Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Prospects for Robots "Taking Over" the Workplace

Any replacement of human laborers by advanced droids in the future will be piecemeal, demand-driven, and complementary to human intelligence and effort.

I recently got into a dialogue on a discussion forum, that seems worth sharing here (the type in quoted, bold italics are the comments of others):

"more and more machines eliminating more and more jobs untill the capitalistic system collapses due to the fact that not enough workers will produce living wages."

This is phrased more as a death wish for the supposedly "evil and exploitative" capitalist system, rather than a seriously credible prediction. This is another take on the "nanobots making everything free" argument.

The fact is, this dystopian scenario would be death for ANY economic system, not just capitalism. In fact, the human suffering in such an unlikely scenario would be far worse in a centrally controlled economy, because workers are often considered as little more than agents of production there already.

In any case, this is a complex subject, one that I pondered nearly 30 years ago, with the same idea that robots would soon be rapidly replacing large segments of human labor in the economy. But here we are, with stationary robots making big inroads in certain, manufacturing-intensive, capital-intensive industries, such as auto production (which was already the case 30 years ago, and one of the reasons I got the idea in the first place). In the vast realms of labor that would have as a desirable component robots that are mobile, we're still pretty much at the Roomba stage, so it is extremely premature to suggest that robots will displace a huge percentage of the human labor force. It's too early to say what will happen there, and certainly way too early to gleefully predict the destruction of capitalism.

If we look at the auto industry, where robots have been a mainstay for decades, there are still large numbers of human employees there. The massive layoffs in the American auto industry have everything to do with those companies making cars that don't sell (which, in turn, is based more on their reactionary executive culture rather than the skill or competence of the vast body of its workers), and very little to do with the fact that robots are used there.

We must ask, to what degree have any layoffs in those industries been directly due to the use of robots taking over their jobs? Undoubtedly, there has to have been an impact there, because otherwise it's hard to see how the massive investment in those robots was worthwhile in the first place. I don't know those numbers and wasn't able to easily find any credible links on the web. In most cases, companies that make large robotics investments try hard to retrain and reassign valuable workers first, pink slips as a last option.

Therefore, rather than direct layoffs, in many of those companies, the nature of the work of the human laborers has changed. Turns out, there's still plenty for them to do. Quality control, monitoring, maintaining, and programming the robots (the robots definitely need oversight), the work on the cars that goes on between the stationary robotic stations, etc. Often, they are retrained or reassigned, rather than given a pink slip.

Many seem to make the key mistake of assuming that advanced robots will be as good as or better than humans in every conceivable way. This I believe will not come to pass - the partnership of man and droid combined will be more powerful than either alone, into the very far future. Human minds, as a result of the nature of their biologically evolved origins, will have as their strong suits creativity, strategic thinking, and leadership. Droids and Advanced AI, because of their fundamentally rational, hyperprecise minds (these devices, lest we forget, will be computers first, human emulators second) eventually much of everything else, perhaps. For example, a design team that represents a mix of humans and droids and/or advanced AI computers could imagine and engineer a far greater number of prototypes to a greater level of precision before decisions were made as to the actual production of that product.

In most cases, humans prefer jobs that have a strong component of creativity, leadership, and strategic decision-making involved. In this way, much as much of the current workplace in the developed world has moved from manufacturing to knowledge work, we will see a further evolution to the most desirable of the knowledge work for those human workers. This may seem rosy or optimistic, but I would submit that it is in fact eminently logical and empirically derived. I am not a utopian or a dystopian, I eschew both of those extremes, simply because they are never right.

(Note: the bolded, italicized comments in the rest of this post were made by a different forum participant than the comment above)

"What if we impose large taxes on the robotic corporations? The money obtained could be used to fund a pension that begins from birth for everyone. The machines would then have to compete mightily amongst themselves in order to raise the money required to keep them 'alive'. They would have to deliver goods and services that people want."

This is one option that may be employed. Another might be, personal ownership of the robots that are then "hired out" to one or more employers at the discretion of the owners. The owner would buy the robot (for a presumably substantial sum), then recoup that cost via the hiring out of that robot. This could be made mandatory, where personal ownership of some percentage of the robots utilized at a firm is a legal requirement. If you think of it, there are advantages to this approach - the company would not have to make a giant capital outlay for a large number of droids out of its own pocket, then eat that cost if business goes down - they could simply "lay off" whatever droids they needed to, which could then be reemployed elsewhere by their human owners, much like the economy works today. The owners would of course also be on the hook for the repair and upkeep of these droids as well. I could see this being quite attractive to companies as an alternative at least for some potentially sizable fraction of their staff. If a particular droid became instrumental in a role, which would depend on its experience as well as its programming, the company could attempt to "buy" that robot from its owner, and the owner could agree or disagree, at their discretion. If the human hired out its droid(s) in fields with which the human already had experience, I could see a deep synergy of value developing out of this dynamic, because again, the value of these droids will depend on their experience as well as their programmed software and hardware, especially their micro-grained experience at a particular firm or firms, not just that they are instantly smarter and better at everything out of the box.

In this way, in a growing industry, such an arrangement could make huge sense; if a human has valuable skills, he could buy, train, and resell robots to various firms, use that money to invest in another robot(s), in a cycle that in fact leverages the human's knowledge far beyond what is possible today.

"I actually think people will work harder when jobs are obsolete due to the robotic takeover. Why? Because there will no longer be the need to perform a job you dislike, merely to earn a living. The robots do that. People would be free to spend their time doing things they find fulfilling. And because they find it fulfilling, I believe they would happily devote much time and energy to their daily activities."

Hopefully people will be freed up for doing what they love. However, the entire history of technology progress has not led to humans working less, but more, just different kinds of work. I suspect this trend will continue, even after large numbers of droids are in the workplace. In addition, we should remember that the demographics of the future will be different from today, with many in the developed world - and eventually, everywhere in the world - having far fewer young people entering the workforce, so large-scale adoption of robotics may be necessary just to keep the economy working as it does currently. In fact, it is entirely likely that the most demand for robots will in fact be in those industries and places that are hurting for workers. For example, the needs of elderly care in Japan, where because of its strict immigration laws there are not enough young, qualified workers to take care of the rapidly increasing elderly population, is a major driver of robotics, and the one nearest large-scale commercial introduction there is a robot of this type.

Therefore, to suggest that all this will lead to the "collapse of capitalism" is far-fetched - just the opposite will be the case, it could be suggested. Many of the advances in technology, such as the internet, shine the light on poor economic systems, such as Communism, and move those to the capitalist model, not away from it. China comes to mind here - they have far to go, but the booming success of their economy is directly attributable to the degree to which they have adopted capitalist methods into their economy.

Capitalism is certainly not perfect, and must be continually refined by intelligent regulation AND intelligent deregulation (as we're seeing in the banking industry, where the unwise deregulation of previous banking regulations over the past 10-15 years has led to the current crisis). However, capitalism is the very best economic system that humanity has yet devised, not because it is the most just or whatever, but because it is the most aligned with fundamental human nature. Until human nature changes (and there is NO sign of that happening anytime soon), capitalism will thrive.


Tim Tyler said...

Re: "it is extremely premature to suggest that robots will displace a huge percentage of the human labor force"

Not really. People have seen that one coming for a long while.

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