24 July 2004

Robotic nation

Earlier this year, Marshall Brain (yes, Brain) of the wonderful How Stuff Works put out a longish essay titled "Robotic Nation." In it, he predicted 50% unemployment in 20 years as automation takes over the workplace. As it stands, the world's economy would collapse.

He's been busy since then bolstering his argument:

Ever since I read the essay, I've kept an eye out for news stories or random events to support his anti-future ravings. It's not that I didn't think he made a good point--he actually touched on a general interest I have for robots and humanity's ultimate relationship with them. It's just that I also understand the counter-arguments: the machines of the industrial revolution were to destroy all cottage industries and society along with them. Cottage industries died, but society and the economy survived.

Marshall Brain has a blog with entries, going back to August 2003, where he too keeps an eye out for supporting events. It's a repository for news stories, research announcements, and his general predictions. Although some of those predictions seem only distantly possible (such as robots replacing surgeons), others are more mundane and immediate (restaurant automation and advanced product assembly).

So how did we survive previous technological or societal sea-changes? Society and its systems in many ways act like natural systems: both fragile and fluid. In response to the rapid introduction of change (the term "advancement" being a value judgment), there were as many boom-times as there were crashes and upheavals. What responses did we make to mitigate the upheavals?

For the upheaval that robotics may cause, Marshall Brain doesn't see any existing area that could absorb the lost employment. He instead presents possible societal and economic changes that could help. He also looks for ways (see section titled "Sources for the $25,000"), sometimes ludicrous, of getting money into the hands of the unemployed to make them consumers again and thus sustaining the capitalist system. So, although the sky is falling, Marshall Brain isn't like the fevered Y2K alarmists who saw the problem but told people that nothing could be done to fix it. He is offering up many possible solutions to jump-start the discussion. This puts him in the group with other writers such as Francis Fukuyama who, with his book Our Posthuman Future and his involvement in the President's Council on Bioethics, actively search for the appropriate response that society should make to even the most extreme advances in bioengineering.

As with any prediction, the questions we must ask are not only whether the events could happen, but also whether the outcomes are accurate or whether they are the only possible or most likely outcomes. In one of the news items I had read since reading the original essay, it said that since the introduction of ATMs by banks, the number of bank tellers has increased [alas, I never kept the link]. According to Robotic Nation, such an outcome is never allowed. What would explain such a counter-intuitive outcome? I think the important, and frustrating, lesson is that it's counter-intuitive. The unemployment described in Robotic Nation is compelling because it seems like it is the result of an intuitively natural sequence of events.

Invoking the Unintuitive Clause is no proper rebuttal, but it and the upheavals in history provide us with a greater context to approach the issue.

[ posted by sstrader on 24 July 2004 at 12:28:43 PM in Science & Technology | tagged fukuyama, posthuman, robots ]