What happens when the robots (peacefully) take over?

Let’s leave aside for the moment all the dystopian visions of doom from an automated future (The Machine Stops, The Terminator, The Matrix, etc.), not because they couldn’t happen but because I have another question in mind.

When we look around us and see ATMs, Roombas, GPS operated farm combines, iPhone’s Siri, etc., it’s not so hard to imagine that if we were to jump forward a few more decades or a century, we could find ourselves in a time where the vast majority of drudge work (from janitorial services, to construction and agriculture, to cooking and waiting tables at a restaurant, to manufacturing everything including the manufacturing robots themselves) is done by “robots”. Not C-3PO or R2D2, but computer-guided machinery of one sort or another. Perhaps there will be a few humans needed to guide things (almost like George Jetson, pushing buttons), plus of course artistic and creative vocations like political punditry or ballet; but the stuff that maintains people’s basic Maslow hierarchy needs (shelter, food, etc.) will be taken care of without human labour, as will additional layers of luxury.

Further, this level of automation should mean that no one is wretchedly poor, that everyone will be able to live in at least reasonable comfort without having to “work for a living”. Right? Again, maybe those who do “extra” could have additional reward for doing so, but if robots can do all the stuff I described, and assuming population is under reasonable control, no one should want for the basics.

So here’s my question: what does the transition to this state of affairs look like? Before we get to the point where people say “duh, this is obviously stupid to make people work for paychecks and pay for everything”, it strikes me that capitalist tech entrepeneurs will try to enrich themselves by taking over sectors of the economy that used to require human labour. After all, when washers and dryers and dishwashers were invented, they weren’t just passed out to families with a benevolent wish that housewives liberate themselves from drudgery. They were (and are) sold at a profit, just like those automatic GPS-driven farm combines.

So when the janitorial robots become cheaper than hiring people, janitors and hotel housekeepers will be thrown out of work. Same thing for taxi drivers when automated cars are perfected. And so on and so forth. At what point then, and in what way, does it cross a rubicon from creating mass unemployment (which is bad) to obviating the need for employment at drudgery (which is good)? Will the robot-making companies find themselves increasingly with fewer and fewer customers because no one will have a job? Will governments just take over, Tea Partiers be damned? Or will it somehow happen organically without great turmoil? I can see the end result, but that transition is a muddle. Whaddaya think?

This is somewhat what is posited if we allow (as we already have) for underpaid immigrants to take the jobs that nobody here wants to have.

Perhaps we can project from that to a future that you imagine.

An underclass that is hated and yet preserved.

If you don’t grant your postulated robots greater abilities than humans, why give them rights at all?
They are slaves.

Heh. That’s funny.

Look back a couple of hundred years ago, and folks were saying exactly the same thing. As soon as technology progressed, we wouldn’t have people toiling on farms and slaving away in factories. Utopia was right around the corner.

We have huge machines automating much of our farm work and robots fill many factories, and Utopia isn’t anywhere in sight. It’s not technology that’s holding us back at this point.

There needs to be some sort of drastic social change for anything like the above to happen.

Moved from General Questions to Great Debates.

samclem, Moderator

Unfortunately true. :frowning: That’s the way capitalism works. The benefits of having robots in the factories don’t go to the workers who used to slave away in the factories, or even to the remaining workers who can’t be robot-replaced yet. The benefits go to the rich man who paid for the robots.

But doesn’t there *have *to be drastic social change of some kind when robots can tend a farm automatically, build a house with no human carpenters, and manufacture anything (including more robots) in a factory with little to no human oversight?

The people who predicted there would be a drastic lessening of need for farm labour were right: today’s agriculture requires only a tiny, tiny fraction of the labour it once did, which is why farm country has mostly emptied out over the past century. So that in itself did cause a big social change. But there was still plenty of work that needed doing in the cities, plus a certain amount of rural work driving (and loading) trucks, maintaining infrastructure, etc. It’s easy to imagine those tasks and pretty much all other manual labour being taken over by robots within a century; at that point it will be possible to maintain human’s needs in a pretty comfortable way without any human effort.

Now as I say I can totally see there still being rich people who come up with the latest equivalent of the iPhone, or the new hit song, etc. And there will be things that are still scarce for rich people to buy–land, for instance. But for the average schmoe, what jobs would be available to them, and why should they be expected to work?

I suppose it could simply be that there will be very few jobs available (and very high qualifications for them) but that those who have them will be paid extremely handsomely, will pay a lot in taxes, and there will be most everywhere a generous social safety net of the contemporary European variety.

But there’s got to be a tipping point eventually where everyone’s put out of work and no one therefore has money to buy the products the robots make. Then the rich guy who paid for the robots isn’t so rich any more. Or he is (because his robots can make anything his heart desires), but the unemployed masses start rioting outside his mansion. Or the government says “this is ridiculous, you can’t just hoard these tools that could provide unlimited prosperity” and nationalises the robot factories just like happened to banana plantations after leftist revolutions in Latin America. When inequality gets too extreme, the social fabric must give way, either peacefully or otherwise.

I don’t understand this question.

Let’s say I somehow program a computer with the task to maximize a societal utility function. Pure hypothetical here, so it’s got plenty of computing resources to crunch out this baby, figure out what it needs to do to help max out everyone’s collective happiness. Nobody forced to be happy, it’s just helping us out with what we want to do. And it’s plenty smart about it, smart enough to program little drone machines to do its work or do any current industrial work, smart enough to make robots that can repair robots, even smart enough to understand law and crime and enforce legal statutes, or maybe more general golden rule type stuff if statutes are no longer necessary, if we wanted it to do that sort of job, too. The whole AI package, all focused on allowing us the possibility of living happy, free lives.

But it’s got no emotions. No sadness, no drudgery, none of that. It’s a quicker thinker than any human for any given problem, but at core, what it’s doing is continually working on a math problem, doing its best to maximize a utility function that was programmed into it.

Is it a slave?

Seems to me that machines capable of designing new machines, repairing them, testing the modifications, and then redesigning to create even more, are a recipe for a robo-commie paradise. Or human extinction. One or the other. Slavery does not even begin to apply. They’re not going to be Star Trek 'Data’s walking around, all wanting to be human. They won’t be evolved creatures at all. Intelligent, but not remotely human. They’ll be optimizing the functions they’re originally given, the problems they’re programmed to solve. If we plug in the wrong problem without realizing, then sucks to be us. If we plug in the right one, then life could be pretty swell.

This is contrary to centuries of history, and even the most introductory economics.

Even when some workers do lose out – which can absolutely happen, yes, if we’re not on a super-long-term time frame – the owners of the robots are not now, nor have they ever been, the only winners. The remaining workers benefit loads, as does the rest of society. We’ve had two hundred years of evidence about this since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. It is helpful to learn a little bit about these events and economic processes that led to our modern technological world in order to comment sensibly about it.

There is a fundamental flaw in the “no work” utopia that I have seen expressed before, that there is something in Humn nature that will rail against “the other guy” not having to work for his bread.

Which is to say, someone who does not work, but is still provided with food, shelter, and other essentials to live will be hated. Much as we see segments of the American population looking down upon those that are surviving via AFDC or other means of governmental support.

I, for one, welcome our . . . Oh, never mind.

Workers are conditioned to hate non-workers, but non-workers generally don’t hate other non-workers. If everyone is a non-worker, what’s the problem?

There will always be workers though. If nothing else, there will be humans designing new robots, or artists, or humans that oversee sensitive things that no matter how advanced, we can’t/won’t trust robots to do entirely by themselves.

Or politicians.

This is sort of covered in the ‘Jupiter’ series by Charles Sheffield [and a couple other cowriters]

There is a small oligarchy, ‘Families’ associated with manufacturing empires, military/political empires, and so forth. Somewhere around a few hundred thousand ultra rich people. They have human servants, a point of conspicuous consumption that they do not use robots/machines. Then there are people who have jobs, a few million or so more, they are the managers and pilots and such. They run the factories, work in stores and such. Then there is the ‘Pool’ - the great unemployed unwashed. They apparently are all on the dole - in one story the parents of one guy get 900 credits a month for him to stay in school. This pool also supply the criminal element.

I do believe that the world is headed for a similar situation, as computerizing, robotizing and mechanizing everything keeps reducing the jobs available, corporate farms take over from small holdings, factory mass production of everything. Handcrafted items will be made by a diminishing pool of craftsmen, and being sold to the ultra rich. At some point, if you do not have a job, you will end up in that pool of unemployed on the dole. And it will not matter if you have the brilliance of Einstein, and a PhD, you will be sitting i your flat, watching the TV and on the dole, unless you can winkle your way into one of the ultra rare jobs.

Wonderful future.

“Release the robot hounds.”

I don’t think the OP is talking about sentient artificial people like Cylons or Blade Runner replicants. He is talking about highly advanced industrial automation. IOW, why would you design an advanced automobile factory robot to want to “become human” like in the Sci Fi movies? You’d design it to want to stamp car bumpers all day.

It actually isn’t the way capitalism works. The benefits also go to people who can buy products they previously couldn’t afford.

Completely agree with this. And since the “human extinction” side has gotten so much attention, I wanted to explore the “robo-commie paradise”, but specifically how the transitional phase would look.

That sounds right up my alley. Thanks for the tip, will look for it ASAP!

Agreed–and even if a minority of workers hated the non-workers, the non-workers are the majority and could just not associate with the workers. Besides, my guess would be that given human nature, most people would still want to feel they were doing something productive (or “productive”). So just as we see that most ultra-rich people today do not live a complete playboy/dilettante lifestyle (though some certainly do), but serve on foundation boards, edit literary magazines, or at least intensely pursue some kind of hobby, that would likely still be the case.

LOL, touche.

Exactly right. Although if we give in to the temptation to have robots/computers take over jobs that do require more subtle forms of judgment (doctor, lawyer, teacher, cop) there is definitely the risk of sentience and all that implies. But that avenue has been explored so much, I’m more interested in the scenario you describe, which has not.

So it looks like a lot of people responding are like me in having an easier time imagining the end result, but not a lot of comments about the transition. What does the economy look like a decade or two before we get to this state where most everything is automated? High unemployment or underemployment seems a given (or reduced hours, or reduced importance for each employee to do their share to keep society functioning). But would that lead to turmoil in the medium term, or would the massive increases in GDP make it fairly easy to use taxation to provide a comfortable safety net? (I should add that my scenario assumes the problem of energy is also solved, by controlled fusion or somesuch mechanism; the whole thing becomes much more problematic if that’s not the case.)

What evil lurks in the heart of man? (The shadow)
Idle hands are the devil’s workshop. (Mrs. Grundy)

I pondered this a long while back. Especially in the face of finite natural resources, the default outcome (as we observe) is chaotic and unsatisfactory. In the absence of economic drivers, only powerful social controls can save us from ourselves. The army motto “Be all you can be!” is to the point. The naturally talented 10%in any line of endeavor might be able to discipline themselves, but the rest of us are going to need strong social programming. In addition, some captivating social goal(s) (Survival of the human race! . . .) would be needed to keep the herd moving.

If we are not to succumb to chaos and misery, I could envision an array of quasi-military organizations (like the CCC or monastic or Masonic orders) that could achieve appreciable results, provide for distribution of the goodies, and develop the potential of their members.

Perhaps the criterion for graduation would be the demonstrated capacity for artistic or academic self-discipline. Of course, there would be a lot of Professional Students. Maybe only a few would graduate.

Yep, pretty commie. Except more like a combination of Hitler Youth and a large university.


Further, this level of automation should mean that no one is wretchedly poor, that everyone will be able to live in at least reasonable comfort without having to “work for a living”. Right? Again, maybe those who do “extra” could have additional reward for doing so, but if robots can do all the stuff I described, and assuming population is under reasonable control, no one should want for the basics.[unquote] Your end-state is reminiscent of the cities in Logan’s Run (1970s movie).

Space colonization. It makes no obvious sense economically, but it will ensure the long-term (as in, up to 10 billion years) survival of the human race. And our robot overlords too, of course.

Another possibility is that someday there will be no meaningful difference between robots and humans.