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Robot Workers and the Universal Living Wage

Stashed in: Economics!, Robots!, @jaltucher, Awesome, The Future, Jobs, Robot Jobs, Basic Income

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I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords! Looking forward to us all losing our jobs and having to live on the robot dole.

James Altucher writes about 40 Percent Unemployment:

The reality is, most people should not be at work. Why? Because they are bad at it. It’s rare that someone is actually good at what they do. I know maybe 10 people that are good at their jobs. This is not a criticism. It’s just a fact. And basically, robots are better. That’s why Apple is moving production back to the U.S. Because too many Chinese people were killing themselves in their factories. Robots don’t kill themselves and they get the job done faster.

So what society really needs is 40 or 50 percent unemployment. Here’s how you do it. My solution starts off Communist but ends up libertarian. Basically, companies get incentivized to replace all humans with robots. The excess profits you get from firing people get taxed at only half the rate. All of those “robot taxes” get put into a government fund that is used to subsidize the people who are fired (just like farmers are often paid subsidies not to farm). The subsidies, though, run out after three years. So you have three years from the day you are fired to start a new business. Hopefully the business uses robots instead of humans else you won’t be able to compete against your higher-margin competitors. If you can’t start a business then you end up being a temp staffer somewhere.

Don’t say this is heartless. This is the way the world is going. That’s why the middle class is disappearing. Robots are the new middle class. And everyone else will either be an entrepreneur or a temp staffer. Don’t shoot the messenger here. It’s already happening. I’m just trying to figure out a way that we can actually accept the 40 percent unemployment or “underemployment” (which is already at 20 percent) which is coming.

From the article 10 great ideas someone should invent...

40 percent unemployment seems outrageous right now, in 2013.

It may not be heartless, but this kind of unemployment will lead to the next Great Depression -- which will be about mental state rather than economic production. This is what Ted Kaczinski feared: an economy where people do meaningless work for meaningless rewards; a technologic endgame where we fill our lives with "surrogate activities" because our survival is guarenteed and we no longer need to strive to live bo think people want to be integrated in society, and to feel like they have some sense of purpose. This future sounds a bit like Wall-E meeting the Matrix. I mean, there may yet be 1% of the population who goes on to thrive with their libertarian freedom but the rest, how will they cope when the answers about what to do with their lives are no longer obvious?

Or perhaps they will find meaning in art, education, and not-for-profit causes?

Perhaps this will free people to do meaningful work that doesn't pay well...

It's a nice thought, for sure. But for people who can afford not to work, do they become better versions of themselves, or just bored? Or can one generalize?

I don't think we can predict.

We certainly see our share of people in Silicon Valley who don't have to work.

They span the spectrum from bored do nothings to ambitious folks running huge foundations.

I just re-read this again, and I need to be more embracing of this future rather than fear it:

Unlike with the industrial revolution that replaced only brawn, automation is replacing both brawn and brains and is leaving little for humans to do that computers can't. Take the example of ordering a pizza with automation. You'll go online and place your order. The system will instruct a machine to make your pizza. The machine will then deposit the pizza into a driverless pod that will wheel out of the store and into your driveway, where it will text you that your pizza has arrived. On the back end, the ingredients will have been shipped without drivers from ultra-automated farms, and even the pizza-making machines and delivery pods themselves will have been assembled and transported by robots. No human will have ever touched or seen your pizza or anything on it at any phase of its production. Not even the pizza shop will have a human to supervise it, because it will be reduced to a glorified vending machine, like this, taking calls and e-orders and sending out pods with pizza. All production and transportation up and down the entire supply chain, from farm to table, will be automated, with precious little human employment in between. Sit-down restaurants are not immune. And virtually every other product you buy will similarly have human employment hollowed out of the process and replaced by an automated supply chain.

So if human employment is systematically eliminated from the production, transportation and sale of goods, will all our jobs just be in services? What about, say, highly skilled services, like medicine? Surely, those fields are safe. But today, computers can diagnose patients with a wealth of medical knowledge that the human brain can't memorize, detect problem spots in medical scans that the human eye can't see, perform surgery with more precision than the human hand can achieve, and fill prescriptions without a single error, making the use of humans not only obsolete in many cases, but also a dangerous liability.

There will only be more advances.

If few humans are needed to supply our goods and few humans are needed to provide our services, how will we ever have full human employment?

Creative fields will likely have jobs available, but Forbes has replaced business writers with robots that are also churning out sports stories and real estate news, and could soon cover polling results and congressional votes. Their writing and analytical skills will only continue to improve. Major music studios are using software to analyze past songs and sales in order to identify future hits from new artists. Computer-generated divas are making pop music more artificial than ever, while other machines are composing symphonies. And many local news studios have become hyper-automated, with cameras, microphones, lights and commercials being controlled by preprogrammed scripts and "centralcasted" from control centers thousands of miles away. Many anchors are alone in their studios, talking to robotic cameras, and even operating their own teleprompters with a foot pedal.

At least we'll need jobs to teach, program and answer questions about all this technology, right? But teaching can be automated, with the computers teaching the humans. Not only can e-learning software provide instruction, it can answer questions and grade papers — even grading long-form English essays. Robotic scientists can make their own autonomous scientific discoveries, and automated computer programming can generate code, with algorithms creating algorithms. The alternative is often freelancing websites where the only minimum wage for a computer programmer is zero. Call centers to answer our questions about our machines are increasingly being taken over by software with ever more complex comprehension of language.

If computers can compose symphonies and make scientific discoveries, they're already more creative than most humans. Not as creative as the best composers and scientists, but more creative than most humans. Their creativity will continue expanding and advancing. There will still be sectors where a human touch itself is highly valued, but even in a human care environment like a nursing home, there are robotic pets providing companionship and automated sensors checking vital signs.

The thing I can't tell is whether the job losses from five years ago are a permanent shift in the economy, or if they're the function of a very deep recession from which we're still recovering.

That is, is this just part of a business cycle, or are we in a new world?

I still can't tell, and that scares me.

There's been a lot of focus on this area from economists lately.  Noah Smith wrote something similar to the original posted piece a couple months back in the Atlantic:  Erik Brynjolfsson wrote a book about it - Race Against the Machine (the Kindle version is $4):  And here's a piece highlighting some specific economics discussions on the issue:   

I think they're pretty much going to need to do something along the lines of what Smith proposed - a living wage funded by taxes on the machines' outputs. Pretty soon machines will take over even the creative professions.

It really makes me wonder who serves whom.

This also seems appropriate w/r/t thinking about computers/robots and non-manual labor. 

Thanks. The robots aren't coming. They're already here.

The only way for us to compete with the robots is to find a way to upload our human minds into electronic form.

I would LOVE to be able to do that. Someday...

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