May 24, 2015
Our Robotic Future Is Going To Look Like Science Fiction

Andrew McAfee and David Autor at MIT see a future with extensive automation of jobs. Mcafee thinks people would rather not have to interact with service workers so much. Agreed. We want to just walk into a place and have the whole thing be totally seamless. No lines. No new guy at the desk who has to ask someone else for help when someone else is available. Just go.

In addition, it turns out people like self-service a lot. I don't want to talk to somebody when I go check in at an airport. I just either download the boarding pass to my phone or walk up to a kiosk and get it. The person that checks my ID and lets me through to the boarding area - are they really doing that job because they're better than a piece of technology at sussing out if I am who I say I am and if I pose a security threat or not? I'm sorry, I don't believe they are.

The future is going to be insane.

GOLDSTEIN: We looked up a few numbers. Truck drivers alone make up almost 2 million jobs, and those other jobs - millions more. McAfee says when he looks at the math, it's clear where this is going.

MCAFEE: Twenty or 40 years from now, I believe we will not need the labor of a lot of the people alive in order to have a very, very productive economy. In terms of the amount of human labor that you need to get the stuff out of the ground and off the farms and through the factories and into our homes and tables - next to none.

GOLDSTEIN: So do you wake up every morning and think, like, the future is just going to be insane?


David Autor does not see as much job destruction as Mcafee envisions. But already the gap in the employment rate of those with at least a bachelor's degree and high school drop-outs is 30 percentage points. Most high school drop-outs no longer have a job. The science fiction future has already partially arrived in the job market and this just hasn't been noticed yet.

McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson (both at MIT's Sloan school for business) gave a great interview to Harvard Business Review The Great Decoupling: An Interview with Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.

Not all types of jobs are disappearing, are they? Why are some affected more than others? McAfee: Technologies such as payroll-processing and inventory-control software, factory automation, computer-controlled machining centers, and scheduling tools have replaced workers on the shop floor and in clerical tasks and rote information processing. By contrast, big data, analytics, and high-speed communications have enhanced the output of people with engineering, creative, and design skills and made them more valuable. The net effect has been to decrease the demand for low-skilled information workers while increasing the demand for highly skilled ones.

Brynjolfsson says we are going thru skill-biased technical change.

Economists call it skill-biased technical change. By definition, it favors people with more education, training, or experience.

Computers amplify a highly able mind's power. But when it comes to less able minds doing very routine work the computers just replace the humans. Computers also substitute for very able minds in highly skilled but highly routine work. For example, computers that can do the job of an anesthesiologist are under development. The Sedasys machine already has approval for anesthesiology during medical screening procedures such as colonoscopies.

A person who was born late in the 19th century saw enormous technological change thru 1970. Cars, airplanes, vaccines, antibiotics, lasers, farm automation, plastics, electrification. The last quarter of the 20th century witnessed the computer and communications revolution. But it was less visible. Robots are going to make the next revolution a lot more visible. Eventually biotechnology will do thje same with whole body rejuvenation and intelligence boosting. A society of beautiful young geniuses served by robot cars, robot house cleaners, and robot house builders will look a lot different than the society we see today.

Think your job lends itself to automation? Don't wait. If you can make a transition into work that is harder to automate then do this years before your replacement comes to market as a new software upgrade or robot.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2015 May 24 12:44 PM 

Wolf-Dog said at May 24, 2015 11:37 PM:

One problem is that the automation of basic services will increase the segregation of various cognitive classes a lot more, since there will be less contact between classes as a result. In fact, even geographic segregation will increase.

Separately, as new generations of people become better faster than natural evolution, the older generations will become obsolete in a more violent way.

/* ------------------------------------- */

Here is a remarkable new British science-fiction movie about artificial intelligence catching up and even surpassing humans:

Ex Machina (2015):

Here is the trailer:

Here is an interview with the director:

bob sykes said at May 26, 2015 4:41 AM:

There have been no real breakthroughs in AI that could allow the construction of autonomous robots. While the existence of humans proves that autonomous robots are possible in principle, we have no understanding of how the brain operates, not even animal brains. Raymond Tallis ("Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity"), who is himself a neuroscientist, pretty much trashes modern neuroscience, especially so-called brain imaging. Neuroscience might be yet another pseudoscience like the many others that infest and pollute our Lysenkoist culture.

The highly speciallzed and highly limited robots that now exist in factories and militaries do not qualify as autonomous in any sense. A truly autonomous robot would be mobile, would make decisions based on local environment and programmed goals, would change goals independently of humans, and would be able to reproduce itself. That last is important. Modern robots and supercomputers (including Watson) lack the capability of a a bacteriophage (look it up).

There is also the real question as to whether Western civilization will survive long enough to develope the science and engineering needed to construct such robots. The West is now being inundated by a flood of colonists who are adding to our dependency load and who cannot themselves continue our civilization. If they could, they would have they own, and they would not be invading ours.

brad said at May 26, 2015 10:16 AM:

I may be wrong but robots do not generate income that can be taxed or consume goods and services but perhaps I haven't been following developments in the brave new world close enough.

Brett Bellmore said at May 26, 2015 2:21 PM:

You're wrong. Robots generate income that can be taxed, in the same way that taxis generate it, or machine tools do: They generate income for their owners, that can be taxed.

Crocodile Chuck said at May 26, 2015 9:31 PM:

"Truck drivers alone make up almost 2 million jobs, and those other jobs - millions more. McAfee says when he looks at the math, it's clear where this is going" [snip]

Ever wonder why all these departments of the US Federal Gov't are purchasing billions of rounds of ammunition for automatic weapons?

Bill Peschel said at May 30, 2015 2:09 PM:

Not too hard to postulate a future where unemployed good ole boys hang out along the interstate and practice shooting out the tires of driverless trucks. Wonder what'll happen then?

Denver said at May 30, 2015 2:28 PM:

We are dang sure going to need an entirely different economic paradigm that leaves the Labor Theory of Value (both Smith's and Marx's) as obsolete as mule drawn carts are in the West today.

Brett Bellmore said at May 30, 2015 3:31 PM:

"Wonder what'll happen then?"

Lot of good ole boys in prison, I'd guess. You think an automated truck couldn't report to the police the instant it was fired at, and from where? A few microphones on the exterior, and it could deliver GPS coordinates of the shooter the instant the shot was fired.

Michael W. Perry said at May 30, 2015 4:19 PM:

Quote: "In addition, it turns out people like self-service a lot."

Speak for yourself. I like waiting in line to talk to a real person not waiting in line to deal with a scanner that's far more likely to get something wrong.

Quote: "I don't want to talk to somebody when I go check in at an airport."

I suspect you also don't like to people at all.

So these authors are "Andrew McAfee and David Autor at MIT." That's Jonathan Gruber school too isn't it? Is there something about the place that creates sneering, arrogant people haters? I'm starting to wonder if there is.

Bernard Brandt said at May 30, 2015 9:07 PM:

As regards science fiction:

Butlerian Jihad, anyone? (cf: Frank Herbert's Dune series)

wjr said at May 31, 2015 8:26 AM:

The displacements associated with the industrial revolution continue and the displacements are becoming more severe. In the end there will be a great mass of people on the dole and a much smaller group actually working.This is the stuff from which chaos is made. People need a purpose of some sort. So the old Chinese curse of living in interesting times continues to dog us. The proles, under the control of the institutional political class, will enslave the creative / productive class.

Thus the hypothesis: It is time to leave earth behind and the only thing that really matters in the long run is space travel. We need to leave the left side of the normal curve behind to tend to their own problems.

Nick G said at June 4, 2015 8:42 AM:

A few thoughts:

The difference in employment between bachelors degrees and high school dropouts is partly a statistical error: HS dropouts are much more likely to be in the underground economy.

Automation has been eliminating jobs for hundreds of years. You have to ask - what's different this time, if any?

It's not a lack of demand for unskilled jobs: there's enormous need for childcare, eldercare, low-skilled healthcare, infrastructure construction, etc. The problem: the economy isn't structured to get people doing those jobs. One part of the structural problem: low wage levels for that work. Another (related to the first part): the wealthy are trying to cripple government programs that fund work of this kind, increase minimum wages, etc.

Gimme more Goethe said at June 5, 2015 10:08 AM:

"A society of beautiful young geniuses served by robot cars, robot house cleaners, and robot house builders will look a lot different than the society we see today."

LOL. What have you been smoking? A genius can't exist in such a society. There haven't been any geniuses anymore since the second half of the 20th century, as one genius, Gomez Davila, noted in one of his aphorisms. It's over. Number-crunching has nothing to do with being a genius. What we will see in the 21st and 22nd century is the death of high cultures, and the rise of an ever more hedonistic world. I predict humanity will kill itself in the next 100 to 200 years. BTW, regarding geniuses, this is why european elites look down on americans: amis are cheap, trivial and superficial in their thinking and feeling.

Randall Parker said at June 6, 2015 1:14 PM:


The engineers, scientists, managers, and successful entrepreneurs can move away from the unemployable. We might see some countries become refuges for the cognitive elite. I doubt the cognitive elite will let themselves become slaves to the lower classes.

Nick G,

How is it a structural problem if wages are low for some jobs? It is just a sign that supply is large and demand is small.

Infrastructure construction: that'll become steadily more automated. It is already far more automated than it used to be.

Gimme more Goethe,

There are plenty of geniuses. They just face incentives to do something aside from writing great symphonies or operas. They get money to work in industry or they try to publish papers that will get them a tenure-track academic job. Offspring genetic engineering will boost the supply of geniuses by multiples.

Nick G said at June 6, 2015 10:06 PM:


Are you familiar with the idea that the economy is producing below it's maximum potential (and employment) due to inadequate Aggregate Demand?

And that inadequate Aggregate Demand is at least partly caused by inequality of income?

Randall Parker said at June 7, 2015 7:24 PM:

Nick G,

Yes, familiar with that argument. It seems to boil down to the idea that the upper classes save more. So if the upper classes earn the money they save rather than spend. Whereas if the lower classes earn the money they spend it. I'm not convinced this is happening. On the other hand, I'm not convinced it is not happening either.

Another possible and similar explanation: as the population ages more people focus on saving for retirement. On the other hand, as the population ages more people are retired and spending down their savings.

The aging population in theory could (at least partially) explain the lower interest rates. As more people save for old age they cause an excess supply of money to buy bonds.

Even if higher inequality is reducing demand that does not explain why the higher inequality exists in the first place. I go back to automation. Why: the huge difference in employment rates between the most and least skilled.

Nick G said at June 13, 2015 5:28 PM:

I think the argument that under-employed college graduates are crowding out high school dropouts is convincing. For instance, some correctional officer jobs (prison guards) now require bachelor degrees! This is the classic no-skill job.

Also, I'd like to see data on the effect of criminal background checks. Once someone is convicted of something (it doesn't matter how trivial it is), it becomes impossible for them to get the majority of jobs. There are some poor communities where the majority of employment-age men have convictions. For instance, prisons are now having a hard time finding anyone who can pass the background check for guard jobs (those that don't require bachelors degrees).

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