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Editorial The Almighty Buck United States

Distribution of Wealth in a Robot-Driven World 900

Posted by michael
from the when-robots-take-your-job dept.
An anonymous reader sent another piece by Marshall Brain. He continues his examination of a society where most manual labor is performed by machines, idling a large fraction of the current workforce. See his previous piece for background.
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Distribution of Wealth in a Robot-Driven World

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  • by Lemmy Caution (8378) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @04:43PM (#6840337) Homepage
    No, you've got the wrong 80%. He's talking about the bottom 80%.

    The bottom 80% of households earn 50.6% of all income. The top 20% of households therefore get the other 49.4%. This gap is recent, according to the article - the differentials were smaller in the 50's and 60's.
  • Re:People will adapt (Score:3, Informative)

    by mattkime (8466) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @05:11PM (#6840526)

    Thank you, Mr. Gay Nigger, for showing us the benefits of Open Source ideals applied beyond software.

    Not two days ago [] this same statement [] was posted by another slashdotter [].

    In many other forums, this would be considered plagiarism or trolling. However, you have gone the extra mile to:
    1) Not change a damn word.
    2) Not give credit to the original author.

    Through these actions you've conclusively proven that you can increase your karma while barely raising an eyebrow.

    Mr. Gay Nigger, I commend you! You a exemplary slashdotter in true form!

  • The Paperless Office (Score:5, Informative)

    by ansible (9585) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @05:36PM (#6840654) Journal

    We're headed towards the "Paperless Office". The road is longer and bumpier than was first imagined, but we're getting there.

    The only times I print out stuff is when it needs to be portable (like printing driving directions) and I don't want to putz with putting it on a PDA.

    Or sometimes, flipping through a document is easier than viewing it on the screen. I wish I had a PDF viewer which was really, really fast. Maybe something that could pre-render pages without gobbling massive amounts of memory...

    Stuff like printing out code is almost useless. How can I tell if I'm looking at the latest version?

    A lot of the notes and stuff I write these days goes into documentation, or the coporate wiki. Writing something down on paper only benefits me. Putting it on the wiki can potentially benefit everyone.

  • by exp(pi*sqrt(163)) (613870) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @05:37PM (#6840668) Journal
    Housework has gone down for most people. Did you see that TV series 1900 house? A bunch of modern British people decided to live for 3 months as if in 1900. Life for the women was one long chore. The amount of work was unbelievable. Just doing the washing was an entire day's work. Cooking was hell as a stove needed to be maintained. It was hard and slow to cook with. I can't even begin to reconut how much work these people did!
  • by vidarh (309115) <> on Sunday August 31, 2003 @05:42PM (#6840690) Homepage Journal
    In fact the above was Marx' core argument for the inevitability of the failure of capitalism.

    The key result of capitalism is competition. The only measurement of the success of a company under capitalism is profit. Driving up profit means increasing sales, which can only be done as long as consumption increases, or the total market increases (population boom, or expanding into areas you don't currently reach).

    The moment these factors are all constrained (population doesn't increase, companies reach all possible consumers, and consumers are consuming as much as they can), the ONLY remaining way to increase profit becomes fighting over market share, or reducing cost. Fighting over market share also increasingly IS an issue of reducing cost, and hence prices, as there is only so much you can do with marketing and product differentiation if someone is dramatically undercutting you.

    Cutting cost inevitably boils down to reducing the amount paid to other people, because all resources and materials you pay for ultimately involve paying people, whether it is wages, licenses, purchase of property or any other transaction (even when you pay a corporation, you are then indirectly enriching the owners of the corporation, if a foundation or trust the beneficiaries, if a government, the people)

    The logical conclusion is a strong push to cut workforces and/or cut pay. Often the second is a result of the former: People in areas where work is short, or with skills that are becoming obsolete will lower their salary expectations.

    However, at some point you reach a level where any reduction in cost lead to a reduction in consumption, at which point reduction in cost for one company will be increasingly hard to compensate by growth elsewhere.

    Marx' thesis was that at this point, capitalism will continue to produce, and continue to cut costs, and drive consumptions among the people with capital to extreme excesses by promoting waste that people wouldn't normally consider, while more and more people are pushed into poverty by cost cutting measures.

    Capitalists on the other hand, dismiss this, usually by assuming that overall consumption can continue to grow forever, hence always allowing for cost cutting to be compensated by growth in other markets.

    Taken to extreme, a society where "workers" aren't needed, capitalism is unlikely to survive. How do you maintain a system based on private ownership of the means of production when it leads to immense poverty, and that poverty isn't "needed" because of scarcity?

    It is hard to see a situation like that not eventually leading to growing popular unrest.

    Incidentally, in "The German Ideology" Marx wrote [paraphrased] "if the revolution happens in a country with insufficient resources to meet the basic needs, the same shit will start all over again" - Marx always made it very clear that for a socialist revolution to have a chance to succeed, it must happen in a highly evolved capitalist economy, a country where a small elite have accumulated sufficient wealth that the needs of the population as a whole could be met by redistribution, and where the wast majority had been forced into poverty by the more and more extreme competition of capitalist economy.

    He specifically named the UK, France and Germany originally, but in a later preface to the Communist Manifesto, he pointed to the US with it's rapid growth and expanding markets as more likely to mature to the sufficient level first....

    Interestingly, he also specifically made it clear that he believed that a socialist revolution in Russia would be doomed to failure because of it's low level of development (it was a feudal dictatorship with a mostly agrarian economy).

  • Re:Too late (Score:3, Informative)

    by Minna Kirai (624281) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @05:56PM (#6840782)
    You're one of those people who doesn't understand why the Beer and Ice Cream Diet isn't working for them, aren't you?

    No, there are several fundamental flaws to that diet. Some are too obvious for me to bother mentioning, but the best one centers on the definition of "calorie". For the benefit of those who don't know this factoid:

    There are two different definitions of "calorie". A physical calorie is the energy to heat 1 gram of water 1 degree kelvin. A dietary Calorie can heat a kilogram of water 1 degree. That jokey diet page freely switches between the two definitions to exaggerate facts and reach bizarre conclusions. It creates the illusion that changing the temperature of a foodstuff will outweight the actual calories it contains.
  • Re:People will adapt (Score:3, Informative)

    by heli0 (659560) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @06:05PM (#6840819)
    "What happens to the 90% of the population who has no such skills and can't develop them?"

    The literacy rate in the US is 97%.
    If you can read, you can learn, even without help from others.

    For 97% of the population the only reason for not developing new skills is because of a choice not to.

    Americans spend an average of 28hrs/wk watching television. I am sure that if they spend a fraction of that time undertaking some sort of training they will be able to acquire new skills. Yes, that is correct, in the future you may have to watch television for less than 28 hours each week to be competitive in the job marketplace.

    sources: ctbook/geos/ us.html tsheets/f actvchip.html
  • by fnj (64210) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @06:24PM (#6840923)
    It's called the earned income tax credit. Rather a misnomer as it has evolved, no? See, e.g., CNN Issue Brief On Earned Income Tax Credit []

  • by OeLeWaPpErKe (412765) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @06:33PM (#6840963) Homepage
    Obviously false, I don't know how you get this idea.

    The demand/supply would still be the same (unless it were to rise so much as to bancrupt businesses, which I assume you won't let happen), so prices would remain the same.

    The obvious proof : a lot of countries have minimum wages (a lot) higher than the us, and their economy didn't collapse.
  • Re:People will adapt (Score:3, Informative)

    by 0111 1110 (518466) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @06:44PM (#6841009)
    But the human body as a repair and build machine is emminently replacable, given advances in joint construction, tactile feedback, and limited AI. There is no technical reason that the humans who build todays robots cannot be replaced with more generally functional robots. This will happen.

    Of course. Which leads to a new model or at least new training modules for an older model of robots. Every time you lay off a million people, you have to build another million robots (or something close to that). Who is going to build those robots? You simply can't get around the fact that those robots who are going to be replacing one set of robot building humans need to be built by humans at least until AI has reached a near human level of intelligence. We are not talking about simple machines here either. Every one of those robots will have a complexity probably comparable to a car. It will take a lot of labor to build one.

    The "singularity" at issue here really only occurs when we have created robots which are not only as physically flexible as humans, but also roughly as intelligent as well. Until then we will always need a huge amount of human labor to design, program, build, repair, and upgrade millions upon millions of robots.

    We are centuries away from that, but once we reach that point. They will become no different from people, just a sort of artificial species or another "race" of hominid with all the same rights that we have. At that point they could no longer ethically be used as slave labor and you probably wouldn't be able to legally "own" one, thus negating much of the advantage of having them in the first place. You would have to pay them at least as much as biological hominids and probably more. This issue is, I think, what prevents the "singularity" from actually occuring.

    But, if we are immoral enough to use these artificial people for slave labor, they would not be a threat to us (unless they "rebelled", which may not be in their programming). If the entire society were run by robots, we would be the "overlords". We would be the royalty. We would not need to "do" anything. It would all be done for us by our nuclear-electro-hydraulic (or whatever) artificial hominid slaves, our race of Morlocks.

    For us, this would be wonderful in a sense, a world as imagined by the Star Trek writers where money really wasn't needed, except that artificial slaves would be the ones saving us from it instead of replicators.

    Any effort on our part would be completely voluntary. There would still be humans involved in the arts: movies, music, computer games, books, paintings, everything we have today that people like to create for its own sake. We may not trust our artificial slaves to act as police or judges either. Some subset of jobs will probably always be performed by biologic hominids.

  • by Famatra (669740) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @06:45PM (#6841012) Journal
    This guy is talking shit.

    If labour is being replaced by capital (robots / robotic machines etc.), and that leads to increases in unemployment, then more advanced countries (using more machines / capital) should show a trend upwards in unemployment compared to less developed countries. This has not been observed, according to studies done by *economists*.

    A second point, his pie charts showing income (in)equality are better done using a Lorenz curve. If your going to talk economics at least avail yourself of the tools and techniques that are available.
  • by An Onerous Coward (222037) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @06:53PM (#6841049) Homepage
    I defy you to prove that "Daredevil" was written by a human being, rather than a Markov chain-based movie script generator.

    Seriously, I expect to see at least some creative pursuits go the same route as unskilled labor. Computers can already write passable music and play killer chess. Also, robots will be able to kick our butts when it comes to the replication of art. If you want a mural of Van Gogh's "Starry Night" on your building, you could hire a local artist to do it, or the Paint-o-matic 3000. A really good artist could easily outperform the Paint-o-matic (it would take three times as long), but a mediocre one couldn't.

    Even if this Marshall guy's dystopian, "ninety percent of everybody thrown out on the street" world never pans out, I'm still left with the vague worry that there won't be anything useful and constructive for many of us to do. Posting to /. will skyrocket.
  • Re:People will adapt (Score:2, Informative)

    by teorth (582980) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @08:54PM (#6841635)
    If you've read this gentleman's writings, you'll glean that this isn't just another routine shift in employment - we're heading toward a watershed event, a singularity. In the past, as old industries became obsolete, the work force laid off from one profession got dumped into the "generic labor" pool... y'know, the Walmart greeter, etc. What Marshall Brain is arguing - quite insightfully - is that the "generic labor" pool itself will be obsolesced, which has never happened before. What happens when the only jobs are those that you need serious skill and training to perform? What happens to the 90% of the population who has no such skills and can't develop them?

    Well, two things will happen:

    • If there are more (and better paid) skilled jobs than unskilled jobs, then people will get more education. It's not like skill is 100% genetic - it can be acquired. We will probably enter an age when tertiary education is as universal as secondary education is today (and don't forget, only a few generations ago - during the Depression, for instance - the average US citizen would have had only a primary education).
    • Robotics, like any other technological advance, will make it easier to perform skilled tasks as well as unskilled tasks, thus lowering the bar for entry. Scientific research, to name one example, has been made much more convenient by the advent of the computer and the internet; it's no longer so necessary to have massive resources such as an exhaustive library at a first-class university in order to keep up with the field. Presumably with further improvements in IT, such previously arcane fields will become accessible to people who are currently considered "unskilled".

    Moreover, and even worse: People claim all the time that the economy has survived everything before it, and will adapt. But some trends, promoted by such shifts, have just continued to go in an unhealthy direction. One of them is the concentration of wealth: the increasing percentage of resources owned by a tiny fraction of society. Another is the shift in wealth from individuals to corporations - never before has the economy dealt with gargantuan bodies like AOL-Time-Warner.

    Hmm, have you ever heard of the Dutch East India Company? I imagine as a relative proportion of the world economy at the time, that corporation was far larger than AOL-TW (which, by the way, is not that large of a company, compared with e.g. Wal-Mart). Besides, corporations are ultimately owned by individuals, and incidentally also provide a large chunk of the tax revenues that keep government running. (Same goes for the rich. The top 20% may have 50% of the world's wealth, but is also paying 70-80% of the world's income tax, and (more indirectly) also a similarly large proportion of other taxes too).

    The key thing is not so much income inequality, but income mobility - how easily can an individual by dint of sheer achievement move up the income ladder? The example of the Harry Potter author in the article is a good example of this. Unfortunately we don't have much good data on income mobility, but it doesn't seem significantly worse than in the past, and may even be slightly better. Today's rich typically aren't coming from old-money families any more, but from the middle and even working classes.

    I suspect that we're heading toward a two-class society, comprised of the working skilled and the unemployed masses. Already, these two groups exist and rarely interact, but the differences are growing more visible stark by the day.

    I doubt it. Skill is a continuum, not a boolean variable. Technology tends to shift this continuum in one direction or another, but doesn't have any particular tendency to tear it apart.


  • by 1010011010 (53039) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @09:13PM (#6841735) Homepage
    very regulation is an affront to the ideal of a purely capitalistic marketplace.

    That's not true. I think you may be confusing anarchy with capitalism. Capitalism requires a government to enfore contracts, ownership of property, and establish and maintain a "level playing field" for the market. A "free market" isn't a government-less market. It's just a market where there are no subsidies and/or special priviledges, and where people can expect contracts to be enforced by a neutral third party.

  • by Murdoc (210079) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @10:04PM (#6841974) Homepage Journal

    Wow, that was the most logical argument I've ever seen. /sarcasm

    Actually if you cared to read my post a little closer you'd see that it actually validates "supply and demand", which is in itself a construct or measure of scarcity. But I'll explain it again for those that seem to have missed it. Companies like to install bigger equipment that will do labor jobs far cheaper, quicker, and more accurately than humans can whenever possible. This has two effects: 1) Raising productive capacity (and hence profit, if it is all actually bought), and 2) laying off workers. This of course saves the company all sorts of money and makes good economic sense, right? When this is done en masse, however, as in the time period of 1900-1929, how does this effect supply and demand? Supply goes up due to more production, and demand goes down, as people lose their jobs and start saving money. What does each of these factors have to do with price? That's right, price drops. And when they both work together, in vast amounts, you get a crash. Sound familiar? 1929? That's what happened.

    So what we are left with is an economic system that can produce more than enough (abundance) for everyone to have a high standard of living (due to high production, with little labor required to produce it), but no way to actually distribute that abundance to the people. Doesn't that seem wrong to anyone? Today, we maintain our scarcity by limiting production, guaranteeing poverty, and making many useless jobs that could easily be done by machines far cheaper and better than people can, just so they can have an income!

    Technocracy is a completely different method of actually distributing that abundance to people without requiring a burdensome workload from them to make it. Machines are the new slaves. Let take advantage, and enjoy ourselves!

  • alarmist crap (Score:3, Informative)

    by ftzdomino (555670) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @10:14PM (#6842014)
    People have been predicting that robots will take over every task for at least 50 years now. A lot of people invested in robots in the 80's and their businesses failed. Robots are just too expensive or complex to program for a lot of uses. As far as manufacturing is concerned, we've basically gotten about as efficient as we can get with robots. Fully automated manufacturing cells are extremely expensive, not fault tolerant, can't respond to changes quickly, and still require maintenance and operators. An ASRS (Automated Storage/Retrieval System) is about as cheap as it's going to get. They require a lot of raw materials to make. As far as retail stores are concerned, we will most likely see them disappear before we see them become entirely automated. They are an extremely inefficient extra step. I doubt robots will *ever* catch on for burger flipping. A $400,000 robot will definitely require more than a full year's salary of minimum wage to maintain. Just like the ultra cheap and simple automats couldn't compete with human order takers. Unintelligent robots will be incapable of handling basic tasks in hotels, amusement parks, and airlines. They may be capable of handling construction work, but better economies of scale would be achieved by prefabricating larger units as has been the trend. I spent 8 months programming half million dollar robotic measurement machines, and based on that I don't think anything robotic will be cost effective or intelligent enough for these tasks for at least 30 years or so. In the 1950's they thought we'd have robotic maids by 1980. I'm still waiting. Some vacuum cleaner that can't even recharge on its own doesn't count.
  • by MickLinux (579158) on Monday September 01, 2003 @12:45AM (#6842662) Journal
    Not to address your main point -- but I noticed to wrong statements. First of all, Robert E. Lee took the job of the confederate forces, not because he liked that side better, but because he had family on that side, and his personal loyalties were there.

    His feelings were that the South should have freed the slaves before the war. Technically, he was right. So he would have made a great Southern president.

    But he made a lousy general. Tactician? Perhaps pretty good. Good at getting the troops emotionally involved? A genius. But he didn't value his men. For him, casualties were just casualties that had to be borne.

    That's like a company not valuing money. Money is the lifeblood of companies: lose too much, and you die. Soldiers are the lifeblood of an army. Lose too many, and you have no maneuverability, no force, and so on.

    So Robert E. Lee was a lousy general.

    That said, his honor was one of the saving graces of the civil war. It allowed America to get past war, into something that, while not good, was a ton better than continuous war.

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