02.27.13

Robot Series 5: Sweeping change

Posted in Society at 12:04 by RjZ

What would you do if you never had to work? What if no one works? It is entirely conceivable that at some point in the not so distant future there will be absolutely no labor for humans to do.

Robots, equipped with 3D vision, can automate more than just production and maid service. They will be able to take over farming, food service and health care. It’s a ways off because every problem from harvesting wheat to washing dishes will take some serious engineering effort to solve, but none of it is necessarily the stuff of science fiction; it’s more a matter of how to justify all that effort it takes to design. (One could make a dishwashing robot with today’s technology, but it would take so much time and effort to solve all the simple little problems that no one has stepped up the challenge. Vacuuming yes, you still have to load your own dishwasher). Still, dishwashing robots are unlike quantum computers or artificial intelligence. No new developments need to take place to make one; we already know what we need to know. And, if you can make a dishwashing robot, you can make another one that repairs it and keeps the rest of the robots running.

Already we have an idea how automation effects society and our understanding of economics. In the last hundred years humans have migrated away from farms and into cities, while farms have increased production for us all (admittedly, we may not be better off, but perhaps it will take some adjustment. I bet we’ll still have far fewer farmers per capita). This reduction of labor has dramatically increased free-time for us all and it is thanks to many forms of automation (and a large dose of cheap energy from petroleum).

Communism may have been invented as a response to the abuses of labor, (another name for workers—people), by those with access to capital. But what are the abuses when the labor in question is not sentient and will gladly work, 24 hours per day, in whatever conditions it takes to get the job done? Robots won’t complain about hot factories or cold ones and they’ll never ask for vacations or better health care. Communism may be a bad word for many, but avoiding abuses isn’t a terrible goal.

Slavery ended not only because human came to realize it was bad to treat fellow humans in this way, but also because it is cheaper to send workers home with a pay check then to feed them, care for them, and house them. In the robot economy, as long as these new servants have no artificial intelligence, there is no moral dilemma, and no care and feeding (beyond regular maintenance). Cheap labor without the suffering.

What about all those folks who actually work for living? People who primarily trade their labor for money to buy goods and services they desire will have little of value to offer when robots are doing all the work. Unfortunately, for the capitalists filling automated warehouses with products, they won’t be able to sell them without able customers. What will they do if laborers have no value and no money?

What does all this leave for you? Often when you newly meet someone one of the first questions asked is: “What do you do?” In the future, that question might seem a bit silly. There may well be room for artists, poets, and musicians. There will be some opportunity to think of new ideas, innovations and applications of the technology around us, but labor will be by choice alone, like artisan cheese and Amish furniture. Society’s current plan is to distribute all the free time to as many as possible, but things might not be so easy to manage when scientists, artists, and the Amish are busy, while the rest of us are watching tv (created by the artists).

From compliant robots to automated nurses, the future of robotics isn’t so far off any more. The biggest hurdles to a labor free society are really only the time it takes to build and design all these new devices and perhaps the energy to power them (although, we’ll likely save enough on heating factories and driving to work that, at least in the short term, it’s a wash). The robot economy is another type of singularity; everything changes and it’s difficult to predict just how things look when there is no labor for anyone.

Pixar’s Wall-E offered one potential future of a world where robots do absolutely everything: humans become permanent couch potatoes. Is that it, or do you have a better idea what will happen? Let me know in the comments.

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