July 17, 2016
Augmented People? Mass Unemployment? Our Robotic Future

Tim O'Reilly says Don’t Replace People. Augment Them.

If we let machines put us out of work, it will be because of a failure of imagination and the will to make a better future!

That sure sounds nice. But imaginations driven to find ways to automate and cut costs will do whatever cuts costs and boosts profits the most. If they can totally eliminate human labor and doing so will be cheaper then that's what companies will do. Really, from the perspective of managers of capital, why not? If you can make materials enter a factory and a car or home appliance come out on the other side with no human in the factory then why not? How will putting a human in the loop help? If the automated factory can make the exact design as specified and humans aren't needed then what's the business reason to use humans? There isn't one. Get over it and move on.

O'Reilly argues that technology extends human capability. Which humans? Certainly not the replaced humans. Technology definitely extends the capabilities of scientists, engineers, and some managers (while replacing other managers and some types of engineers). It even extends the capabilities of many other workers. But often times this capabilities-extension is a transitional phase until machines can fully replace the humans.

Take all sorts of manual laborers for example. Is there really a big future for manual laborers whose labor is enhanced by robots? The trend has been to automate manual labor. I do not see that trend changing. Granted, rising affluence of the knowledge workers sometimes causes them to shift expenditures toward using kinds of manual labor (e.g. gardeners or home improvement workers) that they could not previously afford. But shifting income distribution patterns do not suggest manual laborers are maintaining their pricing power in the labor market.

O'Reilly thinks companies that only automate existing processes rather than developing new things to do are exhibiting a failure of imagination. But if a large portion of the population is dependent on the management elite to keep trying to find ways to make their continued presence in the labor market essential then, well, that's a change from past practice. Engineers of 100 or 50 years ago did not need to worry about how to make manual laborers useful. The usefulness of the manual laborers (and other low skilled workers) came as a side effect of industries pursuing improvements in processes and development of new products.

Lee Drutman and Yascha Mounk ask Will automation kill the middle class—and democracy with it?

Can democracy thrive when more and more benefits accrue to machines that are stronger in body, and quicker in mind, than any mere mortal? And will the machines’ owners remain willing to honor the claims of their social inferiors when they no longer need them to make their food, or to staff their companies, or to fight their wars?

I do not see how this kills democracy. They think the elites will undermine democracy. But that assumes the elites see value in sticking around. Right when elites no longer need large populations why should they keep their robots in large population countries with all the risks and taxes that entails? What I think is a more likely scenario: the end of the need for manual labor and low skilled labor causes capital and management elites to decamp from big Western democracies, taking their engineer and scientists with them. Their likely destinations will be much smaller states where they can pay much smaller slices of their production as taxes. Those left behind could still manage to operate a democracy I think.

Before 1870 three quarters of the people worked as farmers. That certainly made for a different sort of democracy than what industrialization made possible. Even before World War II a very small city called Washington DC was a sleepy backwater. Now it is an ideological and economic battleground of interests and factions. If the biggest capitalists of America and Germany and France and England go elsewhere these countries will still have national capitals. Its just some of the battles over redistribution won't be held in those capitals. In a nutshell: It'll be far easier to shift production when very few people are needed to actually do production.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2016 July 17 03:31 PM 

bob sykes said at July 18, 2016 4:31 AM:

You're overlooking the character of our Progressive Ruling Class. They have an obsessive lust to rule over people. Just think of Sanders, Hillary, Bezos, Zuckerberg et al. Their pleasure is in slaves, and the underclass is the perfect toy.

JP Straley said at July 18, 2016 7:03 AM:

The article leaves out the idea that positive eugenics will change the character of the working class. For one thing, govt almost certainly will partially fund genetic interventions, as it makes for more productive citizens, thus more tax payers and fewer tax eaters. Govt will also remove tax incentive for children, for as productivity increases the need for very basic workers decreases. Elites will not be able to control these trends because if any shred of republican govt remains then voting numbers will continue make a difference. An overall cognitive improvement will make "proles" a lot more ware of PR campaigns composed mainly of slogans.

The idea of a cabal of greedy elites is indeed plausible, but so is the other direction.

JP Straley

xxdb said at July 28, 2016 11:10 PM:

Lack of imagination. The "management elite" will be doing anything but thinking new things up. They don't now. They never did.
Entrepeneurs and worker bees think things up. Same as it will be in the future. Only difference is they will be augmented. But so will everyone else.
Technology doesn't stay expensive for more than months nowadays.

Far as I am concerned, anyone who talks about "the elite" is either a communist or is a useful idiot of the communists because there ain't no such thing as the elite. There is only people and money. Money does not make you "elite".

Andrzej Lipski said at August 9, 2016 10:41 AM:

I understand that elite powers the maintain large robot workforces would relocate to smaller states that provide lower cost. But why couldn't these elite powers spend some of their profits lobbying nations for better tax breaks, more incentives to not relocate. Some US corporations move their manufacturing and production overseas for low labor costs but when labor cost are not a driver of lower cost then what is? More than likely it will be regions of the world were the supply chain for resources and energy will be the most efficient. Nations that invest heavily in creating cheap low cost energy production and the extraction and manufacturing of cheap materials are the ones that stand to gain the most? Saudi Arabia who is divesting of oil production and instead shifting to solar energy production. Iceland who has been experimenting with not just geothermal but volcanic thermal energy. As we march down the road of globalization there will always be some elites/corporations who will not find a cost benefit to relocating. Companies that provide services financial or otherwise that maintain large profit margins can afford to operate less efficiently and will likely purchase robotic labor as a product or a service. Not everyone will chase those shrinking margins some companies are not in that business so they will just let others do it for them. Look at cloud based services. More companies are shutting down data centers and offloading it to the likes of Amazon and Microsoft to do the dirty work.

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