02.28.13

Robot series 6: robot redux

Posted in Society at 9:52 by RjZ

A couple of readers offered some excellent insights on my final robot economy post.

Will robots really be able to automate everything?

Well, not everything, but it is already remarkable how many craftsman quality tasks can be broken down and chunked into menial subtask. My point is that even if there is a little labor left, it won’t change that this automation will have tremendous impact.

There are plenty of jobs remaining: designing, marketing, selling, finance.

That’s heartening. I agree and frankly, I over simplified. Still, these are all knowledge worker jobs and that’s fine, but isn’t it possible that a great many people just aren’t cut out for any of those jobs? Even if, as we have seen historically, the amount of free time simply gets redistributed, at some point there will be a great inequality; the knowledge workers will still have to work and the laborers won’t have any work. I wonder how we will deal with this problem.

The market system will accommodate for this, after all, if there are fewer consumers out there, then there is little justification to keep investing in robotics; especially after the costs of welfare.

The problem our current system has, then, is that there is little connection between social costs and business costs. In other words, if my business puts people out of work and the government starts paying for them. Well, they still have money to by my goods and services and I win. There are many ways to address this disconnect ranging from ending welfare to forcing businesses to pay for it, but as it currently stands, market forces will only encourage widespread automation.

Won’t useful robots have AI?

I don’t see why that will be necessary for much of the change I’ve proposed. AI still requires invention, probably lots of it. That is why I believe it could be far off (it might not be…that’s just it, invention is unpredictable). AI throws a serious ethical wrench in the works. Sentient robots, it can be argued, ought not be used as slaves. (What if they’re programmed to like the work? hard stuff!)

It doesn’t matter though. A tremendous amount of work can be accomplished by robots with simple routines and nature is already our model for this. Just the flight of an insect is tremendously complicated and is accomplished with a mere 100,000 neurons. Yet, we fear little about offending the sentience of a fly when we swat one. To suggest that an ethically difficult amount of intelligence will be required for robots to accomplish complex tasks is to ignore how much can be done by clever programmers, or even simple nature.

The only constant is change.

I hoped to bring this issue up so that we would start thinking about it now, and perhaps notice this trend as it starts to occur. However, I agree, we’ll all work through this; especially if we recognize that the way things are, sure isn’t going to be the way things will be in the future. Robots are just one of many perturbations to the status quo…not to mention all those unpredictable inventions!

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