Most work done by computers and robots--good or bad?

The existence of this article (which argues that computerization of intellectual labor is making education less valuable, or so I read in summaries of it anyway) got me to thinking, again, about the question of a world in which people don’t typically have to work.

There are three questions here:

  1. If robots and computers did the maximum proportion possible of the physical and intellecutal gruntwork that makes daily life possible, would this be a workable system?

  2. Assuming it would be workable, would it be good?

  3. Assuming it would be good, is there a way to get there from here?

Let us assume we know how to maximize the work computers can do while avoiding the possibility that they become sentient or anything like that–I don’t want to deal with the quesiton of AI slavery (in this thread… :wink: )

To the first question, my answer is I have no idea, but I don’t see why not–it seems like such a system could perpetuate itself, though that’s not to say it would be worth perpetuating. For all I know it would lead to a Wall-E style dystopia of overweight intellectually retarded cruiseline vacationers ruling the world–or for all I know it would lead to a cultural rennaissance of a scope heretofore unimagined. Who knows. Well, maybe you know–hence the opportunity for debate.

That’s my answer to the second question as well.

To the third question, I worry that even if it’s a good sustainable system, getting there is practically impossible because between now and then a lot of people would end up being “put out of work” which would seem bad to them for probably very good reasons, and steps would be taken to remedy this, which would (whether through conservative reaction or even some kind of political revolution) probably prevent the robot/computer-worker utopia from coming about.

Well that was vague enough, wasn’t it?

I would like to see you now debate this topic while I watch, thanks.

I hope this isn’t a hijack but, aren’t we there already? In America at least, most of the physical labor of manufacturing is done by machines, guided by humans. I think of those specialized machines as “robots” in the sense that you are using. Add in smarter devices like ATMs, automated telephone services and [surely there are more] a whole lot of work that once was done by humans is now done by machine.

The trend is for machines to do more of our work for us, who doesn’t like that idea? So far most of us like the idea of more and more stuff for less and less work. The down side is that humans then have to find something else useful to do or be labeled “not useful.” When we reach Utopia the people who own the machines will have all the power.

Funny, I was thinking a lot about exactly this question last night…

I would say, absolutely, but not under our current paradigm. I see going sort of like this. Companies replace labor/service with machines to save money. As a result, products become cheaper, but people also lose jobs. As a result, the economy becomes harder to manage, forcing more companies to cut costs and it perpetuates the cycle.

In the end, I see a large percentage of the working class, both human labor and service being completely eliminated. This essentially creates more and more divide between the haves and the have-nots because products will inevitably become cheaper with the cost reductions, so those with money will be able to buy more, and those without it will still be screwed. So if we continue with the current system, we’ll continue to see economic collapse.

As technology and mechanization continue, we’ll ultimately end up with less total work needing to be done and more people able to do it. Obviously, more and more of that work will need to be performed by educated and highly skilled workers, but surely with less of it needing to be done and more people to do it, there will be greater opportunity to provide the necessary education and training to perform those jobs.

Yes, eventually. In the meantime, it will result in a lot of suffering as we transition from the current paradigm to a new one. The thing is, in this sort of new world order, there will be a lot less need for dangerous manual labor, because machines cannot only do it safely, but far more efficiently. This means that the man-hours invested get greater return toward improving quality of life for everyone. It also means that time that would be spent on jobs that can be performed by machines can be spent on other pursuits. Perhaps that time can be spent in the arts or sciences.

The other thing is, we see the current breakdown of society as the elimination of the middle/working class and an increasing gap between the rich and the poor. I think in a world like this, we can actually see this sort of change out into an ultimate good where we actually eliminate that stratification, where there’s far more equality between people as a whole, not because we’ve reinstituted the middle class, but because we’ve managed to bring all of those people up to a higher standard of living.

Unfortunately, it isn’t something that will come by easy because its something that really has to happen on a global scale. What’s the incentive to mechanize production when it’s roughly equally cost efficient to use sweatshops in foreign nations? It won’t really happen until the economy of the world more or less equalizes such that concepts like sweat-shops no longer make sense OR the wealthy take it upon themselves to spend their fortunes to help equalize it realizing that profit at the expense of human suffering is unacceptable. I just don’t see either of these things happening without continued economic collapse in developed nations.

Moreso, I just don’t see the exceptionally wealthy, particularly those who have built their fortunes without any real productive value (eg, bankers, politicians, etc.) being willing to give up their luxury for the benefit of humanity. We’ll pretty much have to eventually rise up against them, rather than depending on them to provide us with enough to keep making them wealthy. In short, we’ll need a fundamental shift in thought, and I’m not really sure we’re ready for that. Who knows?

Looking at the most serious recent research, that is what we are going to get, intelligent machines with no comparable human sentience. Others talking about a “scary” singularity are being silly IMHO.

You really need to see and listen to the TED talks on technology, I remember a speaker remarked on how the use of new technologies has actually gave us more things to do or more chances to develop in ways not imagined before, can you imagine what a loss it would had been if Alfred Hitchcock had been born before the invention of moving pictures? Or if Van Gogh had appeared before the invention of oil paint? Of course those are extraordinary examples, more mundanely one has to notice the jobs that regular painters or people making training movies have now that were impossible before. On more important fronts, the use of social media (also impossible until recently tanks to computer and communications advances) has been a factor for changes all over world making life harder for dictators and autocrats.

So yes, I think it will be good.

Expanding now on the second answer: It will be good, provided that we can drop old ideas like health care based on having a job, not making secondary education affordable and limited unemployment benefits, those old ideas imply a world where nothing will get disrupted by the adoption of the new technologies.

I think this is a zombie thread from the 19th century. Damn those powered looms that put all those weavers out of work. It’s been a declining economy ever since.


Plenty of things have been automated or mechanized already. In the long term, they don’t put people out of work, they just make society more productive and shift the kind of work that humans are allocated to.

But what if AI becomes super-powerful and robotics become super-cheap? So, say, you could tell a general-purpose AI what “sweeping the floor” means, in natural language, and it could do it?
Well, it’s probably true in that case that there’d be a lot of unemployment. But it’s probably also true that virtually everyone would live a more comfortable life, employed or not.

The fact that some portion of a thing is good does not imply that more of the thing is always better.

This thread is here in part for thoughtful debate on that very question, as it relates to the topic of the OP.

(BTW I happen to think it could be workable and could be good–but I’m not sure I have good reasons for thinking this, and in any case I can’t imagine any way we could get there from here constructively. People tend to be… stupid… about this kind of thing.)

This is what the future holds.

Assuming there is some level of necessary jobs to keep people fed, clothed, sheltered, and healthy, at some point in the not terribly distant future there won’t be enough necessary jobs for people to do. The majority of necessities would be provided through automation. But there will still be plenty of jobs that provide a human touch that machines will not be capable of doing, and unnecessary jobs that people will want done.

Eventually, assuming the resources exist, machines could perform almost every job that humans do, and human employment could become extremely rare. The major stumbling block may be devising an economic system that provides an incentive to create machines that eliminate the human employment needed to pay for them. If people cooperare to create such a system, it will eventually be self-sustaining, i.e., the machines take over the process of designing, building, and maintaining the machines. But to get there, humans have to put in the effort to create this system, while at the same time more and more people become unemployed (or at least unproductively employed).

I’m sure plenty of people will exercise creativity and work ethic and create and endless amount of new unnecessary pursuits. But I’m also sure that an increasing number of people will just laze around taking advantage of a good life without responsibility. This is fertile ground for social architects to create both triumph and tragedy.

This is just wrong. Look at back at what necessities were 100 years ago vs today. In 1879 75% of the workforce were farmers, today 1-2% of people in the US produce the food we need as well as half of the world’s grain exports. Yet we don’t have 74% unemployment as what we “need” to live is vastly different. Indoor plumbing, electricity, cars, TVs, computers, etc. 10 years ago who would have thought everyone would need a smart phone?

We’ll have devices that supplement reality by projecting images on your retina identifying buildings and people, healthcare technologies will develop that constantly monitor your blood pressure and insulin levels, 3D media will be ubiquitous, and then there are all the things that we can’t even imagine yet.

The issues we face are income equalities between highly skilled workers and the rest of society, but there will be enough new jobs created to avoid massive unemployment. Hell, just having more leisure time creates new jobs in the service industry.

I defined necessity as the basics of life, and stated that there would still be plenty of jobs outside of that scope for a long time to come.

At some point, if the resources are available, machines could do everything that humans do. What would be the need for human employment at that point?

No, that future is terribly distant indeed.

That’s a tautology.

We already do things that machines can do. Ever listen to live music rather than a CD on a good stereo system? Go to a play rather than watch a movie? Buy home made brownies at a church bake sale rather than buy them at the store? Listen to a preacher in church rather than on TV?

None of those are examples of “human employment.”

The people in the band, the people that make the cookies, the actors, none of them are employed?

If robots could literally do everything that humans could do we are close to a material utopia where the average person could have a very high standard of living without working. Robots would do all the work and run the economy. Think of the spaceship in Wall-E on a global scale. There would still be some scarcity because of limited land and environmental resources. You could probably have a welfare system where everyone earns a pretty high minimum income, say equivalent to an upper-middle class income today. The robot economy could be run on the lines of a regulated market so that it would consist of profit maximizing firms with some regulation to preserve the environment and so forth. They would have to be given instructions but that could be done through some kind of democratic process by the humans.

There wouldn’t really be any problem in material terms but of course the classic science-fiction problems might arise: without work would humans degrade to some barely sentient blobs in the long run? And would the robots at some point decide to take over?

In reality we are very far away from such a future. AI is progressing quite slowly as is robotics. While I think there is hope that robots could play a major role in our everyday lives in a few decades, they will still be quite basic compared to humans. There will be plenty of work for humans to do though hopefully, most of the dreary and dangerous work will be taken over by machines.

I have to disagree. There are tons of things that humans are still better at, or that we for, whatever reason, prefer to have humans do. But at the same time, there’s tons of things that I didn’t see machines taking over that machines took over quite easily. There’s tons of human resources wasted in retail, which can easily be handled almost exclusively by machines, but in some places being served by a person is now seen somewhat as a luxury, when it used to be the opposite. Same for a lot of goods, somehow “hand-made” has turned into something that makes it sound more luxurious, when it really just means more expensive.

As I mentioned above, I think it will require a paradigm shift in how our economy works. Bartering made sense, because we would trade goods that we perceived of equal value, and that evolved into money. But now money has no real intrinsic value. For most people, they aren’t employed because they’re doing what they love; they’re employed because they need money to trade for goods and services that they want. But the idea that without money incentive would go away is just ludicrous.

Consider, a lot of research scientists have to go get their PhDs and, in many cases, make less money than they could aiming for that. Look at the number of teachers out there. Look at the number of fledgling artists. Look at the people who donate ther money and time to charities. Incentive for real change will be easy to come by.

For instance, I may be bored and uninterested in making software updates to some management software or whatever; but I’d LOVE to get to write software that managed these sorts of systems, especially if I knew that that sort of future was a long-term goal of the work. Hell, we see people donate their own time with open-source and all kinds of other software ALL the time.

I truly believe that if we really made a push for this sort of fundamental change, we’d not have a shortage of incentive; rather, we’d have a hard time figuring out who to turn away. None of us would probably live to see the fruits of our labor, but throughout history, people have pushed for causes they knew they wouldn’t live to see, and I would die a happy man knowing I had had a part in such a monumental change in human culture and thought.

I actually think our current system is actually what causes more laziness. Consider how many people go to jobs they’d rather not due all day… it’s exhausting. Of course you can’t spend a whole lot of time on other pursuits unless you’re just super motivated, because you’ve wasted all your energy there.

I like to compare this idea to how it was to be a child. Children who have constant access to TV, video games, and internet are lazy and easily bored, so it seems like if we took that stuff away, they’d be even lazier and less active. However, we know that kids raised without that sort of stuff will enjoy going outside and playing, and have active imaginations.

Now imagine if we still had that sort of childlike wonder as adults, able to pursue our dreams of being a rock star or an actor or a scientist, and not having the harsh realities of working a job we don’t like to pay our bills shoved down our throats. Sure, there’d be a few lazy, unmotivated people, just like there’s a few lazy, unmotivated kids; but I think we’d see more people grow up really believing they could pursue their dreams. And in a world where we don’t need labor and service industry and accountants and crap like that, what’s to stop them from trying?

Not just muscle power. During WW II Los Alamos employed teams of computers, women who did one step of complex mathematical calculations needed for the bomb. That intellectual job is gone. When I was a kid my mother, who had a college degree and worked as a bookkeeper, spent days tracking down a discrepancy in the books. Today a spreadsheet could do it, let alone accounting software. Hell, I believe in the Quicken version of my checkbook register a lot more than the paper version.

So, the jobs are going to go to those who can guide the computers, not to those doing jobs that the computers can do - steam shovel operators, not diggers. Or, as people mentioned, to the creative jobs. People who go to college for four or two years and come out only being able to execute algorithms others define are going to be in big trouble. The trick is convincing people of this.

Heh, so was I. I was reading a book that addresses this very issue -* The Lights In the Tunnel* by Martin Ford. A copy can be downloaded for free at the author’s website.

He makes the good point that the mass market depends on mass consumption. Historically, that consumption has been funded through wage labor. But if automation and robotics replaced the majority of jobs that wage labor depends on, mass consumption will decline and all those robot factories will be sitting idle since no one would be able to afford the goods they produce.

He makes good arguments how many jobs are at risk - especially knowledge workers and those who have invested serious time and money pursuing college degrees only to see their profession being offshored or replaced by automated systems. And retail is especially susceptible to automation. Self-checkout counters are only the beginning. He also makes the point that most automation is just shifting the remaining work onto the consumer, more than helping the remaining workers.

But then he suggests what would occur if 75% of normal employment was automated - if it occurred, and his timetable is that it will occur around 2089 if not sooner - the market would be destroyed since it could not sustain itself on only 25% of the population. So he proposes a wage recapture tax - tax on gross margins, not net income, and distribute that as a Basic Income. He has additional details and incentives to encourage people to do non-traditional work. Still reading the last chapters.

But I do not see the death of the market occurring. If 75% of our basic economy was automated, we would shift to non-economic work. Instead of planting crops and building cars, we will write screenplays, music and create other artistic works. More people will pursue research-oriented professions. Social workers and community activists would increase. And those who will continue to plant crops and build cars will be the ones who enjoy those professions, not those who need to out of necessity. In other words, automation will allow us to do what we want to do, not what we have to do. It is a very good thing.

So, a continuation of the same shift we have been seeing since Mr. Lud destroyed the loom. The question is if employment in the new sectors can provide as high an income as the previous sectors, especially since their work is harder to monetize. Social workers and researchers depend mostly on grants, not revenue. Artists should do well since they can tap into a global markets, but they may have to rely more on live performances and original works since digital reproductions have almost zero cost so residuals will be very difficult to capture.

I think some level of basic income will be necessary and fair, by for not the same reasons as Ford. Wages are a poor measure of one’s contribution to society and a horrible way to determine their share of the benefits of those contributions. The basic income cannot be seen as welfare, but as a dividend.

The transition will be difficult since our methods of dealing with unemployment are inadequate for structural shifts, and wages for labor are so deeply ingrained into our nature. And mainstream economics is still based on conditions of scarcity, not the post-scarcity affluent society.

Another benefit is that education can shift away from vocational skills and concentrate on the humanities - the visual and performing arts, literature, cuisine, etc., and allow the Cafe Society to blossom.

Automation and robots have already replaced a huge percentage of wage jobs, if not most of them. Honestly, people have bene saying this for a century or more. I find it absolutely baffling that this boogeyman continues to be trotted out.

I think it keeps being trotted out since the speed at which it is occurring keeps happening faster than countries can adjust for it. I think a major cause of the Great Depression is that countries had not adjusted to industrial economies over agrarian economies. Just like the military* prepares for the last war, economists study the last economy. Arguments that Ford makes in his book. While I agree with his diagnosis, I am not sure if I agree with his prognosis. And most jobs are still wage labor, but the dominate sectors have shifted. And will continue to shift.

But each shift does cause disruption. The average person could rely on the family farm, but then those disappeared as a source of reliable income. Then the average person could depend on a factory job, now those have disappeared as a source of reliable income. So the question is if the next shift will be able to do so, and how many will a shift affect. The knowledge/IT economy has been mixed, and if the ‘cafe’ economy will be sufficient is the big question. Can we support ourselves if 75% of the population are artists, scientists, social workers (which includes public service employees from teachers to firefighters to politicians) were the majority of their services cannot take advantage of the mass consumption market that industry relies on. Currently they make almost 30% of the economy and we can see the battle over how they should be funded playing out right now. But I hope we agree that we are better off with them in those professions than if they had to work on a farm or a factory.

*Ironically, he notes that the military, DARPA especially, is doing better managing the transition than civilian leaders are. The military seems to have learn the lessons of history, and focuses on the next conflict, not the last. Congress certainly has not shown that foresight.