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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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

  • by tambo ( 310170 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @04:46PM (#6840356)
    Quit your whining. This is a good thing people and it's an example of what makes capitalism great.

    Sure... if you subscribe to the theory that a class-based culture is a healthy thing.

    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?

    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.

    The impact of these trends is unknown, and ominous.

    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.

    - David Stein
  • 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.
  • by Squareball ( 523165 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @04:51PM (#6840384)
    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 0111 1110 ( 518466 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @04:51PM (#6840389)
    Someone has to build the robots, and then once we teach robots to build other robots, then someone still has to build the robot building robots. Then, once we teach some robots to build the robot building robots...

    So I guess human labor will be needed until AI has reached a level comparable to human (or at least dog) intelligence, and that aint happening any time soon. Not in any of our lifetimes at least.

    Also he may be underestimating the time needed to build useful general purpose (probably bipedal) robots. We do have some well built bipedal robots like ASIMO but they still cost over $20,000 and, although they may be stronger, I don't think they can do all the physical labor that a human is capable of.
  • by sydb ( 176695 ) <> on Sunday August 31, 2003 @04:53PM (#6840409)
    What no one saw was that freeing up the most important capital, human labor, from inefficient application to the task of growing food for other purposes. What those who looked at the farms failing and saw disaster were missing was that now the farmer was able to go to the city and be basically as well off working in a factory, and that the farmer's children would go on to become doctors or lawyers or engineers or skilled laborers. Indeed, the industrialization could not have happened without the farm failures.

    True, but you miss the point of the article, which is that the upcoming wave of automation won't just make farmworkers or industrial labourers or any other arbitrary sector of the working population redundant, it'll make damn near everyone redundant. It'll be a long wave, but it's coming. Damn, I was in an internet cafe an hour ago. Last time I was in they had staff, who would take your payment and give you a ticket for your purchased time. Tonight they have vending machines. OK, it's a trivial example but I was surprised.

    We are heading towards a world where the only use for people is thinking up what to do next, and as plain as your nose, that isn't a job for everyone, not when we have seven or eight billion people [] in the world.

    Mass automation is a huge opportunity and also a huge risk for billions of people. It has to be managed, not left to the whims of the market, which will be increasingly controlled by fewer and fewer extremely wealthy people.

    If we continue to do what we did yesterday to meet the problems of tomorrow, we are destined to fail at every step. Mankind cannot rely on the market of the last millenium to meet the dizzying challenges of the new one. And if think it's all pie in the sky, look at the pace of change right now. It's only going to accelerate.
  • 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?
  • 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 HanzoSan ( 251665 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @04:59PM (#6840443) Homepage Journal

    When wealth isnt distributed, crime goes up, terrorism goes up, etc etc.

    The idea that we can fight terrorism with bombs isnt very smart, in the end the only way to solve this problem is with jobs, education, etc.

    This isnt going to work because I refuse to give up my job to fight terrorism.
  • by geekee ( 591277 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @05:00PM (#6840448)
    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.
  • Dont agree. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by YllabianBitPipe ( 647462 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @05:00PM (#6840450)

    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 of person, that if there isn't a clerk bagging the groceries, I step in and do it myself.

  • 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

  • Tax and Spend (Score:1, Insightful)

    by chill ( 34294 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @05:04PM (#6840475) Journal
    What I find interesting is that the author is mostly concerned about finding new ways for the Government to raise money.

    No options in there for SPENDING LESS, only taxing more.

    Making $60,000 last year, I was in a 33% tax bracket -- not counting Social Security and Medicare withholdings. That means, the government took over $19,800 of the money I made in Income Tax. They also took about $6,000 in Medicare and Social Security. That totals about $26,000. I received aboout $3,000 in a return, so that means the gov't took about $23,000 from me.

    Damn, that is close to the $25,000 the author was talking about giving to every American. (hint hint)

    A simpler soultion to raising more taxes, ad revenue, etc. would be to STOP TAXING INDIVIDUAL INCOME and provide an opt out for Social Security and Medicare.

    While the poor are able too get all their Income Tax refunded to them, it would be better if it wasn't taken out to start with. Instant 20% (or so) raise!

    Taxing corporations more would simply mean those corporations would pass the taxes on down and the consumer would end up paying them all anyway.
  • by racecarj ( 703239 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @05:06PM (#6840492)
    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 Lemmy Caution ( 8378 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @05:14PM (#6840534) Homepage
    And this is the best of all possible worlds, where Bill Gates is the best of all possible people and the 12 year old in a shoe factory in Indonesia is one of the worst.

    Wealth is generated. And then goes where it goes in ways that may have little to do with what we consider "earning" it.
  • 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 idontneedanickname ( 570477 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @05:38PM (#6840672)
    The above is copy and pasted from Robotic Nation []... Which is another piece written by Marschall Brain. It's linked at the top the of this article in fact.

    Be more careful when you're plagiarizing. :)

  • Honestly, I don't see robots as being as big a deal as the transition from an agricultural to an industry society! As the previous poster said, in the last century the jobs that 90% of people had had FOR THE ENTIRE HISTORY OF CIVILIZATION went away in a couple of generations. Now THAT'S a watershed.

    Also, rapid change erodes static classes, it doesn't save them. If what the jobs look like change every generation, you'll have a lot more social mobility between generations. Class is already an extremely fluid thing in America, in a way that they really wouldn't be considered "classes" by a 19th century Brit, and definitely not by an 18th century Javanese.
  • Re:Tax and Spend (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ornil ( 33732 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @06:00PM (#6840798)
    Well, you know, this money the government takes from us is used for something. A significant part is wasted of course, but most of it goes toward something most people would consider useful, even if it does not provide you with any direct monetary benfit. Like supporting the army, or interstate highways, or funding research, or even education (federal loans, for example). Also it is used to provide services to the poor, including paying welfare to those who don't work. And, you know, it provides even those of us who would never need welfare with a useful service. One reason is that otherwise we would have the world revolution that Marx promised us 150 years ago.

    So those taxes may be necessary, because if it were left up to you, you would probably not be able to procure these services. Remember, Americans actually pay less taxes than most other people in the developed world.
  • 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.
  • Re:Resdistribution (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 31, 2003 @06:07PM (#6840838)
    Churchill may have said it best with, "We contend that for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle." Karl Marx realized this as well, in stating, "There is only one way to kill capitalism -- by taxes, taxes, and more taxes."

    "Politicians never accuse you of 'greed' for wanting other people's money --- only for wanting to keep your own money."

    "America's abundance was created not by public sacrifices to 'the common good,' but by the productive genius of free men who pursued their own personal interests and the making of their own private fortunes. They did not starve the people to pay for America's industrialization. They gave the people better jobs, higher wages and cheaper goods with every new machine they invented, with every scientific discovery or technological advance -- and thus the whole country was moving forward and profiting, not suffering, every step of the way." [Ayn Rand]

    "In general the art of government consists in taking as much money as possible from one class of citizens to give to the other." [Voltaire]
  • by fnj ( 64210 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @06:16PM (#6840879)
    "America's abundance was created not by public sacrifices to 'the common good,' but by the productive genius of free men who pursued their own personal interests and the making of their own private fortunes. They did not starve the people to pay for America's industrialization. They gave the people better jobs, higher wages and cheaper goods with every new machine they invented, with every scientific discovery or technological advance -- and thus the whole country was moving forward and profiting, not suffering, every step of the way." [Ayn Rand]

    She was absolutely dead-nuts right at the time. But lately it seems the corporations, with fiduciary responsibility only to the stockholders, have turned into evil monsters, exporting jobs, discarding workers like yesterday's trash, yet somehow enriching those at the top more and more, often just for being there, to an outrageous, absurd extent.

    I used to think we were headed for 1929. Now I think maybe we are headed for October 1917.
  • by ornil ( 33732 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @06:20PM (#6840894)
    > Heck, the US government is now in the sorry
    > state of handing out tax rebates to citizens

    I haven't heard of that, it would be interesting if true. Could you provide a reference?
  • by eric76 ( 679787 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @06:25PM (#6840928)
    I've always felt that trying to eliminate the undesirable and banal jobs for which you need little skill and intelligence is good for society; of course, I consider myself in the 5%.

    I think that society is at its best when everyone has something constructive to do. Some of these undesirable jobs are the only jobs that some people can handle.

    Having something constructive to do and being responsible is, for many people, possibly nearly everyone, the only thing that keeps them civil. It's no accident that the value of human life is cheapest in the areas with the greatest unemployement.

  • by trinity93 ( 215227 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @06:31PM (#6840952) Homepage
    One iteresting problem that authors of these kinds of things forget is "if there is no money to take there is no money to make" If you have that many people out of work you will have no one to buy anything that robots provide. Cueently most economic models are circular. in order to spend money a consumer has to be able to earn it. in order to make money a company has to have consumers able to spend money. I feel another posable way to deal with the issues in the article would be for the goverment to produce products with robaot technonogy with all people as the share holders, Therefor when something is sold every one makes money to buy things

    Just a few thoughts on these issues :)
  • 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.
  • by i_am_nitrogen ( 524475 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @06:59PM (#6841072) Homepage Journal
    The agents in the field, however, are usually from poverty stricken nations with little hope for anything else. They hear a rallying call, and with no hope left of any other method working to attain their goals, they are convinced by a few maniacal individuals that terrorism is the one true way to live. If all wealth was distributed as described in this article, not just in the US but worldwide, everyone would have enough money to survive and live a middle class lifestyle. Nobody would have any excuses for a lack of success. Anyone who wants more than the middle class lifestyle they are provided, such as entertainment, faster or more luxurious cars, bigger homes, and so on, will have to learn and develop their own innovative products.

    The difference between terrorism and the various guerilla tactics, etc. used by the United States to escape the rule of Great Britain lies mostly in the fact that the US soldiers only attacked Britis soldiers. Terrorists typically try to cause the deaths of thousands of innocents, or the destruction of resources on which those people depend, in order to get the government to cave in to their demands to stop the suffering of those who don't deserve to suffer.
  • Re:Won't happen (Score:4, Insightful)

    by bluGill ( 862 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @07:01PM (#6841081)

    Look at vietanam and Afganaston before you say that too loudly. Sure there was a lot of external assistance, but then the American revolution got a lot of assistance too. (Mostly from France, which was at war with England)

    Civil wars are very hard to win because you don't know who will stay on your side. General Robert E. Lee of American Cival war fame was offered the job of commander of the Yankee forces, but instead took the job of the confederate forces because he liked that side better, and suddenly the rebels had one of the best generals of the war on their side.

    There are a lot of guns out there. I don't know how Europe would do, but in the US there are at least as many guns as people, and most are in fireable shape, with amunition. Hard to win a war when you are not sure who is the other side. Nukeing your own people isn't a good idea. Local forces can still win a revolution or civil war, but because local forces don't need your fancy supply lines and communications, they are honest supportive citicians until you come to town. With modern transportation a rebel can attack miles from home and still be at work the next morning. One crossover general can run the whole thing from his secert internet connected bunker, using pgp to make sure communication goes works. Of course the other side has plenty of advantages, but if they will help is debatable, and really depends on the actual situation.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday August 31, 2003 @07:22PM (#6841169)
    Consider this: the only things that a human being needs are clothes and shelter to protect us from the elements, and food to keep us alive.

    With industrialization, all three of those needs can be met very cheaply. We don't need to spend 8 hours a day farming our own food. Once those needs are met, everything else is luxury.

    Those of us who "sit around in cubicles all day producing immaterial, virtual things" are creating luxuries that other people want. Industrialization has allowed us to live in luxury, but it has also given us the false notion that unless we have *every* luxury, we are always behind and left wanting more.

    Realistically, by buying clothing at thrift stores and food at discount supermarkets, you could probably own your own (modest) home in less than a decade and live rent free for the rest of your life. But it's the drive toward the bigger PC (usually a luxury), a plasma screen TV, a souped-up car with all the features, and new clothes every spring that keeps the endless pursuit of luxury going.
  • by asr_man ( 620632 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @07:40PM (#6841271)

    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 provide me a job so I can pay for it all. And god knows I need those people in restaurants at the end of the workday when we're all too whacked out to cook.

  • 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
  • by Lemmy Caution ( 8378 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @09:48PM (#6841893) Homepage
    Marx believed that capitalism was better than feudalism and a necessary stage in human progress. But he was not a capitalist by any means at all.

    Instead of just quoting an anecdote you've read somewhere, I suggest you actually study the career of Marx in the First International. In fact, it was there that the seeds of the dogmatism and rigidity that would make Stalinism possible may have first been sown.

    You may be thinking of Engels, who did own a factory, wrote much of the material that we call "Marx's," and indeed was probably a much sounder economist than Marx was. He was both a capitalist - by trade - and a communist by creed.
  • 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.

  • Re:why read it? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by kaksisa ( 644469 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @10:18PM (#6842027)
    It all made sense until he starts talking about filling my entire world with even more advertisements than exist already! We build machines to free us from slavery and the best we can come up with is some sort of marketing landscape? Of course it will be difficult to break the molds of the past but there are now more options than even Sci-Fi can imagine.
  • by Murdoc ( 210079 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @10:23PM (#6842045) Homepage Journal

    I know that on the surface it is easy to see similarities between the two, but please re-read the fable of the blind men and the elephant. If all you do is look at one part and make your conclusions from there, you're lost, my friend.

    As for the important differences, there are many. The first would be that communism still works as an scarcity economy. It cannot distribute an abundance of goods an services produced by high technology to its people, just like every other scarcity system. It still uses money, and that is damning right there. Only a solid measurement like Energy Accounting [] can distribute such wealth without collapsing.

    Second of all, all decisions in a communist state are made politically. Sure, some science might creep in there from time to time, but it is not the rule. In a Technocracy, all technical decisions are made by the Technate, which works no different than the technical portion of any technology company, by engineers and technicians rather than politicians, except that instead of the goals being profit and higher stock prices, they are for the benefit of society. [] Political decisions, ones that cannot be determined scientifically, will be handled in a easy and accurate democratic way. More on this process is explained in Step 2 of this presentation. []

    Again, I'll say that there is far more to it than this, and this is but an introduction that will hopefully interest people into looking into this further.


  • by tonythejuice ( 699070 ) on Sunday August 31, 2003 @11:11PM (#6842267)
    Get hit by an automobile in Japan some time. Then tell me that lawyers are useless. Agreed, they are often a misused workforce, but they are an essential component of the Anglican capitalist machine. If weren't for lawyers, we probably still would not have seatbelts.
  • Re:You got it (Score:3, Insightful)

    by j3110 ( 193209 ) <> on Sunday August 31, 2003 @11:22PM (#6842317) Homepage
    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 issue because eventually they will run out of money.

    The only other option, and final transition that any society has to make is to individual independence. When I can synthesis/grow my own food and build a place to live myself, then the world will have made the final transition to the futuristic anti-economy that we see in star trek.

    Most people think that when 5% of the population can provide for the entire world, we won't have a problem because surely there are 5% of us that are alturistically motivated enough to take one of those positions. That's the underpants gnome mentality that most people don't even realize that they have. If the government didn't try so hard to regulate food production here, we could feed the world, but it doesn't happen. The government pays people to not grow food instead of buying excess food to ship to third world countries. How then does this happen if our government is run by 1% of the population and we have at least that many alturistic people?

    I foresee a bloody transition (haven't they all been in the past?) if the transition ever takes place. If we put the resources into it, I think we could have devices to make it possible for you to grow/make enough food to support yourself in a small area with little to no effort.

    If you really want to hurt your brain, ask yourself "What will happen to the power companies and their employees, farmers, etc. when people become more self sufficient as well?".

    I think that if I learned anything from the open source movement though it is that there are a lot of scientifically minded people out there that just want to make the world a better place. We each probably give away several hundred thousand dollars worth of work in order to have a better community online. It's not just Free Software that I think we'll be talking about in the future, but when lab equipment for other scientists becomes cheap enough for them to have a personal lab, we'll have a lot of public domain R&D. What if we had more patent free drugs (think how cheap aspirin is)?

    Our society makes the mistake of rewarding luck. If ten groups work hard to make the cure for AIDS, only one will do it first. The people that get lucky enough for the solution to fall into their laps (oportunities that the average person doesn't get) are the one's compensated the most. Those 9 other research labs had a statistical chance probably not that much different of finding the cure first. Rewarding effort and intentions is probably a better way to compensate, but brutal competition of a free market is very opposed to this.

    Some people would have you believe that fighting amongst ourselves in corrupt political struggles is the most effecient way to thrive. "Those who do best get the most resources." is what they say. It's the greatest BS story you'll ever hear from the blind supporters of capitalism. I liked the Harry Potter story in the article because it points out the horrible flaws in the assumptions of those people. People who don't have resources rarely ever get opportunity. They'll say she came from nowhere to a billionaire because she was clever. This is a very ignorant stance because one would be ignoring those that probably had good ideas that have died. Her idea almost died. That would be like having a slashdot poll asking if you have died from smoking in order to see what percentage of people smoking has killed. Obviously dead people don't vote, and the closest thing we have here today are the close calls like Harry Potter.
  • by _Sharp'r_ ( 649297 ) <sharper&booksunderreview,com> on Sunday August 31, 2003 @11:55PM (#6842469) Homepage Journal
    In the United States, people don't get their right to own things from the government. Instead, the government gets all of it's power and authority delegated to it from the people.

    You are confusing how government today appears to function with the reality of how it was supposed to work. It's attitudes like this that lead to people thinking that being allowed to keep some of their own property (lower taxes) is somehow a "gift" from the government.
  • by Cyno ( 85911 ) on Monday September 01, 2003 @12:02AM (#6842497) Journal
    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 quality permenent shelter, education, food, and encourage them to be creative. Because it means there's more for us. Or something.

    It all comes down to love. Do we love eachother? Will we ever want to?

    I don't understand the hate. But in the world I'd want to live in, those people would be allowed to stay home and watch TV and would never be asked to work again. We'd even ship them everything they wanted, offer them free education and encouragement. And hope they'd keep their hate to themselves.
  • by An Onerous Coward ( 222037 ) on Monday September 01, 2003 @12:06AM (#6842514) Homepage
    Under this scenario, there are two possibilities:

    A) These countries are facing the same unemployment boom being faced by the U.S.

    B) These countries are not facing the same boom, because they haven't invested in robotics.

    In the first case, the countries will be under the same pressures to redistribute wealth. In the second case, it doesn't matter what they think of our monetary policy. Robot labor (which we have and they don't) becomes a much more reliable indicator of wealth than greenbacks ever were.

    The money in various banks around the world represent goods and services that we owe them. We could announce that the dollar is no longer worth anything, and that we were switching to a computerized form of the barter system. The value of the foreign holdings would go to zero, and the economy would putter along as normal. Of course it would be better to make good on the debts somehow.

    Money is all about symbolism, and if the predictions of the article are correct, we have to start seriously rethinking what we want it to symbolize. Further, we would need to rethink the merits of the whole capitalistic system, because if we don't, then the owners of capital will just continue to build better robots, cutting more and more people off from any vocation which could provide a reasonable standard of living.

    Even without robots, it's already happening.
  • 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.
  • by violet16 ( 700870 ) on Monday September 01, 2003 @12:34AM (#6842624)
    This guy needs to read up on economics. It's yet another scenario based on the erroneous assumption that there is a fixed number of available jobs in the world. There isn't.

    Agriculture used to employ more than 80% of the workforce. In Western countries today it's more like 2%. Seventy-eight percent of the population is not out of work.

    People argued against feminism because they thought if you let women into the workforce, there would be twice as many people for the same amount of jobs, so unemployment would top 50%. Didn't happen.

    Some people still argue against immigration thinking that every new person who enters the country and gets a job must take it from someone else, so leave them unemployed. Doesn't happen.

    Most people reading this forum are probably doing jobs that didn't exist 50 years ago. In 50 years' time, if robots are doing all manual labor, we'll be working hard at something else.
  • yes, but... (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 01, 2003 @04:59AM (#6843334)
    the author makes some interesting points, but makes a flawed assumptiion in assuming the inevitability of mass robotising of basic job types.

    The introduction of robot labour on this scale depends on a rising supply of cheap electricity. As a lot of people in the USA are no doubt aware, this does not exist at the moment. There is no great technological leap taking place that would provide this kind of energy at the right price.
    The only way that energy prices will falll significantly in the medium term is if the corporate landgrab in Iraq is successful and ensures a steady supply of cheap oil. After all, one would expect the new democratic Iraq to be forbidden from democratically remaining in OPEC.
    Given that there have been more allied casualties since the "end of hostilities" than there were during the "war", I can't see the region becoming stable enough ensure a steady enough supply to affect global energy prices. Needing hundreds of thousands of soldiers to ensure supply immediately obliterates the economic advantage of having the oil in the first place.

    Likewise, silicon may be cheap and plentiful, but important elements like tantalum are in ever-shorter supply, and are also mainly found in areas like central africa, also far from stable.

    "Robots for everything" is a very sci-fi idea, but it will require equally sci-fi resources to accomplish. It is premature to start worrying about the economic impact of these developments for the low-waged. The investment required for mass-robotisation would bankrupt any economy that attempted it at the moment, in which case everyone's screwed.

    It is also worthy of note that while mechanical robots have had a large impact on manual occupations in some industries (cars, etc), electronic tools have had an impact on middle-income employment as well. Low-cost computing allows the same amount of work to be done by a greatly reduced number of office staff. With growing complexity, computers will become able to replace an increasing number of white-collar staff too.

    In order to exist and thrive, companies must have people who buy their goods. If 50% of the populace is unemployed, this breaks down. The rich cannot grow richer by trading with themselves alone, an economy must be robust from top to bottom. The main reason why the USA is the worlds largest economy is because it is the largest market. While the world worries about american overconsumption of resources, it is this same overconsumption that forms the foundation of the entire global capital system. If american citizens are unable to buy goods, then Wal-Mart and everyone else is in trouble, splendid robots or not..
  • by gmhowell ( 26755 ) <> on Tuesday September 02, 2003 @03:19PM (#6852582) Homepage Journal
    I'll agree with you that today's proles (particularly in first and second world countries) are fare more capable of forming a movement than those of 50, 100, or 200 years ago. Ironically, in large part due to communications systems built and designed for the US Military Complex:)
  • by gmhowell ( 26755 ) <> on Tuesday September 02, 2003 @04:35PM (#6853346) Homepage Journal
    Thus did the US government became the architect of its own demise. :)

    T. Jefferson felt that a revolution every 10-20 years was a healthy thing for any country. By that measure, the US is about 120 years overdue. (Although some would call the 60's revolutionary, I'm not prepared to raise it to the level of the US Civil War.)

    I think the US couldn't imagine how ubiquitous telephones and computers would be when it funded Internet and communications satellites. If they had, I bet they would have kept a tighter reign on things.

"There is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress." -- Mark Twain