Summary of Marshall Brain’s “Robotic Nation”

Recent discussion about the effect of technology on employment reminded me of Marshall Brain‘s prescient essays of almost 20 years ago. (“Robotic Nation,” “Robots in 2015,” and “Robotic Freedom“) Here is a summary of the main theses in each essay.

Robotic Nation

OUTLINE

Tip of the Iceberg – Technology transforms employment because of
Moore’s Law – Exponential growth is leading to a
The New Employment Landscape – where the equation
Labor = Money – will no longer hold, necessitating new economic models.

Brain believes every fast food meal will be (almost) fully automated soon, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Right now we interact with automated systems: ATM machines, gas pumps, self-serve checkout, etc. These systems lower cost and prices, but “these systems will also eliminate jobs in massive numbers.” There will be massive unemployment in the next decades as we enter the robotic revolution.

In the next 15 years most retail transactions will be automated and 5 million retail jobs lost. Next, walking, human shaped robots will begin to appear, and by 2025 we may have AI equipped machines  that hear, move, see, and manipulate objects with roughly the ability of humans. Robots will get cheaper and become more human shaped to facilitate their use of cars, elevators, and other objects in the human environment. By 2030 you will buy a $10,000 robot that will clean, vacuum, and mow the lawn. Robotic fast food places will open shortly thereafter, and by 2040 will be completely robotic. By 2055 robots will replace half the American workforce leaving millions unemployed. Restaurants, airports, construction, hospitals, truck drivers and airplane pilots are just some of the jobs and locations that will have mostly robotic workers. These robots will last for years, and need no vacation or sick time.

While robotic vision or image processing is currently a stumbling block, Brain thinks we will make significant progress in this field in the next twenty years. This single improvement will bring catastrophic changes, analogous to the changes brought about by the Wright brothers. Brain applauds these developments. After all, who wants to clean toilets, flip burgers, and drive trucks, activities that waste human potential.

If all this sounds crazy, Brain asks you to consider a prediction of faster than sound aircraft in 1900; a time when there were no radios, model T’s or airplanes.  At that time many thought heavier than air flight was impossible, and predictions to the contrary were often ridiculed. Thus the employment world is changing dramatically and rapidly. Why?

The basic answer is Moore’s Law—CPU power doubles every 18 to 24 months. Computers in 2020 will have the NEC Earth Simulator. By 2100 we may have the power of a million human brains on our desktop. Robots will take your job by 2050 with the marriage of: cheap computers with the power of a human brain; a robotic chassis like Asimo; a fuel cell; and advanced software.

The new employment landscape isn’t so different from the one of 100 years ago, but it will be vastly different once robots that see, hear, and understand language compete with humans for jobs. The 50 million jobs in fast food, delivery, retail, hotels, airports, factories, restaurants, and construction will be lost in the next fifty years. But America can’t deal with 50 million unemployed, and the economy will not create 50 million new jobs. Why?

In the current economy people trade labor for money. But without enough work, people won’t be able to earn money. What then? Brain argues that we should then provide free housing and a guaranteed income. But whatever we do, we had better start thinking about the kind of societal structures needed in a “robotic nation.”

Robots in 2015” 

OUTLINE

We Will Replace the Pilots – and then
Robots in Retail – but we won’t
Create New Jobs – which implies
A Race to the Bottom – so
Where Do We Want to Go?

If you went back to 1950 you would find people doing most of the work just like they do in 2000. (Except for ATM machines, robots on the auto assembly line, automated voice answering systems, etc.) But we are on the edge of a robotic nation, where half the jobs will be automated in the near future. Robots will be popular because they save money. For example, if an airline replaces expensive pilots, the money saved will give them a competitive advantage over other airlines. Initially we’ll feel sorry for the pilots, but forget about them when the savings are passed on to us. Other jobs will follow suit. What about new jobs creation? After all, the model T created an automotive industry. Won’t the robotic industry do the same? No. Robots will assemble robots, and engineering and sales jobs will go to those willing to work for less.

The robotic nation will have lots of jobs—for robots! Even now our economy creates few high paying jobs. (For which there is intense competition.) Instead, there will be a “race to the bottom.” A race to pay lower wages and benefits to workers and, if technologically feasible, to eliminate them altogether. Robots will make the minimum wage—which has declined in real dollars for the last forty years—irrelevant; there will be no high paying jobs to replace the lost low-paying ones. So where do we want to go? We are on the brink of massive unemployment unknown in American history, and everyone will suffer because of it. How then do we want the robotic economy to work for the citizens of this nation?

Robotic Freedom

Overall Summary

The Concentration of Wealth – is accelerating bringing about
A Question of Freedom – why not let us be free to create
Harry Potter and the Economy – which leads us to
Stating Goals – to increase human freedom using
Capitalism Supersized – an economy that provides for all and has
The Advantages of Economic Security – which is better for
Everybody – because even high-skilled jobs are vulnerable.

We are on the leading edge of a robotic revolution that is beginning with automated checkout lane, and the pace of this change will accelerate in our lifetimes. Furthermore, the economy will not absorb all these unemployed. So what can we do to adapt to the catastrophic changes that the robotic nation will bring?

People are crucial to the economy. But increasingly there is a concentration of wealth—the rich make more money and the workers make less. With the arrival of robots, all corporate income will go to the shareholders and executives. But this automation of labor—robots will do almost all the work 100 years from now—should allow people to be more creative. So why not design an economy where we abandon the “work or don’t eat” philosophy?

This is a question of freedom. Consider J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books. Amazingly she wrote them while on welfare and would not have done so without public support. Think how much human potential we lose because people have to work to eat. How much music, art, science, literature, and technology have never been created because people had to work to eat. Consider that Linux and Wikipedia were created by people in their spare time. Why not create an economic model that encourages this kind of productivity, one where we don’t have so many working poor, or people sleeping in the streets? Brain argues that robots give us a chance to transform the human condition.

He also argues that we shouldn’t ban robots because that leads to economic stagnation and lots of toilet cleaning. Instead he states these goals:  raise the minimum wage; reduce the work week; and increase welfare systems to deal with unemployment. What need to completely re-think our economic goals. The primary goal of the economy should be to increase human freedom. We can do this by using robotic workers to free people to: choose their own creative projects, and use their free time as they see fit. We need not be slaves to the sixty hour work week, which is “the antithesis of freedom.”

The remainder of the article offers suggestions (supersize capitalism, guarantee economic security) as to how we would fund a society in which people are free to actualize their potential to be creative without the burden of wage slavery. Now if all this seems unrealistic consider how fanciful our world would be to the slaves and serfs that populated much of human history. Brain says we are all vulnerable to the coming robotic nation, so we should think about a different world. Hopefully it will be one where robotic workers give us the time and the the freedom we all so desperately desire.

Robotic Nation FAQ

Question 1 – Why did you write these articles? What is your goal? Answer – Robots will take over half the jobs by 2030, and this will have disastrous consequences for rich and poor alike. No one wants this. I’d like to plan ahead.

Question 2 – You are suggesting that the switchover to robots will happen quickly, over the course of just 20 to 30 years. Why do you think it will happen so fast? Answer – Consider the analogy to the automobile or computer revolutions. Once things get going, they proceed rapidly. Vision, CPU power, and memory are currently holding robots back—but this will change. Robots will work better and faster than humans by 2030-2040.

Question 3 – In the past technological innovation created more jobs, not less. When horse-drawn plows were replaced by the tractor, security guards by the burglar alarm, craftsman making things by factories making them,  human calculators by computers, etc., it improved productivity and increased everyone’s standard of living. Why do you think that robots will create massive unemployment and other economic problems? Answer – First, no previous technology replaced 50% of the labor pool. Second, robotics won’t create new jobs. The work created by robots will be done by robots. Third, we are creating a second intelligent species which competes with humans for jobs. As the abilities of this new species improves, they will do more of our work. Fourth, past increases in productivity meant more pay and less work, but today worker wages are stagnant. Now productivity gains result in concentration of wealth. This may work itself out in the long run, but in the short run it is devastating.

Question 4 – There is no evidence for what you are saying, no economic foundation for your proposals. Answer – Just Google ‘jobless recovery,’” for the evidence. Automation fuels production increases, but does not create new jobs.

Question 5 – What you are describing is socialism. Why are you a socialist/communist? Answer – Brain responds that he is a capitalist who has started three successful businesses and written a dozen books—he is pro-market. Socialism is the view that centralized governmental planning produces and distributes goods. But Brain argues that by giving consumers a share of the wealth—which they won’t be able to earn with work—we will “enhance capitalism by creating a large, consistent river of consumer spending,” and at the same time provide economic security to all citizens. Communism is usually identified by the loss of freedom and choice, whereas Brain wants people to have “economic freedom for the first time in human history…”

Question 6 – Why do you believe that a $25,000 per year stipend for every citizen is the solution to the problem? Answer – With robots doing all the work, we will finally have an opportunity to do this, which is better for everyone.

Question 7 – Won’t your proposals cause inflation? Answer – Tax rebates, similar to his proposals, don’t cause inflation. Neither do taxes, social security or other programs that redistribute wealth.

Question 7a – OK, maybe it won’t cause inflation. But there is no way to give everyone $25,000 per year. The GDP is only $10 trillion. Answer – Brain argues that we should do this gradually. Remember $150 billion, about what the US spent on the Iraq war in 2003, is $500 for every man, woman, and child in the US. At the moment our government collects about $20,000 per household in taxes each year and so a stipend in that range is feasible.

Question 7b – Is $25,000 enough? Why not more? Answer – “As the economy grows, so should the stipend.”

Question 8 – Won’t robots bring dramatically lower prices? Everyone will be able to buy more stuff at lower prices. Answer – True. But current trends show that most of the wealth will end up in the hands of a few. Also, if you have no wealth it won’t matter that prices are low. For every citizen benefit from the robotic nation, we must distribute the wealth.

Question 9 – Won’t a $25,000 per Year Stipend Create a Nation of Alcoholics? Answer – Brain notes this is a common question since many people assume that if we aren’t forced to do hard labor we’ll just do nothing or drink all day. But he has no idea where this fear comes from (probably from philosophical, moral, and religious ideas promulgated by certain groups.) He dispels the idea with examples: a) he supports his wife who works at home; b) his in-laws are retired and live on a pension and social security; c) he has independently wealthy friends; d) he knows students supported by loans; and e) many receive free education and training. None of these people are lazy or alcoholics! 

Question 9a – Yes, stay-at-home moms and retirees are not alcoholic parasites, but they are exceptions. They also are not productive members of the economy. Society will collapse if we do what you are talking about. Answer – Everyone participates in the economy by spending money. Unless there are people with money there’s no economy. The cycle of getting paid by a paycheck and spending it at businesses who get the money from customers is just that—a cycle—which will stop if people have no money. And giving a stipend won’t stop people from trying to make more money, create, invent or play. Some people will become alcoholics though, just as they do now, but Brain thinks we’ll have less lazy alcoholics if we provide people with enough to live decent lives.

Question 10 – Why not let capitalism run itself? We should eliminate the minimum wage, welfare, child labor laws, the 40-hour work week, antitrust laws, etc. Answer – Because of economic coercion. This economic power is why companies pay wages of a few dollars a week in most parts of the world. Better to have a universal basic income.

Question 11 – Why didn’t you include the whole world in your proposals—why are you U.S. centric? Answer – Ideally, the global economy would adopt these proposals.

Question 12 – I love this idea. How are we going to make it happen? Answer – We should spread the word.

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1. These articles in their entirety can be found here.

2 thoughts on “Summary of Marshall Brain’s “Robotic Nation”

  1. This is something I’ve been thinking about A LOT lately. I’m guessing that the next big hit will be administrative jobs, which are EVERYWHERE in today’s economy–people doing the many, many bureaucratic tasks that are inherent in a hyper-complex society. Really, though, it won’t take long for 99% of these jobs to be automated (10 years? 20 years, max). Once the bosses realize they can replace administrators and bureaucrats (who pull in quite nice salaries and benefits) with computers, they’ll do so almost instantaneously. This is going to be a dramatic shock to the economy, as several million people who are used to making comfortable livings now earn NOTHING, and have few other job prospects that don’t pay much, much less. I predict that this is going to finally spearhead the revolt against the huge, continuous suck of wealth to the top that has been going on for four decades (and really is a return to the default state of human history). We will have to come to terms with the fact that the number of well-paying jobs is decreasing, and will do so every faster. Once it stares us in the face that we must either return to serfdom (or worse!) for the masses or else progress to human freedom, I hope we have the courage and the good sense to make the right choice.

  2. Peter

    Really appreciate your thoughtful comments, and I agree with everything you say. Brain saw this coming 20 years ago. We must change the “work for bread” formula. Your concluding sentences are reminiscent of some of the things the Unabomber worried about in his manifesto.

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