Summary of Marshall Brain’s “Robotic Nation”
Robotic Nation (part 1)
The Iceberg – We only now see the tip of the iceberg. Why?
Moore’s Law – Exponential growth will lead to
The New Employment Landscape – where
Labor = Money – may no longer hold true and we’ll need new models.
The tip of the Iceberg – B believes every fast food meal will be (almost) fully automated within 5 years; and this is just “the tip of an iceberg.” Right now we interact with automated systems like: ATM machines, gas pumps, self-serve checkout, etc. These systems are fast, and lower cost and prices; “these systems will also eliminate jobs in massive numbers.” There will be massive unemployment in the next decades as we enter the robotic revolution.
A feasible scenario about the future suggests that in the next 15 years or so most retail transactions will be automated and 5 million retail jobs lost. Next, humanoid robots will begin to appear with Honda’s Asimo as the first example of a walking, human shaped robot. By 2025 we may have machines that hear, move, see, and manipulate objects with roughly the ability of humans. These machines will be equipped with AI systems that make them seem very human. Robots will get cheaper and have the shape of humans to easily facilitate their use of cars, elevators, and other objects in the human environment. By 2030 you can buy a $10,000 robot that will clean, vacuum, mop, sweep, mow grass, etc. The robot would last for years, not need vacation or sick time, etc. In short, eliminate the jobs of a number of people. [Like slot machines in Vegas.] Robotic fast food places will open shortly thereafter and by 2040 will be completely robotic. By 2055 robots will be everywhere and ½ the American workforce will be robots leaving millions unemployed. Restaurant, construction, airport, hospitals, malls, amusement parks, drivers, are just some of the jobs and locations that will have mostly robotic workers. [He later says that airplane pilots are already on the way out.]
(While one of the big things holding back robotics is vision (image processing), B thinks we will make significant progress in this field in the next 20 years. And if robots have good vision they can: drive cars, clean, construct, stack shelves, etc. This single improvement will yield catastrophic changes, just as the Wright brothers breakthrough brought about aviation. And this is all good because who wants to clean toilets, flip burgers, drive trucks, etc.? “These activities represent a massive waste of human potential.”)
If you think all this insane, B asks you to consider that you had predicted faster than sound aircraft in 1900; a time when there were no model T’s, no airplanes, and many people didn’t think we would ever fly. You would have been thought insane! B believes that the employment world will change dramatically over the next 50 years. But why? Answer: MOORE’S LAW; CPU power doubles every 18 to 24 months. [He goes into detail; but you know the details.] Every kid’s computer in 2020 will have the power of the NEC Earth Simulator. By 2100 we may have the power of a million human brains on our desktop. And we need to think about this today—as Honda is already doing. [See picture of Asimo ad.] B’s thesis is that robots will take your job by 2050 with the marriage of: a cheap computer with the power of a human brain; a robotic chassis like Asimo; a fuel cell; and advanced software. Robots like C3PO will be walking around.
While the employment landscape is not that different from that of 100 years ago; it will be vastly different once robots can compete with humans with there newfound abilities to see, hear, understand language, etc. And this will eliminate jobs, like the 3.5 million jobs in fast food and the 1 million jobs in delivery companies. Then retail stores, hotels, airports, factories, construction sites, and more will follow. And this means the 16 million manufacturing and 15 million retail, and 10 million hotel and restaurant jobs will be lost in the next 50 years. [I hope I’m around to see if this is true.] But America has no way to deal with 50 million unemployed! And the economy WON’T create 50 million new jobs. Why?
People trade labor for money. But without so much work around people wont’ be able to earn money. What then? B thinks we might erect unemployment dormitories for the unemployed since you can’t live without a job. [We could engage in genocide against all these people are continue putting more in prison.] B thinks we’d better start thinking about the kind of societal structures are needed in a “robotic nation.”
Robots in 2015 (part 2)
Replacing All the Pilots – and then
Robots in Retailers – but we won’t
Create New Jobs – which means there will be
A Race to the Bottom – so then
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 the robotic nation and ½ the jobs will be automated in the near future. Robots will be popular because they save money. For example, if an airline does away with expensive pilots they save money and will have a competitive price advantage over other airlines. We’ll feel sorry for the pilots but forget about them when the savings are passed on to us. [As we did when Reagan killed the air traffic controllers union and fired them all in the 80s.) And then, all the retail jobs and then…? But what about new job creation? After all, the model T created an automotive industry. Won’t the robotic industry create jobs? B says no. Robots will assemble robots and engineering and sales jobs will go to those willing to work for less.
[B answers a number of other objections on this issue on pgs. 4-5.] The robotic nation will have lots of jobs—for robots! Our economy does not create lots of high paying jobs. [Which probably accounts for the fact that everyone in this room is among the intellectually gifted and puts in years of study to (hopefully) get one of those jobs. What of those who can’t pass diffy Q’s? What of those who can’t pass Algebra? Of the functionally illiterate?] Instead there is a “race to the bottom.” This race is to pay lower and lower wages and benefits to workers and, if technologically feasible, to eliminate workers altogether. Robots will make the minimum wage—which has declined in real dollars for the last 35 years—irrelevant. And again, there will not be high paying jobs to replace the lost low-paying ones.
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. We need to answer a fundamental question: How do we want the robotic economy to work for the citizens of this nation?
Robotic Freedom (part 3)
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 the Goals – increase human freedom by weaning away from unfulfilling labor by
Capitalism Supersized – economic system that provides for all people which has
The Advantages of Economic Security – better for everyone because
You, Personally, and the Robots – because even your job is vulnerable.
We are on the leading edge of a robotic revolution that is beginning with automated checkout lanes; and the pace of this change will accelerate in your 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 in the hands of a few: the rich make more of the money and the working poor make less. With the arrival of robots, all the income of corporations will go to the shareholders and executives. But all this automation of labor—robots will do almost all the work 100 years from now—should allow people to be more creative than ever. Can we design the economy to do this? Why not design an economy where we abandon the “work or don’t eat” philosophy? This is a question of freedom. Consider JK Rowling the author of the Harry Potter books. Amazingly she wrote all this while on welfare but think of how much human potential is lost because people have to work to eat. [I think he is completely correct on this point.] Think of how much music, art, science, literature, technology, etc. have never been created because people had to earn a living. And consider Linux, one of the world’s best operating systems created by people in their spare time. Why not create an economic model that encourages this kind of productivity? [You probably think people wouldn’t work if they had free time. Some might not, but many of us might well become bored watching soap operas and begin to paint, write, think, etc. Of course, if you think that humans ought to be punished because they’re sinners or something like that, then I suppose we should all engage in repetitive toil.] Why not create an economic model where we don’t have to hope the aged die so they don’t collect too much social security, or where we don’t have so many working poor? B argues that “we are entering an historic era that has the potential to completely change the human condition.”
Stating the Goals – B argues that we shouldn’t ban robots because that leads to economic stagnation and lots of toilet cleaning. We should: raise the minimum wage; reduce the work week; and increase welfare systems to deal with unemployed; but none of these are likely to happen. What is needed instead is a complete re-thinking of economic goals. The primary goal of the economy should be to increase human freedom. We would do this by using robotic workers to free people to: choose the products they want; start the businesses and creative projects they want; enjoy time to relax; etc. We shouldn’t have to be slaves to the 60 hour work week which is “the antithesis of freedom.”
The remainder of the articles offers specific suggestions (supersize capitalism, ways to generate guaranteed incomes) of how to begin to fund a society in which persons can actualize their potential to create art, literature, science, music, etc. without the burden of wage slavery. The advantages of such a system would be significant, as he outlines toward the end of the article. [If all this seems fanciful, consider how fanciful our world would be to the slaves and serfs that most humans have been throughout history.] B says we are all vulnerable to the coming robotic nation (You, Personally, and the Robots) and this is unsettling. Let’s rethink the economic world and let robotic workers provide us the freedom we all so desperately desire.
“Robotic Nation FAQ” (in my own words)
Question 1 – Why did you write these articles? What is your goal?
Robots will take over ½ the jobs by 2030 and this will have disastrous consequences for rich and poor alike. No one wants this. I’d like to have us 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?
Consider the analogy to the auto or computer revolutions. Once things get going, they proceed rapidly. Vision, CPU power, and memory are currently holding robots back—this will change. Robots will work better and faster than humans by 2030-2040.
Question 3 – In the past, every technological innovation has created more jobs, not less. When (choose one, depending on the author of the email) [the horse-drawn plow was replaced by the tractor], or [the security guard was replaced by the burglar alarm], or [the factory making brooms replaced the craftsman creating brooms] or [the computer replaced human calculators] or [etc.], it improved productivity and gave everyone a higher standard of living. Why do you think that robots will create massive unemployment and other economic problems?
First of all, 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, in this revolution we are “creating a second intelligent species … [which] competes with humans for jobs. As this new species gets better, it will take more jobs and do more 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 for the few. [The CEO of the tennis shoe company who makes millions while the shoes are produced in the sweatshop by workers making pennies an hour.] This may work itself out in the long run, but in the short run it is devastating.
Question 4 – There is absolutely no evidence for what you are writing about. You have no economic foundation for your proposals. Why are you writing such gibberish?
“Simply go to Google and type in ‘jobless recovery,’” for all the evidence says Brain. [He provides multiple links.] The key is that automation fuels production increases but no new jobs.
Question 5 – What you are describing is socialism. Why are you a socialist/communist?
B says he’s a capitalist who has started 3 successful businesses and written a dozen books. “I am all for free markets, innovation and investment.” Socialism is the view that producing and distributing goods is done collectively by centralized governmental planning. His articles do not espouse this view. He argues that individuals should own the means of producing and be free “to earn whatever they can with their products, services, and innovations.” By giving consumers some wealth which they won’t be able to earn with work) we will “enhance capitalism by creating a large, consistent river of consumer spending. It is also a way of providing economic security to every citizen…” Communism is usually identified by the loss of freedom and choice, whereas B’s idea is that people will 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?
With robots doing all the work, we will finally have an opportunity to do this. And it is better for everyone.
Question 7 – Won’t your proposals cause inflation?
Tax rebates, similar to his proposals, don’t cause inflation. Neither do taxes or social security or other programs that re-distribute 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.
B argues that we should do this gradually. But remember he says, $150 billion is $500 for every man, woman, and child in the US and about what we spent on a war and occupation in 2003. It isn’t that much in our economy. [For related issues about how money is actually redistributed in our economy—from the middle class to the wealthy—see the classic work of the economist Mancur Olson.] At the moment, our government collects about $20,000 per household in taxes each year and so “it is very easy to imagine a system that pays US citizens $25,000 per year.”
Question 7b – Is $25,000 enough? Why not more?
“As the economy grows, so should the stipend.”
Question 8 – Why can’t you see that robots will bring dramatically lower prices? Everyone will be able to buy more stuff at lower prices.
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 cheaper. To let every citizen benefit from RN, distribute the wealth to all. [Like Alaskan oil profits.]
Question 9 – Won’t a $25,000 per Year Stipend Create a Nation of Alcoholics?
B notes this is a common question since people seem to assume that if we aren’t forced to due hard labor we’ll just do nothing or drink all day. He says he has no idea where this fear comes from [probably from political, philosophical, moral, and religious ideas promulgated by certain groups.] He dispels the idea with examples: a) he supports his wife, but she works at home and is not lazy or an alcoholic; b) his in-laws are retired and live on pension and social security but they aren’t lazy alcoholics; c) he has independently wealthy friends who aren’t lazy or alcoholics; d) he knows students supported by loans who aren’t alcoholics; e) many are given free education and training and don’t become alcoholics. [Maybe when one is hopeless and has no possible source of income one more likely gives up?] He doesn’t think you’d become a lazy alcoholic if you had a means of support without being a software engineer. [The question is would this make your more likely to do nothing (whatever that means) or do what you like?]
Question 9a – [a follow-on to Question 9] 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.
Everyone participates in the economy by spending money. Unless there are people with money there’s no economy. The cycle of getting paid by paycheck and spending 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 poker or golf!] Some people will become alcoholics though, just as they do now but B thinks we’ll have less lazy alcoholics “if we give them enough money to live decent, dignified lives…”
Question 10 – Why not let capitalism run itself? We should eliminate the minimum wage, eliminate welfare, eliminate child labor laws, eliminate the 40-hour work week, eliminate antitrust laws, etc.
“…because of the power of economic coercion.” [Consider how employers can drive wages to near nothing since they have all the power. Think of what the US system was like during the age of the robber barons.] This economic power is why a company can pay wages of a few dollars a week in most parts of the world. “We, The People, should enact the stipend to give ourselves true economic independence.”
Question 11 – Why didn’t you include the world – why are you U.S. centric?
Ideally, this would come to be around the world. [And could if robots, nanotech, etc produce this excess wealth.]
Question 12 – I love this idea. How are we going to make it happen?
He says we should work at it and spread the word. [The cynic might say that even if these arguments are air-tight it won’t matter because people never change their minds much.]