The Future of Robots

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The computer scientist Marshall Brain penned these prescient thoughts on robotics and the future of the economy about twenty years ago in three essays and a FAQ section on his website. Because of their importance and insight, I wanted to summarize them for my readers, staying close to the original texts with little commentary.

Robotic Nation

Overall Summary

The Tip of the Iceberg – We now see technology’s impact on 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.

The tip of the Iceberg – Brain believes every fast food meal will be (almost) fully automated within a few years, 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 costs 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.

A feasible scenario suggests that in the next fifteen years most retail transactions will be automated and 5 million retail jobs lost. Next, walking, human-shaped robots will begin to appear–Honda’s Asimo is an early example. 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, making them seem human-like. Robots will get cheaper and become more human-shaped to easily 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, mop, sweep, mow grass, etc. These robots would last for years, need no vacation or sick time, and eliminate human jobs. 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, construction, airports, hospitals, malls, amusement parks, truck drivers, and airplane pilots are just some of the jobs and locations that will have mostly robotic workers.

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 yield catastrophic changes, just as the Wright brother’s breakthrough brought about aviation. Brain applauds these developments. After all, who wants to clean toilets, flip burgers, and drive trucks? “These activities represent a massive waste of 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. Then many thought heavier than air flight was impossible,  and one who predicted it was often ridiculed. Such considerations lead to the conclusion that the employment world will change dramatically over the next fifty years. Why? The fundamental answer is Moore’s Law, that CPU power doubles every 18 to 24 months. Computers 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. 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.

While the employment landscape is not so different from the one of 100 years ago, 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, restaurants, airports, factories, 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 thinks we might erect housing for the unemployed since you can’t live without a job, and we need to have 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 

Overall Summary

We Will Replace all the Pilots – and then
Robots in Retail – but we won’t
Create New Jobs – which means there will be
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 the robotic nation and 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. We’ll feel sorry for the pilots at first but forget about them when the savings are passed on to us. Next will be the retail jobs and then others will follow.  What about new job 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! Our economy does not create many high-paying jobs. (And for those there is intense competition.) Instead, there is 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. We need to answer a fundamental question: How 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 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; 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 in the hands of a few–the rich make more money and the workers make less. With the arrival of robots, all the income of corporations 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 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 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. Consider that Linux, one of the world’s best-operating systems, was created by people in their spare time. Why not create an economic model that encourages this kind of productivity? Why not create an economic model where we don’t have to hope the aged die before they collect too much social security, where we don’t have so many working poor, or people sleeping in the streets? Brain says “we are entering an historic era that has the potential to completely change the human condition.

Brain argues that we shouldn’t ban robots because that leads to economic stagnation and lots of toilet cleaning. Instead, he states the goals:  raise the minimum wage; reduce the workweek; and increase welfare systems to deal with unemployment. What is needed is a complete re-thinking of 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 the products; start the businesses, creative projects; and use their free time as they see fit. We need not be slaves to the sixty-hour work week “the antithesis of freedom.”

The remainder of the article offers specific suggestions (supersize capitalism, guaranteed economic security) of how we would fund a society in which persons 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. (If all this seems fanciful, consider how fanciful our world would be to the slaves and serfs that most humans have been throughout history.) Brain says we are all vulnerable to the coming robotic nation. Let us then rethink our world, and welcome the robotic workers who will give us the time and 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 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 technological innovation created more jobs, not less. When horse-drawn plows were replaced by the tractor, security guards by the burglar alarm, craftsmen 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 that competes with humans for jobs. As this new species gets better, it 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 the 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 – I am a capitalist who has started three 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. 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 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. It is also a way of providing economic security to every citizen…”  Communism is usually identified by the loss of freedom and choice, whereas he 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 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. 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. It isn’t that much in our economy. 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? 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 lower. To let every citizen benefit from the robotic nation distribute the wealth to all.

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. 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 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 are given free education and training. None of these people are lazy or alcoholics! (Perhaps it’s the reverse, with no possible source of income people give up.)

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 that 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 fewer 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, welfare, child labor laws, the 40-hour workweek, antitrust laws, etc. Answer – “…because of the power of economic coercion.” This economic power is why companies 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 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.

Thank you Marshall Brain for such an uplifting vision.

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

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5 thoughts on “The Future of Robots

  1. While Moore’s Law is still operative, it is slowing down and not doubling every two years. However, the only quibble I have with the author is not the trend but the timing of the adoption and acceptance by a public that can’t or won’t accept change this quickly. Socrates thought, in answer to the question of how long it would take to train one of Plato’s Guardians–a philosopher king–and what could quicken such an event, had an interesting response: ” everyone over ten would have to be exiled”. 😉 I fear this sudden change is going to be difficult; generations may have to pass away before this new order of robots and AI is accepted and normalized.

    My major concerns are the rise of wealthy corporations, many of which exceed the GNP of many nations already; any planning for the transition for the expected unemployed; and the elimination of the liberal arts education in so many schools today, at a time when such education may be desperately needed by a newly created leisure class. God, I wish we had another way of incentivising people besides $$. A well trained, benevolent leader, acting out of duty, would be very welcomed, but half of us seem stuck on being guided by celebrities. Millions of years of evolution has not prepared us enough for the technological changes coming. Will we adapt or perish is a question a modern Hamlet may very well ask.

  2. Not quibbling here, but to my view, the right question is: Will we recognize adaptive behavior as crucial, before the option(s) for that evaporate. The $$signs just keep getting stronger.

  3. People will someday see that robots (and animal pets) will be the only genuine friends they will ever know. As things become more complicated and everyone becomes more disingenuous, they will turn to ‘bots for companionship.

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