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Editorial The Almighty Buck United States

Distribution of Wealth in a Robot-Driven World 900

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 fadeaway ( 531137 ) * on Sunday August 31, 2003 @04:39PM (#6840311)
    I thought that the article was rather well thought through until reaching this:

    What if the way to achieve the strongest possible economy is to give every citizen more money to spend? For example, what if we gave every citizen of the United States $25,000 to spend? $25,000 sounds impossible the first time you hear it, but consider the possibility.

    Putting aside the laugability of the idea of a capitalist government giving each person a years worth of middle income wage for a moment - it would be great if that could work, but it wouldn't. Price inflation would be rampant. Bread would cost $500 a loaf.

    Unless some form of government inforced price fixing went into play (ha!), the money would just shoot right back up the tree.
    • by Lemmy Caution ( 8378 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @04:47PM (#6840364) Homepage
      There's a certain level at which inflation would occur, but that's only if there's scarcity at the supply end. The concern is radical oversupply/overcapacity and underemployment, caused by mass redundancy and automation. It's sort of a game-theory no-win situation where no company would benefit from hiring anyone (because they have automated most of their functions) and thus there's inadequate wealth to generate demand. It's quite plausible, and it may even be a bit of what we have now.
    • Exactly! Gov't HAS NO MONEY to give! Money is seized by the government from the citizens. If the government were to seize money and then redistribute it, that's called.. oh I dunno.. COMMUNISM. The fact is, capital is earned, not distributed.
      • by Minna Kirai ( 624281 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @05:18PM (#6840564)
        If the government were to seize money and then redistribute it, that's called.. oh I dunno..


        As you noted, a government has no money of its own. The only way a gov can do ANYTHING is to seize and redistribute from the citizens.

        The only government which never redistributes wealth does NOTHING; they call that anarchy.
        • by fnj ( 64210 )
          As you noted, a government has no money of its own. The only way a gov can do ANYTHING is to seize and redistribute from the citizens.

          Well, actually a government can own its own industry and thus generate its own wealth. The USSR did that. But that is arguably seizure, by seizing the marketplace.

          The only government which never redistributes wealth does NOTHING; they call that anarchy.

          You are right in a literal sense. But merely seizing money and spending it is not at the core of what is commonly ca
    • by geekee ( 591277 )
      To be fair, the author does try to explain where the $25K comes from, rather than just printing money. However, I think his ideas aren't much better than simply printing the money.
    • by rmdyer ( 267137 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @05:37PM (#6840666)
      People are born, live, and die. If you are lucky, you will have the bare essentials of life during that time. We need water, food, and shelter. We also need a host of other "things" which make life bareable, even bring happiness.

      When I was younger and more of an idealist, I thought that we were all working towards a higher goal, towards a world where we will solve pressing problems of society, culture, and knowledge. As I've grown older and more jaded. I find that "we" as a whole, really have no goals in mind other than what seems to be personal gratification. This is sad.

      I'd like to use science and technology to build a world where the basics of life are essentially free. I would assume the first place to use robots and automation would be in the production of free clean drinking water, and food, then on to shelter, etc.. But what do we use robots for? Vacuming, charming kids with robotic dogs and cats, cell phones for communicating frivilous chit-chat. We as a society seem to have no direction and appear to be going nowhere faster and faster.

      Those who do well in the world don't seem to be reaching back to give others a hand. I suppose this is the way its always been. To each his own, and survival of the fittest mentality. I suppose giving creature comforts like food, water, and shelter to every fool on the street might actually make things worse. I don't have the answer to that. But it seems that the entire system could be automated somehow so that those who support the system get the just rewards for free. Hmmm, sounds a bit like open-source eh?

      I suppose I long for something like the Star-Trek culture, without the geeky nature that this involves. Can't we all just work towards a future that brings happiness for everyone? Why is there so much hate and personal vengance in the world?

      -2 -2 +3 +1
      • There is an important concept I learned in psychology recently. A human's intelligence is partially based on their environment. And since shelter and the proper environment cost money, our intelligence is based on money. As was discovered by someone looking at racial demographics, poverty levels and SAT scores.

        But it won't ever sink in. Nobody cares.

        No matter how many times you repeat it. We'll still let people live in the streets. We won't be their friend or care for them won't get them good qualit
    • by An Onerous Coward ( 222037 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @06:32PM (#6840959) Homepage
      Actually, no.

      Price inflation would happen. But it would be a huge equalizer. If we assume that $25,000 is the current household average, then giving every household another $25K will double the amount of money in the economy, hence we will assume the doubling the price of all goods and services (not the 250x increase you propose).

      Now that everything costs twice as much, the person getting by on $10000 a year now has $35000, which amounts to $17,500 in pre-inflation dollars. In short, he just got a pay raise.

      Meanwhile, the family which once earned $1,000,000 a year suddenly finds everything twice as expensive, lowering their effective income to $500,000.

      Further, whatever debts you owed could be paid back much more easily in an inflationary economy. If a loaf of bread really costs $500, then you could pay off all your student loans by baking thirty loaves of bread. Inflation has always been better for debtors than for creditors. Read up on the whole "gold standard" politics of the late 1800s. It's dry reading, but relevant.

      Finally, you ignore the overall thrust of the article: He is proposing this plan because, in the world he envisions, there is a vast amount of wealth being created by robots, with all the wealth going to the owners of the robots. Average schmoes are locked out of that stream because they can no longer provide any services that the owners would exchange their wealth for, because a robot can do unskilled (and even low-skilled) labor better, faster, and cheaper.

      America has never been a purely capitalistic government. The government has taken it upon itself to do things like divy up land, control imports and exports, build armies, and a host of other things rather than let "The Market" find its own solutions. Every regulation is an affront to the ideal of a purely capitalistic marketplace. This state of affairs is A Good Thing. Would we want to live in a world where Biggasse Corp could dump their toxic waste on the outskirts of Smelterville, MI because its residents were too poor to make it expensive to do so? Where any amount of pollutants could be flung into the atmosphere because the corporation doing the flinging didn't have to bear the costs that pollution imposes on the rest of us? There are places where capitalism works, and places where it doesn't. The entire point of the article is that we're about to run up against a situation where capitalism Does Not Work.
      • 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 exp(pi*sqrt(163)) ( 613870 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @04:39PM (#6840318) Journal
    People predicted the working week would decrease dramatically over the last half-century. We now seem to work much harder. People predicted a paperless office. On the contrary we use more paper than ever because we can print on it so damn fast! Who knows what the outcome of more robots will be? Judging by the last 50 years it'll mean more and harder work for all of us.
    • It'll mean that if you understand hardware and become a technician/technologist you will be middle class, if not you will be poor :P
    • In the US, the ammount of housework per day has not gone down much in the last 150 years. This is despite the advent of vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, etc. Instead, we have found ways to use these inventions to change the way we do things, so that we can fill up our free time with the same old chores....

      Same thing regarding the work force. Sure, it is painful for the older population who may not have the skills to compete, but that is an argument for lowering the retirement age, IMO ;-) Can we all retire
      • 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!
    • 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.

      • We're headed towards the "Paperless Office".

        Darnitall, I can't remember where I saw the article (hope it wasn't here... my memory insists it was a deadtree magazine) that pointed out that it hasn't been the office that's become paperless, but the warehouse. The days of multiple-carbon picklists and that sort of thing are fading, replaced by barcode readers and wireless. Kind of an interesting point.
  • by strider3700 ( 109874 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @04:42PM (#6840329)
    In the 1960s, the split was closer to 60/40, with 80% of the population making 60% of the income, and the richest 20% of the population making 40%. [ref] Between 1960 and 2000, the income split has gone from 60/40 to 50/50.

    Perhaps I'm wrong but haven't we seen this before a few hundred years ago. I'm thinking of the poor unwashed masses rising up and overthrowing the rich elite minority. The french revolution, the american war of independance, the russians also killed off their royalty if I remember correctly. These days the people are the business leaders, and not royalty but they still have the same outlook on life. I wouldn't be too surprised to see the same thing happen again. When you leave people with nothing and no hope they have very few real reasons to not die for a cause. Keep the masses happy and comfortable and they don't want to risk losing that.
    • You got it (Score:5, Interesting)

      by bmac ( 51623 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @05:42PM (#6840691) Journal
      This is exactly why Europe has such a lavish welfare system -- Hitler capitalized upon uncared-for Germans who were jealous of the wealthy overclass (with a significant amount of Jews). This was only 60 years ago and Europe is not going to make the same mistake again, though the economics of welfaring a section of the population which have a significant percentage of people who just want to drink beer and sleep around has got serious problems too. Paying people to be slackers isn't good for the country, though bloody revolution (you better be careful, corporate America) is a poor solution, offered up by the people who want to be the next aristocrats.

      IMO, the solution involves the "haves" having compassion for the "have-nots" which means welfare only for the purpose of getting them a niche where they can be productive (and relatively happy doing it) for themselves, their families and the aggregate society. Ted Turner, you fuck, are you listening?

      Peace & blessings,

      True peace and happiness are only a wish away --
      • Re:You got it (Score:3, Insightful)

        by j3110 ( 193209 )
        The flaw in your arguement (well... combined with capitalism) is that compassionate people don't have much of a chance at being wealthy.

        Socialism cures a lot of these problems, but early retirement cures them all practically. Force retirement of anyone that makes 5 million dollars of assets and or cash and the problem will be solved. This way everyone gets a chance at prosperity, and I bet you won't find anyone starving either. People wasting resources just because they have them will be much less of an
  • by John Seminal ( 698722 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @04:44PM (#6840346) Journal
    How are we, as a society, going to respond to this robotic revolution? If we handle it properly, the arrival of robots could be an incredibly beneficial event for human beings. If we do not handle it properly, we will end up with millions of unemployed people and a severe economic downturn that will benefit no one.

    Most buisnesses will do whatever it takes to make more of a profit. If the robots are cheaper than people, they will use robots. I doubt that most buisnesses consider the effect on employment or workers morale in buisness decisions. With NAFTA, many USA jobs that paid over $20 an hour left for Mexico where they pay a small fraction.

  • The Future: (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 31, 2003 @04:45PM (#6840349)
    There is only one certainty, and that is that we will run out of money. Corporations gather money faster than any force on the planet, and eventually, they will have it all sewn up. The consumer will have less money to throw around, because McDonalds, Microsoft, and Major Movie labels will have gobbled up the entire economy in their attempts to keep stocks rising, even as the balloon's dimensions stretch into dangerous proportions.
    • Re:The Future: (Score:5, Insightful)

      by TheSync ( 5291 ) on Monday September 01, 2003 @12:28AM (#6842589) Journal
      What really scares me is how IGNORANT of ECONOMICS most Slashdot users are. You folks are generally pretty educated about technology and science, but you have no clue when it comes to economics.

      We live in a world where the expansion of the free market has transformed a planet of people whose daily challenge was to feed themselves, into one where we see poverty going away rapidly. In 1950, only half of Americans had indoor plumbing. Now even some of the poorest Americans have microwave ovens and television sets, let alone indoor plumbing.

      Not only has the super-rich West been moving forward. In 1970, the percentage of humanity living at under $2 per day was 40%, under $1 per day was 16%. By 1998, less than 20% of humanity lived under $2 per day, and less than 7% live on under $1 per day (all measurements in 1985 dollars).

      We have a long way to go still. But thanks to economic liberalization in countries such as India and China, these numbers are expected to continue dropping.
  • In the beginning there was man, and for a time it was good.
    But humanity's so called civil societies soon fell victim to vanity and corruption.
    Then man made the machine in his own likeness. Thus did man become the architect of his own demise...

    Ha! I knew I'd seen this before! []

    Blockwars []: multiplayer and it's free!

    • Not robots, but the effect is similar.:P

      (Excerpt from The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Page 634784, Section 5a, Entry: Magrathea)

      Far back in the mists of ancient time, in the great and glorious days of the former Galactic Empire, life was wild, rich and largely tax free.

      Mighty starships plied their way between exotic suns, seeking adventure and reward amongst the furthest reaches of Galactic space. In those days spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men, women were real women,

  • I don't think so Tim (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jeffkjo1 ( 663413 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @04:47PM (#6840362) Homepage
    So service based industries where employees of companies communicate face to with customers are going to become robots communicating with people?

    More than anything else, people just won't accept this. As mammouth as Walmart is, they made the right decison in deciding against automated checkout. I've used automated checkout on a few occasions when it was absolutely necessary, and hated it. "So I'm checking myself out, therefore eliminating the need for you to pay a cashier $6 an hour.... and I don't get a discount?"

    Consumers, by and large, aren't going to accept robots as waiters and robots as cashiers and target sales people. Now, certain positions will become robots.... but the vast majority of people will continue to keep their jobs.
    • Cost savings. It's about cost savings and separable sources of value.

      People will view getting their hamburger as a distinct value from getting face-time with a person, and pay for each separately. Providing face-time will be the value, not the delivery of a hamburger.

      Which, essentially, makes whores, therapists, clowns or a combination of all three, of most of us.

      Insofar as women tend to thrive in customer-service people-time situations, I wonder what this will do to the future of gender politics?
    • Dont agree. (Score:3, Insightful)

      There are some times when I really would like automatic check out. say I'm in a store to just buy one item and there's a line around the block with people, carts full of crap, and the person at the register is filling out a check.

      Sometimes I want people to help me, sometimes not. It would be nice to have the choice. I don't agree with replacing all the clerks by any means, but there are many a time when I just want to get in, get out, and I could ring myself up a lot faster, and I'd do it. I'm the type

  • I did have this sort of idea several years ago and I figured out that the only way the society can survive is to turn socialist.
    There are two ways of making money:
    Rent your self out (i.e. do work)
    Rent your other assets (i.e. invest in/own companies)
    Now what happens when the returns you get on these swing. The freedom of capitalism allows the value of labour and investment to change. When your company becomes unproductive it folds. This is the capitalist method of weeding out the ineffective companies and al
  • by meldroc ( 21783 ) <meldroc @ f r i i . c om> on Sunday August 31, 2003 @04:49PM (#6840377) Homepage Journal
    Looking at the example of J. K. Rowling in the article, I've had a brainfart.

    Farming has been mechanized. So has manufacturing, and as the article predicts, service sector work will be done by machines as well. There will always be some demand for IT, though that's being filled more frequently by workers in countries like India with cheap labor. Same goes for accounting, call center and other formerly safe white collar jobs.

    Essentially, almost the entire workforce will be replaced by machines.

    So what's left that can't be done by machines?

    Art. All art - writing, painting, music, computer games, etc.

    That's how J. K. Rowling adapted, by writing books. So far, we don't know how to make machines that make art, thus we have to make art ourselves. Granted, there's a lot of competition out there for artists, but there are still many people out there who can make money through selling artwork and performances.

    So are we entering the Artistic Economy? Maybe...
    • Doubtful... (Score:3, Interesting)

      Seeings how people like downloading their music, movies and books for free off the web, I don't think your prediction has much hope of coming true. There will be tons of artists out there, probably even more than ever before, but they won't be making nearly enough money to make ends meet.
    • The article didn't really address the fact that the rich will be super, super rich beyond the wildest imaginations of today's rich if this comes to pass. The arts could be a way to make a living, but I you'd make the money by finding a rich patron to sponser you. Today most successful artists become famous and lots of middle-class/poor people buy CD's/books/movie tickets, and the artist gets a small cut from each of them. If the middle-class and poor are destitute, you'd have to get money from the rich.
    • 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.
    • When I was reading the article, the blurb about giving everyone $25k per year, no strings attached, smacked of welfare/socialism. Although the intent was to inject funds into the economy, no work was expended to obtain that money on the part of the recipient (ie, I Exist, therefore I am Entitled.)

      A better way of handling it would be to couch the disbursment of funds as grants (artistic, research, or otherwise.) At least then there would be the idea of creative/scientific pursuit to benefit society, rath
  • 40 hour work week (Score:3, Interesting)

    by prichardson ( 603676 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @04:52PM (#6840397) Journal
    The only way the 40 hour work week will be done away with is if there are another series of huge strikes against the 8 hour day. Dropping "full-time" to 6 hours would do 2 things. It would decrease unemployment and it would cause such a shortage of labor that businesses would be forced to innovate more efficient manufacturing. The only way to have more automation actually cause people to work less is if the people work less first. Otherwise everyone will continue to assume that they have to work 40hrs/week.
  • Robot's won't be smart enough to make important decisions. The author suggests a socialist system is needed where wealth is generated through advertizing on money, natural resources, etc. The question is who will want to spend the time managing all the robots if they have the option to sit on their ass all day and surfd the web or whatever? Countries like the USSR, N. Korea, Cuba, etc. have shown the govt. is incapable of making these decisions. You still need a reward system to motivate people to want thes
  • by SuperBanana ( 662181 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @04:55PM (#6840420)
    He continues his examination of a society where most manual labor is performed by machines, idling a large fraction of the current workforce.

    You mean, say, a society where:

    • 3-story high dumptrucks cart entire hill's worth of rubble
    • Automotive frames are almost entirely assembled(welded) by robots?
    • Construction sites have pneumatic nailguns, automatic laser levelling systems, GPS GIS survey equipment, bulldozers, cranes, etc? In Japan, robot use at construction sites is extensive(and unfortunately, every once in a while, someone gets flattened or pushed off a building by one)
    • Cars have automatic cruise control units, not to mention engine and climate control units smarter than their owners
    • Commuter trains are (almost) entirely controlled by computers
    • Supermarkets have automated checkouts
    • Robotic vacuums, lawn mowers are available on the open market to consumers for (fairly) reasonable prices
    • Guided missile heads can be strapped to virtually any bomb to enable it to drop on any 1m-square area your heart desires

    Interesting that in almost every case, the robotics work WITH and ENHANCE the capabilities of the humans that operate them. Not 'take over their jobs'.

    The author also makes the asinine assumption that robotic labor is always better- cheaper, more efficient, and so on. Maybe he should take a trip to some third world countries, where for the cost of one robot, you could employ a hundred factory workers for years upon years.

    Oh, and all these robots-take-over-the-world philosophers always seem to forget:

    • Programming errors
    • Manufacturing/component defects
    • Maintenance needs
    • Mechanical breakdowns

    Just like computers, robots aren't foolproof, they're not magical, and they're not going to simply save your business a shitload of money. They come with their own entire set of other problems, often many times worse.

    The very concept of "machines which just 'work'" goes against the way almost every business in the world tries to keep their revenue stream- by forcing people to buy parts, hire company repair staff, and/or simply replace machines.

    Nevermind that we still haven't made machines that can even approach understand human language as well as a human can, read handwriting as well, or move efficiently over ground as well as a human can...

  • Too late (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Minna Kirai ( 624281 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @04:55PM (#6840424)
    "Most manual labor performed by machines"?

    It already is! Recall that work is measured in joules (distance of mass per time). Then look outside the window at a modern European or American nation.

    Where are all the joules (work) coming from? Not by human effort! 90% of it is from machines. Look at all the energy that goes into driving North Americans to their Labour Day holidays!

    Some might disagree and say that all of the output of these machines isn't "work", as does the article author when claiming that 50% of modern work is in service industries (like McDonalds). That's because he's already accepted an altered definition of work that excludes non-human efforts.

    Take the perspective of a 17th century economist and ask what tasks account for most of the "work" done in a nation- the list includes plowing, digging, hammering, sewing, scrubbing, and chopping (amoung similar things). Today all but one of those (scrubbing) are performed by machines. As Roblimo mentioned last week [], agricultural food production is the only really important job. The US makes 5x more food than it did a century ago by employing 10x fewer people.

    The time when most work is performed by machine has long since come. A more accurate description of the question facing us in the future (as addressed by the article) is: What happens when unskilled jobs cease to exist?
  • You cannot take an article that proposes to dish out $25,000 to everybody and not mention the word inflation once seriously.

    I know posts above have already mentioned inflation; and whatever the argument the author of this must still cover the issue to show that he understands the possible consequences of his plan.

  • Those put out of work by automation will suffer.

    Those who own the automation will prosper.

  • by Jonas the Bold ( 701271 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @04:58PM (#6840442)
    Very few people actually make anything anymore.

    Most poor people don't make anything: Truckers, people who work in stores really just help move goods around. Same for people who work in restaurants.

    The middle class people all sit in cubicles. God knows what they do, but they sure as hell aren't making anything.

    The upper class are businessmen, lawyers and doctors. Doctors keep people alive longer, businessmen move money around, and lawyers, as far as I can tell, have no function at all.

    Nobody really needs to do the vast majority of today's jobs.
    • by Phantasmo ( 586700 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @05:51PM (#6840747)
      Very few people actually make anything anymore.

      You're assuming that the majority of humans living outside of the United States are not people.

      For fuck's sake, we're living in an automated society - it's just that the robots doing all the work are people, given less care than most machines receive, worked to death, and barely making enough money to feed themselves, let alone their families!

      For the love of God, if you care at all for the well-being of your fellow human, elect a government that will take away some power from big business. They're enslaving people - they know it, and you know it, too, except that you've been conditioned not to care.
    • by WolfWithoutAClause ( 162946 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @07:19PM (#6841163) Homepage
      Very few people actually make anything anymore.

      You've missed the point slightly. They do something worth their wages to the company they work for. You've heard the phrase "Time is money"- well it's not quite true, it's more like "Money is time x marketability"; but it's close. They get wages for the work they do.

      That's really the flaw in the articles analysis of the economics- it's nothing much to do with robotics- mankind has had robotics since the industrial revolution.

      No, the real point is that people continue to remain employed because the companies perceive that employing more people will make the company more money. It won't necessarily make more money per employee- but it should make more money over cost. So there is a force that encourages the company to employ more people.

      The graph of wealth concentration has been misunderstood- ever since the collapse of the British patriachial empire that existed around the 1900s after the shakeup of the two world wars we have gradually been returning to that state but with Americans in charge (for various reasons mostly relating to economic power)- the people with power have been collecting power and money around them- forming dynasties and gaming the laws and the economics to their advantage.

      The robotics is a complete red herring- well almost- robotics is just another game that these guys and gals play.

      lawyers, as far as I can tell, have no function at all

      Lawyers are like soldiers and armies that companies point at other companies. They are there to try to game the laws as a way to take money off of companies, or prevent other companies taking money off them. Don't forget that laws are just a set of semi-arbitrary rules, and the rules that get made are often up for purchase.

    • Well said Eeyore the troll. Let's just all curl up and die.

      The only insight I gained from your post was about your mental state at the time. It was not connected to reality. You got the higherachy all right, but WTF does it mean that nobody needs to do these jobs?

      I need to live in a house. I need that truck to deliver the lumber. I need that lawyer to close. I need that person in the cubicle to setup my insurance accurately. I need that doctor to help when my family is ill. I need that businessman to prov

  • Robotic Miners (Score:4, Interesting)

    by core plexus ( 599119 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @05:00PM (#6840455) Homepage
    I've been thinking about having robotic miners for about 20 years, but one thing I think about is the loss of high-paying mining jobs to the local economies. Even in emerging countries mining pays many benefits. On the other hand, labor is very expensive, and most of the machines could easily be converted to automatic operation. Plus robots don't have a union, never need a smoke or piss break, or steal gold when they are supposed to be working. Think of the advances in sensors and computers within just the last 10 years. Raw resources, which we all require, could be had far cheaper than they are today. Likewise, exploration could be done by robots, especially using a UAV with sensors built in, like the Mars project I read about recently. Then, robots could follow up by collecting samples from targets located by the UAV and analyze them on the spot. This would eliminate bias, and reduce other errors and salting as well. We already use the software we need, and most of the hardware is off-the-shelf stuff.

    I would welcome robotics in mining, but I have a job no matter what.


  • by Murdoc ( 210079 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @05:03PM (#6840472) Homepage Journal

    But political and business leaders won't let it. Scientists and engineers in the 1920's and '30's determined [] that not only was this type of society possible, but also but also necessary [] in order to be able to distribute the vast amount of wealth that machines were capable of producing for us. They even developed a soundly logical and rational model [] of society that would allow this to work.

    The problem of course is that in order to enact this "society of abundance," you need to abolish all the relics of scarcity. Mostly this means money, and by extention, political control of technology. Think of what happened in the Great Depression. Factories were producing so many products (like food) that there was plenty for everyone, but because the money used to distribute it was still scarce, the value dropped below the margin of profitability. No one could make money selling it, thus no one made money. Add to that people losing jobs to these machines and you have a society that has enough for everybody, but no one can afford even the dirt-cheap prices. You can't sell air, it's too abundant. If we pollute it enough, however, we will be able to because it will be scarce.

    So the question is not a matter of when will technology be advanced enough so that this can happen, it's how can we tell enough people that this kind of life [] is already possible, and circumvent political and corporate attempts to stop it from happening because they will lose all their "power" and "control"?

    There is a reason that the most popular social movement of the '30's nad '40's is now completely unknown to people today. It's because it just might work.

    We are at the dawn of a new world. Scientists have given to men considerable powers. Politicians have seized hold of them. The world must choose between the unspeakable desolation of mechanization for profit or conquest, and the lusty youthfulness of science and technique serving the social needs of a new civilization. - Albert Einstein

  • to robot design. Hmmm, must remember to make sure to tell the sw writers to include a no-terminator/no-matrix function to supress desires to destroy or enslave the human race (and put me out of a job).
  • i can imagine a day where robots do a large majority of the grunt work. but if all these companies are firing their employees and buying bots, who are they going to sell their stuff to? unemployed people can't buy stuff. the ironic part of capitalism is that the consumer is protected merely because they are needed as consumers. people must have money in their pocket. and this guy is just afraid of the future like a thousand before him.
    • 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).

  • And then... (Score:3, Funny)

    by TexVex ( 669445 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @05:09PM (#6840514)
    Within 50 years in the likely case, and without question within 100 years, robots will perform every task essential to human survival. Robots will grow, package, transport and sell all of the food we eat. Robots will build all of the housing we live in. Robots will make, transport and sell all of the clothes we wear. Robots will manufacture all consumer products, put them on the shelves and take the money that we pay for them.
    And then they'll install us in a virtual reality that keeps us pacified while they harvest thermal energy from our imprisoned bodies!
  • I was agreeing with the article up until the author started making nonsensical schemes.

    Yes, robotization will approach 100%. Yes, the resources available to humanity will approach infinity. However, the obvious solution to this, contrary to the article, is a welfare system.

    That's exactly what the welfare system was invented for. I am not in a position to comment on the quality of the US implementation, but, suffice it to say, other countries have made it work.

    Unquenchable demand for farm hands and coal workers just isn't there anymore. Hell, the US cheats on its unemployment numbers by only reporting those people who are "looking for work".

    With robotic exploitation of earth, the solar system, and beyond, there is no reason why welfare rates cannot be increased to a point where one can actually live on them. The future belongs to scientists, artists, elected officials, and *sigh* management.
    • What incentive does anyone have to work in a system that treats them like an employee?

      And a welfare system would be very generous. I'll believe it when I see it. Honestly I don't think people care that much for eachother.

      I don't see how anyone like me will be able to afford $1500 rent on welfare. And I don't see how a system would allow 80% of the population to stay at home while expecting the other 20% to work. I bet it would become unstable and those on welfare would be living in the slums.

  • by defile ( 1059 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @06:41PM (#6840996) Homepage Journal

    Those put out of work by robots will go on welfare, or similar wealth redistribution systems. They will have cable TV, high speed internet, be able to afford 10 times their daily dietary needs. The drug industry will rise up to the challenge and soon each man, woman, and child will have three drug prescriptions each. And two cars per household.

    And they will do better good for the economy sitting at home all day unemployed spending the redistributed wealth of the employed than they would by being in the job market.

    We will have reached the apex of civilization, where capitalism will be so close to accomplishing its goal. An economy of plenty where almost no one has to work. We'll spend our days high as a kite, fucking like rabbits, and being entertained by moving images and sounds with a push of a button.

    I can't wait.

  • A-Ha! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by CashCarSTAR ( 548853 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @06:45PM (#6841013)
    This is something I've been very interested in for a long time. I agree with the article's premise. This situation IS coming. It's a matter of time.

    If it's a good thing or a bad thing depends on how we handle it.

    This will end labour/capital as we know it. In fact, this may change how we view wealth and society.

    The fact is, we will need to find some other way for contentment and to "keep score". Move away from a money-filled world to one where we have the time and the resources to try and achieve what we want to achieve.

    The only problem is that I think that non-economic routes will need to be subsidized somewhere. In fact, in such a world, most pursuits will be rather non-economic.

    This is the question the human race will need to answer.
  • by dcollins ( 135727 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @07:48PM (#6841311) Homepage
    The article poinpoints a problem that I have absolutely been worried about for some time now -- that fact that robots, automation, will turn a large sector of employees out of their jobs and radically increase the concentration of wealth in our nation.

    The sci-fi hope for new technologies has always been that it will "relieve humans of dreary jobs and increase leisure time". However, this has not turned out to be the case, and frankly it cannot, because the people who buy the technology (robot) will simply do without another worker after that point -- no businessman is going to pay a salary for work that someone isn't doing.

    In different language, this has been talked about for quite a long time. Modernized business has "centralized means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands" as one text put it in 1848 (namely, the Communist Manifesto). In truth, I've long thought that the Marxist criticism of capitalism is right on target -- even if the solutions it proposed were almost entirely unworkable.

    In very much the same way, I find myself agreeing with the linked article's criticisms (robots will permanently displace masses of workers), and find its proposed solutions pretty much totally impossible.

    (1) I agree that a big concentration of wealth is a bad thing for our society, but frankly I don't think most people are actually bothered by that very much at all. I think it's too abstract an issue for much political interest these days. (Is there much difference to the average voter nowadays if CEOs earn millions of dollars, or tens-of-millions of dollars? Any difference if the richest quintile own 40% or 60% of assets?)

    (2) I don't think there's any way the U.S. public would accept cutting every citizen a check for $25,000 per year, or any amount. Our culture is adamant that pay without work is immoral. Right-wing rhetoric has really been precisely fine-tuned over the years to make any possibility of payments like that, or even discussion about it, sound totally absurd. The political environment today is marching directly away from social-program-type funding, not closer to it.

    (3) I'm cynical enough to even be a bit skeptical that global income payments would be beneficial, psychologically, to the majority of people. As an example, most lottery winners wind up with ruined finances and marriages. The single anecdote of "Harry Potter" being the product of a welfare mother cannot be extrapolated to a universal creative renaissance. (I can't remember which SF book took it as a possibility, some Stephenson or Gibson novel, but I was skeptical of that when I first read it.) As someone else pointed out, government payments on this magnitude would also probably create skyrocketing inflation (much like college tuition).

    (4) The possibilities of funding a global payment are, at best, just tricks to make an expanded social benefit not look like it. You can't disassociate checks to every citizen from money taken in by the government, as the article tries to argue. (a) Advertising on every dollar bill, road surface, and public space? Bleagh! (That's his #1 idea.) (b) What most resemble his "extreme income taxes" (like big inheritances) are right now being rolled back to zero in the U.S. (c) Lotteries, fines, and auctions are notorious for being sucked in to the general budget even when "earmarked" for specific expenses. (d) The most likely example is the Alaskan oil-payment fund, but I would think that too could evaporate as soon as some political interest wants it used for a different purpose, especially on a national stage.

    (5) To complicate matters, I agree that lower-class service jobs can be automated, and that middle-class technical jobs can be outsourced offshore. However, I see no compelling argument that classic "esteemed" jobs like doctors and lawyers can be downsized in the same fashion.

    So in conclusion, I totally agree that increased automation of service-sector jobs will work to increase unemployment and lower wages -- robots will no
  • by evilWurst ( 96042 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @09:06PM (#6841688) Journal
    This article's meat is based on some critical assumptions - flawed ones.

    Firstly, like most doom-and-gloom technology-obsoletes-humans and technology-steals-jobs articles, the writer assumes all these jobs will be replaced *instantly*. This is clearly wrong, for several reasons.

    First, the major corporations that'd be buying the robots are risk-averse. They'll let someone else try - and be burned by - such a scheme before they try it themselves. This might take place over ten or more years.

    Secondly, he assumes that this entire block of jobs can be replaced all at once, which is also clearly wrong. They all require varying sophisticated levels of working artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, we cannot assume robots will become capable of handling *all* these jobs at the same time. AI is like nuclear fusion power plants, in ever since the 1950s experts have been saying "it'll be ready in 10 years", and ten years later they're still saying "it'll be ready in 10 years", and so on. It is likely that improvements will continue to be incremental, as they have been so far with industrial robots. Robots capable of taking voice orders from anyone who walks in the door, making your burger, and working the register are the kind of robots that will be perfected *last*.

    Third, he assumes that a robot worker will be cheaper than a human worker, and that the rise of robots will not create any jobs to replace those jobs they displace. This is also clearly wrong. Human replacement will take more than a 1-to-1 ratio at first, as the first ones will not be as versatile as humans - they'll be more customized towards doing a specific task. Checkout line robots won't also be pulling shopping carts out of the parking lot and stocking the shelves, you'll need a few custom bots for each job. If the cost of buying and supplying power to a bunch of robots is more than the cost of a minimum-wage human employee, the robots won't get bought. Plus the diversity of robot types would slow the economy of scale of production, keeping the prices up until their widespread adoption.

    When robots DO start to become worth buying, they'll need humans to keep them in service - robot repair is a hard enough AI problem that, again, that'd be the *last* type of job robots would be able to replace. As an additional bonus, the human repairmen would probably make a better salary than the minimum wage jobs being lost. There will also, of course, be a spike in the number of robot engineers and robot programmers and robot company advertising firms and robot company markters and salesmen and managers and so on. There will be more business for insurance companies - hey, you want to protect that robot investment! bots make great vandalism targets and it'll probably be illegal for them to defend themselves. There will be more business for lawyers - hey! this robot rolled over my foot, this robot dripped oil in my burger! - as, again, we expect the first models to be imperfect. And as human jobs would be those requiring more skill, there would be more teaching jobs.

    Fourth, he forgets that such a massive change in our economic structure would also likely affect the minimum wage. If there are no grunt-work jobs left, then the new jobs would require a level of skill such that the minimum wage would be raised quite a bit - a huge benefit to those human workers with jobs one tier up from those being filled by robots.

    Fifth, he doesn't look long term enough. Total automation of all the grunt work would increase the overall efficiency of the system to a level where it would become attractive to shift our economy to a slightly different system altogether. Sort of a hybrid socialist one - hey, if the farms are nearly free to run, might as well give every citizen some free rations of staple foods every month. If construction is nearly free, why have homelessness? Give those who can't afford a house a one-room economy apartment. The economy would still be capitalist at heart - because if you want to improve your situation, you'v
  • 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.
  • 100% Pure Drivel (Score:3, Insightful)

    by wayward_son ( 146338 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @10:17PM (#6842025)
    This is 100% pure garbage.

    The problem with the paper is it assumes several falsehoods and forgets a key truth:

    1: It assumes that all wealth is constant. On the other hand as manufacturing capacity increases (due to the robots or other automation), wealth will increase as well. While the rich may be richer than they were in 1960, I guarantee that the poor are considerably richer than they were in 1960 as well. The United States must be the only contry in the world where fat people drive to the welfare office. (i.e. not starving and owning an automobile)

    2: It assumes the classic "greedy CEO" problem. Yes, there are many greedy CEO's. We usually hear about them when the company goes out of business. I wonder why that is?
    No CEO with any sense is going to push his own salary above a certain percentage of the company's profits. As far as the corporation is concerned, the CEO is a giant liability with a giant salary. A good CEO would keep his own salary relatively low and have most of his money in investments.

    3: "Employees" are also "Consumers" This is the one item that the paper forgets. If all "Employees" are thrown out of work, then there will be no one with any money to sell the products to. (Likewise, "Employees" may also be "Investors")

    This is also a weakness that many people forget. Anyone who says "(Legal) Immigrants cost us jobs" is a damn fool. Legal immigrants may compete with us in the job market, but they produce wealth (by their labor) and consume what is produced, contributing to total economic output. Anyone who says that population growth will hurt the economy is an even bigger damn fool because children are pure consumers, and if you have a glut of whatever, then you need more consumers.

  • by serutan ( 259622 ) <snoopdoug&geekazon,com> on Monday September 01, 2003 @01:08AM (#6842730) Homepage
    This article didn't answer the question that immediately occurred to me when I started reading it, namely:

    What's the difference between a robot getting my job and some guy in India getting my job?

    In spite of discussing the subject of cheap foreign labor, the author didn't explain why robots are fundamentally different. I also had a big problem with her scenario in which the workers are taken out of the picture and all of the money flows to the executives. If robots were to take away all the minimum wage jobs, I predict that the worst impact will be on those very same businesses. In my own experience the people who work at the low-paying jobs tend to also buy the most cheap crap. It doesn't make sense that companies like WalMart will be doing business as usual after putting a lot of their best customers out of work.

    But then along comes the magic wand of handing everybody $25,000 to spend. I'll admit her ideas for raising that kind of money with things like advertising and lotteries are creative, but does she really believe that something which is basically a gigantic welfare scheme would fly in a country where we can't even get a national health system?

    While we are fantasizing about saving the economy, let's look at a saner approach based on historical experience. The economic boom of the 1950's came about because of the shortages created during WWII. The government diverted industrial production to the military and bought enormous quantities of everything, which simultaneously created lots of jobs but also widespread shortages of consumer goods. They paid for it by selling War Bonds, in effect borrowing back the money. People had jobs and good incomes and not much to buy other than the necessities, so they throttled back their lives for a few years and either saved their money or invested it. The government managed all this strictly, by rationing goods and selling War Bonds. It was Big Brother to the extreme. But when the war ended and production switched back to consumer goods, people had tons of money to spend. The boom followed, and the ensuing taxation paid the tab for the war.

    A war is only one way to create such a situation. Large, long-term public works projects might do the same trick, but the required ingredient is to create shortages and force people to save their money for a while. This wouldn't work unless the citizens were fully committed to the plan. For that they would have to be treated like Citizens as opposed to Consumers. The threat of terrorism comes to mind as a great driving factor, in fact it's almost tailor-made for the job. But our current government's approach so far has been, "Don't let terrorists keep you from shopping."
  • by oPless ( 63249 ) on Monday September 01, 2003 @02:22AM (#6842953) Journal
    I for one welcome our new robotic masters
  • Goals? (Score:5, Funny)

    by schnitzi ( 243781 ) on Monday September 01, 2003 @04:55AM (#6843320) Homepage

    Goal #1 - For the strongest possible economy, we need to create the largest possible pool of consumers, and those consumers need to have money to spend.

    I thought the first goal was not to injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Can anyone remember when the times were not hard, and money not scarce?