Sunday, April 22, 2012

Death by Robot Capitalism??

I've been writing a lot about how technology is rapidly changing how the world will look in the near future.  My brother and I are fascinated with what could possibly happen to society by such changes.  Teddy always says, "if you see it in a movie, they already have that stuff..."  Or maybe that's my husband who says that.  Well, anyway, I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy.  I love Isaac Asimov and Orson Scott Card.  I love to imagine what could possibly happen with robots and computers.  But this article in The American Prospect puts into perspective what really could happen if the robots truly do take over and it's not all that pretty:
Keep in mind that even as the number of robots increases dramatically, that doesn't mean there will be millions of self-aware humanoid machines walking around, planning the day when they finally rise up against their meat-sack oppressors. Instead, there will lots and lots of relatively simple robots doing things that now can only be done by humans, and nearly all of them will look nothing like us. Can a robot run a burrito truck? Not now it can't, but some steady advances in speech recognition and mechanical coordination will certainly bring that day before long. Amazon recently bought Kiva Systems, a company that makes robots that bring items to warehouse workers for packing, instead of the workers having to run all over the warehouse finding the items. That's fine for now, but it's pretty obvious that before too long, the robotic systems will become sophisticated enough that you won't need the workers at all (or at least you'll only need a few of them). In a few decades, the idea that we used to actually clean our own toilets and vacuum our own floors will seem ridiculous. Nevertheless, robots meant to look like people are probably going to remain little more than a curiosity for a long time, even as the more functional robots multiply….
...And that may be the real crisis point. It's one thing when a robot turns out to be just as good at legal research as a lawyer; the lawyer it displaces may have a rough time, but she'll probably find some other kind of gainful employment. But once robots take the low-skill jobs, the people who now do them will have few other options for employment.

The laziest techno-utopian visions often assume that once robots are doing all the work, the rest of us will be able to devote ourselves to creative endeavors and generally pursue our happiness, free of the crushing demands of work. The problem is, that assumes we'd be living in some kind of post-capitalist society, like on Star Trek, where we never really learn what people on Earth do with their days, but it certainly doesn't seem to involve labor. But that's unlikely to be our future, so we're all still going to have to find ways to get people to pay us for doing stuff. Otherwise we won't have the money to purchase the fruits of all those robots' labors. As Staniford says, "Depending on how good the roboticists get how quickly, there's going to become a point where there really isn't enough in it for a sufficiently large fraction of humanity. I simply see no way this trend can continue without eventually rendering almost all of us irrelevant. People's basic survival instincts will not tolerate that. However, by that point, there may very well be no easy way back, and all hell will break loose." In other words, the problem won't be that the robots will kill us, but that the rise of robots will disintegrate our society, none of us will be able to make a living, and we'll kill each other. On the other hand, wouldn't it be nice if a robot cleaned your toilet for you?
So the issue is not if this is going to happen, but when.  How as a society are we going to deal with the massive unemployment that could be caused by robots taking not only the everyday jobs, but the highly skilled professions as well.  In one Asimov novel, there's a planet that just has wealthy people on it that are serviced by robots.  People barely see one another because there are more robots than people.  But we don't (yet) have an extra planet to go to to stretch out upon. Will anarchy ensue if the Paul Waldeman's vision in the article comes true?  Will capitalism by robot be the death knell of civilization? Get out some popcorn…I can't wait to see how the movie ends...

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