age.

"Replicator technology

"Replicator technology solved the scarcity problem for Star Trek."

No it didn't. Replicators can only replicate small items, and they still need energy and materials.

Oh yea, and I forgot to

Oh yea, and I forgot to mention that Roddenberry was a stupid commie, and as such lived in complete ignorance of basic economics.

What if we made robots out

What if we made robots out of pieces of poor people? Wouldn't that solve everything?

Jacob, You win. Forever.


You win. Forever.

A world without scarcity

A world without scarcity would, by definition, be a world so fantastically wealthy as to allow the productive minority to support the idle majority at virtually no cost.

Yup, I think so. But to put it in perspective, Half Sigma is being a luddite. The luddites have always either implicitly assumed or else explicitly claimed that alternative employment would not appear, and they have always been wrong. There is nothing novel in Half Sigma's argument other than the unsupported claim that, because it's robots, this time it's somehow going to be different.

A world without scarcity

A world without scarcity where AIs and machines perform all the necessary work of gathering and processing resources to satisfy all the needs of both AIs and humans is depicted with great detail and ingenuity in Iain M. Banks' Sci-Fi novels.

These books are truly classics of SciFi, and a recommended read for anyone with an interest in anything related to Singularity. Each of them contains a complex story about how this society interacts with other human and non-human societies in the galaxy, for example how this absolutely tolerant civilisation deals with intolerance.

I think the concern of

I think the concern of people like Half Sigma is that if robots replace most human workers, we will have a small class of persons that is completely self sufficient and has no need for the labor of the masses. The unemployed masses would then have no money and no way of obtaining the benefits of the robot workers. Even in that extreme case, things would not be entirely bad for the second class of now unemployed workers. If there is a large group of people who don't see the benefits of robot workers, there will be demand for trade amongst themselves.

And there's always prostitution. Even if we develop effective sex robots, there will always be a market for the real thing.

I think the concern of

I think the concern of people like Half Sigma is that if robots replace most human workers, we will have a small class of persons that is completely self sufficient and has no need for the labor of the masses.

If it's a "small class" and they become isolated from the rest of us economically, then since they are isolated, they will not affect the remainder of the economy. So the economy will not be much affected, and so there will still be plenty of jobs, contrary to Half Sigma's concern.

Regarding prostitutes: Even

Regarding prostitutes: Even if robots can become indistinguishable from the real thing?

But I think your earlier comment is correct. If it turns out that the idle rich under such a scenario won't use the services of normal humans, nor support them with charity, then everybody who is not rich off the robots essentially creates their own society. The problem will be externalities of transactions between the robot-rich if they turn out to be essentially evil. You could have the robot-rich basically eating up all of the resources of the planet, buying all the land and leaving everybody else with no infrastructure to support their alternate economy. I think that would be tough for the rich folks to manage, but it certainly seems *possible* in the singularity scenario, and would make for a pretty bad result.

You could have the

You could have the robot-rich basically eating up all of the resources of the planet

I think one thing that wasn't really anticipated by a lot of SF writers is the increasing copyability of things, particularly of technological advances. In the end I don't think that IP is workable. So if artificial genies appear to do our bidding, everyone will get their own Aladdin's lamp.

I think Constant has the

I think Constant has the real rub, there. The assumption is that somehow if robots replaced "unskilled" labor that folks who do such jobs now would not have any other "job" to replace the one they've lost. I think history has shown that to be nonsense. If there is no need to humans in the role of manual labor we'll certainly take up the slack with other forms of occupation we would trade with/for such as knowledge skill, arts, scientific endeavours, etc. Being "unskilled" is only ever defined by the "skills" that are considered important by a given culture at a given time.

In response to Constant (who

In response to Constant (who is perhaps named after the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut's novel Sirens of Titan), I am not a luddite at all, I was just writing about the likely future. I can't wait to have robot to clean my house, but unless society realizes that robots will create an unemployable underclass composed of everyone who has an IQ of less than 90 or so, robots will cause a lot of social problems. Of course the solution is to give everyone an inheritance dividend.

Before robots can do

Before robots can do everything (or even everything "valuable") that 90% of humans can do, they will have something indistinguishable from sentience, and you'll have to ask the same question you ask today about outsourcing:

Why should I care whether the toothless redneck in [some distant province] provides me with [some fungible service] rather than a motivated, smart {Bangladeshi,Artificial Person} who really wants the job.

I am not a luddite I don't

I am not a luddite

I don't mean you're a luddite in the sense of not favoring new technology, but that your factual belief is the belief that motivates the luddites. Specifically, you believe that:

robots will create an unemployable underclass composed of everyone who has an IQ of less than 90 or so

That kind of prediction - i.e. that technology will permanently displace some class of people who will become unemployable - is the factual belief which is the basis of why luddites oppose technological progress.

Constant (who is perhaps

Constant (who is perhaps named after the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Sirens of Titan)

That's a nice history to have. Sadly, my screen name is merely a less annoying curtailment of my original screen name, the nonsensical "Constantinople". As to why I picked that crazy name, there was no good reason for it other than to make it obviously phony, but I think that at the time I was reading a book in which the city figured prominently, Tirant lo blanc.

I always figured you were a

I always figured you were a Might Be Giants fan.

I, for one, welcome our

I, for one, welcome our robot underlings
What would happen in a world where robots do all the work?

Derek 'Stormy' Waters: Okay,

Derek 'Stormy' Waters: Okay, okay. So, say I put my brain in a robot body and there's a war. Robots versus humans. What side am I on?

Debbie DuPree: Humans! You have a human brain.

Sparks: But... the humans discriminate against you. You can't even vote!

Marco: We'd better not have to live on a reservation. That would really chap my caboose.

Captain Murphy: Yeah, but... nobody knows you're a robot. You look the same.

Debbie DuPree: Uh, uh. Dogs know. That's how the humans hunt you.

Derek 'Stormy' Waters: They're gonna' hunt me? For sport?

Marco: That's why we have to CRUSH mankind! So you might as well get on board for the big win, Stormy.

Looking over the comments

Looking over the comments along with what I originally had in mind, the job people will perform when the robots take over is stock ownership. That's the surest path to making a living when there's no work for you to perform. You'll own a stake in a number of companies, presumably ran and operated by robots. They'll be tasked with maximizing profit, and you'll be tasked with collecting dividends and living your life.

So my suggested plan for the future: buy stocks (in companies that sustain your life) and keep them in the family. :beatnik:

This all seems rather silly.

This all seems rather silly.

First, robots won't "replace" low-skill humans; they'll compete with them. Putting it that way reveals one underlying economic issue: marginal cost. That something can be done does not mean it is cost efficient to do so.

I can’t wait to have an immigrant to clean my house, but unless society realizes that immigrants will create an unemployable underclass composed of Americans who have an IQ of less than 90 or so, immigrants will cause a lot of social problems.

(rest of above post was cut

(rest of above post was cut off)

The point here is any economic analysis you do with robots needs to work with any increase in the supply of low-skilled labor.

Hmm... given the likely high marginal cost of robots, and the current pace of technology, it seems reasonable that robots will not compete with low-skilled workers, but rather with higher-skill/higher-cost jobs, especially where job hazards are a large factor driving up the cost.

the job people will perform

the job people will perform when the robots take over is stock ownership

This just moves the question up one level. Assuming that robots themselves aren't a scarce resource (if they were, there would be work for humans to do because there's not enough robots), why would any company stock be worth anything?

Constantinople, Finally gave


Finally gave up on the anarchism newsgroups, eh?

- Josh

Finally gave up on the

Finally gave up on the anarchism newsgroups, eh?

In 1992, when I first got into Usenet, the newsgroups were the the downtown of the Internet and I hadn't even heard of the web. Now they feel more like a backwater. They haven't changed while the web has exploded.

"why would any company stock

"why would any company stock be worth anything?"
Easy, the companies own the robots.

Presumably, at least at first, the robots will not be free. Plus, robots are labor saving devices which must be part of a larger value chain. Just because robots are doing all the work doesn't change the fact that you are buying a Saturn automobile.

To put everything in perspective, it might help to think of prices. Holding inflation flat, the introduction of an unlimited supply of free robots capable of performing any task does two things: It renders everyone unemployed at once; and it slashed business operating costs to zero. Sure, everyone lost their job (assuming worst case scenario in the labor market), but production became free. Because robots are free then most markets for goods become close to perfectly competitive (startup costs, a barrier to entry, equals the price of the robots), which means average profits of close to zero. Profits plus costs equals price, but since both are close to zero then prices for most goods (not including land, obviously) is close to zero. Which means, of course, any pan-handler lucky enough to get a dollar could run off an buy a new car, fill it with gas, eat a big meal, and drive to another city where the panhandling is better.

Or, of course, if any market price is not close to zero then he should take that dollar and buy robots and put them to work in that market, anything from grain to making more robots. Earning minimal profits, to be sure, but they go a long way in a world of nearly infinite productive capacity.

Unfortunately, the Usenet

Unfortunately, the Usenet newsgroups have changed. They're not backwaters---they're slums.

They’re not

They’re not backwaters—they’re slums.

It depends on the group. Some are just dead or close to it, the major contributors gone and not enough newcomers to replace them, at least not enough worth reading. Other ones are frozen in time, the same contributors writing the same stuff a decade later, that was interesting and new the first few times I read it. And there are other groups that, by their own lights, are doing okay, I think.

Why Hayek Social

Why Hayek Social Preferences = Welfare Liberalism
A couple of days ago, Brandon Berg posted on Catallarchy a response to a common hypothetical: what happens when a large percentage of a population becomes superfluous given much cheaper labor? Berg's posting was in response to Michael at Half

What if we thought about it

What if we thought about it another way. What would you do if someone gave you a billion dollars? Would you retire? Would you at least cut back on the number of hours you work?

Because that is kind of what is happening here. If mankind suddenly becomes 1000 times more productive thanks to robots then the ultimate result will be to increases wages by 1000 times (you must accept that wages are linked to productivity). So, if the average wage is $60k today, it would become $60 million a year for those with jobs (working 40 hours a week). It strikes me as silly to keep working 40 hours a week when you are getting paid almost $30k an hour.

Therefore, the world will look a lot like this: the average person grows up, gets out of school, and goes to work for two years, working 20 hours a week. After that period they will have accumulated $60 million in the bank and then retired and lived the rest of their life on the priciple, potentially passing whats left to their children.

All in all, employment would be very low, the average wage earner only works two years in their lifetime. However, unemployment will be unheard of because businesses will find it impossible to stop people from quitting to live off past earnings.

LoneSnark, While I agree in


While I agree in principle that as we become more productive we ought to and probably will, eventually, slack off, I'm still not sure about the degree to which we would slack off. We're already fabulously rich compared to standards from 400 years ago. We already make orders of magnitude more wealth than our ancestors from that time. And in terms of years we're working longer than many people lived, working till we're 65 or more.

So there's a question in my mind about how we'll actually respond to greater and greater productivity. It's a possibility that we'll make $60 million dollars and consider that amount hardly suitable to live a life on. We might think, "well, it costs $20 million to visit Mom and Dad on Mars and of course the whole family has to do that twice a year, and the particle accelerator that Amy needs for her science project is..." etc.

Constant, If it is the case


If it is the case that human desires are practically infinite then as long as productivity is not literally infinite unemployment (or underemployment) will never be a problem.

Lonesnark- In a land where


In a land where the poor are fat, there is no food scarcity.

"As with moth situations

"As with moth situations where there isn’t really scarcity (ie. The global food Economy of the Late 20th Century)"
Absurd. Food is not free, therefore it is scarce. It requires the application of many hours of work by manufacturers (tractors), farmers (grain), truckers (shipping), processors (bread), and then shippers again. None of these people should be expected to work for free so it is rediculous to claim there is no real scarcity.

If 3rd worlders are incapable of selling anything of value to the world's farmers does not necessitate the enslavement of the world's food producers. The solution is obvious: they are smart and able people and should be able to find something to do that produces value.

First off, I find the idea

First off, I find the idea that people who do menial labour for a living do so because they aren't smart enough rather repugnant. Priveleged people do easy, idle mental work because they are priveleged, not because they're smarter.

As with moth situations where there isn't really scarcity (ie. The global food Economy of the Late 20th Century) it seems far more likely that eager profiteers will create artificial scarcity to up their profits (and, more importantly in a world without scarcity, political power) than share the wealth.

Um, America's poor are fat

Um, America's poor are fat not because food is no longer scarce but because it is so easy to earn it.

The fact that the poor overseas may starve drives home the scarcity. If food was not scarce then it would be so cheap that the world's poor could buy it for a wink and a nod and never go hungry.

If scarcity is ever eliminated then the price would fall to "negligible", whatever that is. Be it a dollar a ton or a penny a lb.

Sorry to be contradictory,

Sorry to be contradictory, but human "wants" are limitless, I would like to fill a swimming pool with jello but that would be expensive because jello is scarce.

from dictionary.com:
"The basic economic problem which arises from people having unlimited wants while there are and always will be limited resources. Because of scarcity, various economic decisions must be made to allocate resources efficiently."

In North America the reality of resource scarcity is abstracted by my shortage of cash.

But this is entirely semantics...

Lonesnark, Did I miss the


Did I miss the memo informing me that there is a Platonic Ideal Form of the concept "food not scarce"?

In the United States, food is not scarce. Period. There is food everywhere. The fact that poor people dont starve, but are instead obese in the United States is a QED of the above. Spatial and temporal shortages of food in parts of the globe notwithstanding, in total "engineering" terms there is enough food made in the world to feed everyone several times over year round.

Lonesnark, Semantics,


Semantics, shemantics. There's no scarcity of *food* in the US. Thats it. That's the *only* thing I'm arguing here because of a rather silly contention to the contrary further up the thread. The fact that there is no scarcity of food does not depend on whether wants are unlimited, which is, by the way, a non-sequitur to the prior point as well.