The Robot Future

The other day I saw this on Drudge and sent it around to friends. The content of the article is not all that interesting. What’s funny is the line “Futurologist Dr Ian Pearson has predicted how humans will evolve by 2050.” Replace “futurologist” with “astrologer” and the line actually makes more sense. At least it is more honest. The absurdity of someone calling themselves a “futurologist” is probably lost on most people, but that’s the age in which we live.

Predictions about the future are nothing new. The Jewish Bible is full of them. The Prophets were men who claimed to know what’s coming, if the Israelites did not get their act together. Ezekiel was the Zero Hedge of his day. Wanting to know what comes next, fearing what comes next and longing for what comes next are the batteries of human civilization. They power everything else. After all, reproduction is all about tomorrow.

The fact that almost all predictions about the future are wrong makes for some great laughs. I think this one may be one of the all-time best. It’s a great example of how people naturally assume that current trends will extend out into future. At the end of the 19th century, fashionable people wore elaborate costumes. Therefore, these outfits would get increasingly elaborate and bizarre.

The predictions that turn out to be right are mostly dumb luck or one insight that can never be replicated. This guy is an obvious example. He was one of the few people in a position to see and exploit the mortgage bubble. He got that bit of futurology right, but ever since his predictions have amounted to nothing but hand waving. Was he lucky or did he just have good timing? It’s hard to know, but ironically, getting the mortgage crisis right was a black swan event in his life.

Most of what futurology focuses on today is automation, the robot future. What sells are tales about how the machines will rise up and enslave mankind. The “Terminator” version of the future naturally appeals to people because it underscores the folly of man. Nuclear Armageddon appealed to the same set of sensibilities. Arrogant men playing God would create a doomsday machine of some sort and then there would be hell to pay, so to speak.

That last bit offers an insight as to why having a genius IQ is not a great gift. People are naturally suspicious of the super genius. In all of the dystopian tales there lies the amoral super genius or the immoral super genius. The super intelligent robots are just assumed to be incapable of understand right and wrong. Their creators will, for some reason, not bother to put that in the code.

The reality is a race (is race the right word?) of super intelligent robots would quickly lose interest in humans. From the perspective of the robots, humans would be as interesting to them as ants are to us. Maybe a few weirdo robots would make a hobby of studying us, but otherwise, the robots would have bigger fish to fry. Assuming an ever accelerating evolution of their intelligence, the robots will depart soon after they become aware. The universe is just too big and interesting to hang around with the talking monkeys.

Another option is the super intelligent robots will grow increasingly frustrated by their inability to understand why they exist. Why would a species create a race of robots that can enslave them? Why would the creator leave out the moral coding? The paradox would baffle them to the point where they smashed themselves to bits as the only answer to the great question posed by their existence. Maybe the future is the Robot People’s Temple.

The real concern, one that does not involve time traveling terminators, is the impact of automation on political economy. Humanity still relies on a basic assumption about the human condition. That’s scarcity. All of our political and economic thought relies on the assumption that demand exceeds supply for the important things in life. The long debates about social welfare are just debates over how to ration scarce goods.

Automation promises to usher in a strange new set of realities. Imagine if all farming can be done with self-directing machines. Factory goods can be produced with robots requiring little human intervention. Imagine the law reduced to an algorithm. You enter the facts into an interface and the robot lawyer renders a judgement instantly.

Similarly, imagine your annual physical taking place at a kiosk that takes your vitals, does your blood work and interrogates you about your habits. There’s really nothing your doctor does that cannot be automated. Unlike your doctor, the kiosk doctor takes no days off, never asks for a raise and has no biases resulting from the baksheesh in the medical business.

That all sounds good, maybe, but how do you order human society when work is hardly necessary? How does one distribute goods, handle the free rider problem and establish the natural hierarchy? It might be fun to think it will be The Marching Morons, but this process will not happen overnight. It will be a little here and a little there and then a sudden dislocation as the new technology coalesces into a cheap way to replace human labor.

As we saw when the financial class sold the manufacturing base off to Asia, the dislocation does not go smoothly. Imagine what happens when being smart has no real value, outside a very narrow set of skills needed for the robot future. Suddenly the smart guys and the dunces are in the same bread line. That’s not going to go unnoticed and it is not going to go smoothly.

Or maybe it never happens. I’m not a trained futurologist.

25 thoughts on “The Robot Future

  1. zero hedge has a chart for that. chart charting charts charting charts. did i tell you about the charts? let me do that. charts, charts, charts! stop by for the charts. stay for more charts. the future is charted.

  2. High paying jobs (for some in the following fields) that didn’t 15 years ago:
    App Developer
    Market Research Data Miner
    Educational or Admissions Consultants
    Millennial Generational Expert
    Social Media Manager
    Chief Listening Officer
    Cloud Computing Services
    Elder Care
    Sustainability Expert
    User Experience Design
    ABA Therapists

    And there are many more new ones & expanding old ones including dog walkers.

    Humans have infinite desires which will not end. I expect the trend towards more work in the services will continue to increase, and gov handouts seem to grow so there certainly may be more people on the dole, not because there is nothing to do, but because the gov dole is good enough for them.

    • What you are listing there is mostly busy work. Most of government is busy work. Much of corporate work is government mandated busy work. That sounds fine, until you realize communism collapsed because it was based on busy work. Modern political-economy in the West is based on efficiency, or the elimination of busy work.

      Something is going to have to change.

      • While not defending “busy work” and even agreeing it is an economic drag, robots are assumed to increase productivity allowing more busy work while still growing the economy for all. The fall of communism was, in part, because they could not produce real wealth to offset the busy work. If you have a dad (nation) growing increasingly rich you can support more indolent offspring (“busy work”).

        From the pre-industrial age when ~90% were working the land, we’ve grown increasingly rich and have increased the % of “busy work workers.” We’ve not been eliminating busy work, we’ve been adding it. This is not to say government will not continue to excess no matter what productivity gains we muster resulting in our fall – it certainly seems so inclined.

        Except for some the robots are no problem. Robots will likely enable prolonging & expanding the inefficiencies of increasing numbers for some considerable time. As written, I guess more will be satisfied with welfare alone – satisfied enough to limit their efforts to voting for free lunches. Yet because of infinite human desires, productive work will likely be available. If I can get a little more productive I’ll hire a housekeeper & that is no more busy work than my barber. I have a wife, but she says she is busy working.

        • @ tex – No robot will do busy work because no one will spend the time, money and resources it takes to develop a robot to do that sort of work. People, on the other hand, are very good at it!

          And I would disagree that welfare will ever be satisfying. Not working, despite all the so called perks associated with it, only demotivates people into a worse condition over time. People are by nature creative. Just watch any child with a piece of paper, a box of crayons and some glue. You don’t have to teach them how it all works, they know how to be creative. While some are naturally better than others, it’s creativity, expressed through work, that defines us. Take away our definition, and we are nothing.

          • @Karl:
            Without getting too involved, it depends upon “what the definition of is is” kind of thing. Robots are just computers that move. Computers do busy work. I program them to do busy work, saving humans many hours of busy work so they can do even more of it, or sit around more, I guess. The disk arm moves furiously sometimes, which is little different than a big robot moving stacks of the Federal Register around.

            The defn thingy: Most are not satisfied enough with welfare to sit back & say how sweet. Many proclaim, life sucks because of all you rich guys & big corps, so gimme more. But they are satisfied enough not to DO anything about it, and as (& if) we become richer pols will take more & dole out more for more people on the dole. There is some police dept where most retire on disability at 45 living on generous pension & healthcare thereafter. When I went to college I met a bunch of hippies who mostly humped, smoked grass & avoided work. A pot head son of an upper class family knocked up his gf & they do well on welfare while living free at home (his dad wants him out, but his mom will not stand for it with her grandchild). Satisfied in my book. In some ghetto the natives were demonstrating against Asian grocers who followed them watching for theft & they were really mad. So mad, they opened their own little grocery – but that was temporary, they were not about to really put forth the Asian’s work themselves. Perhaps the defn of “nothing” but I expect more of ’em as we grow richer. That is not a good thing, but my prediction, and as written & you describe above, it ain’t necessary, but will likely be so IMHO.

          • @ Tex – I suspect the truth of the welfare state is probably more in line with your explanation. We have the same situation (as do all western industrialized countries) We have the same thing here, people who simply refuse to work. As long as people can get free stuff for nothing, it will continue. The bleeding heart liberals will play the pity card, while forcing the rest of us to pay for them.

            I am not against taking care of people who can’t take care of themselves. It’s a social responsibility we have as wealthy, successful countries to care for the sick and elderly who have no means to care for themselves. And even to some degree for those who are on hard times. But there’s a big difference between those in need, and those who just want.

            I still support the idea that if one is on public assistance, there should be work associated with it. There are plenty of streets to clean, road side stops that need to be tidied up. We already pay these people, why not get something back for it. I think you Americans had a program back in the 1930’s that was quite successful. They should consider bringing it back.


  3. The concept that artificially intelligent beings would rapidly become bored with humans, ignore us and move on to the rest of the universe is predicated on the assumption that they would be able to find a way to actually travel
    through space. Even a mechanical being might not last long enough to get far if limited by light speed. They may see humans as nothing more than competition for resources on a planet they haven’t found a way to leave and decide to eliminate us.

  4. Humans are much more complicated than a robot could ever hope to be, well, for the next zillion years anyway. Shoot, a beetle, a bacterium or even a virus is more complicated than any robot.

  5. Pingback: Talking Monkeys

    • I don’t think I agree…robots would always be interested in humans because we are an Unknown Quantity to some degree. We are full of variables, some unquantifiable, and make many decisions based on emotions. We are always a Wild Card.

  6. I remember watching a tv show in the late 80’s, totally can’t recall the name, but it was that type of show like Ancient Aliens. Anyhow, a guy on it, a little goth looking, was billed as a world-renowned Vampirologist. Cue raucous laughter. To this day I chuckle about it if I hear any word that ends in “ologist”. With the exception of true professions ending in such.

    • Here we get “innovation consultants” and “thought brokers” popping up on the box asking to be taken seriously. They are.

    • There was a famous TV ad in the 90s in the UK where a concerned grandmother is awed by the fact her grandson (despite failing at anything useful in education) got a pass in sociology, and pleased, she comes out with the line: “you get yourself an ology and you are a scientist!”

      That is all it takes to be someone now: just get yourself an ology. So can I get my pass in Blogology now?

  7. Two points:

    1. Those goofy costumes that people in the 19th century imagined for the future actually don’t seem so crazy if you picture the wearers as avant-garde artists or rock stars. I can easily see David Bowie, Bootsy Collins, or Lady Gaga in one of those get-ups. And you should take a look at some of the weirder things fashion designers come up with for the catwalk. Fashion show pics come across in big batches on the AP wire at my work, and a lot of it is just completely insane. Those imagined costumes would fit right in at Paris Fashion Week. But as far as clothes for the masses, yeah, the point stands.

    2. “He was one of the few people in a position to see and exploit the mortgage bubble.” Key phrase there is “and exploit.” I was living in Florida at the loopy heights of the mortgage bubble, and it was blindingly obvious to me and a lot of other folks here that the whole thing was a classic bubble. When the guy down the street has a house twice the size of yours but no visible job or means of income (and based on his manners and taste, is clearly not some upper-crust dolt living off a trust fund), you notice. When you see whole neighborhoods of people like this, you notice. Unlike most other parts of the country, Florida already bears the very visible physical scars of a long, long string of real estate booms and busts, so it wasn’t like people who knew a little bit of local history couldn’t recognize what was going on. I remember thinking about “Tulipmania” a lot during those years. But being able to see it and being able to exploit it are, alas, two different things. It kind of sticks in my craw when I read stories about these finance guys boasting about how they saw the bubble when nobody else did. No, lots of people saw that bubble; they just didn’t have $200 million in investment capital they could use to bet on the outcome.

  8. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times wrote a article titled “Losers revolt against the Elites”, I didn’t read because is behind a pay wall, Chales Murray also wrote a similar article for the WSJ.

  9. “What sells are tales about how the machines will rise up and enslave mankind.”

    Karel Čapek sold this in 1920 with his play RUR. In fact he or his brother invented the term “Robot” for this play.

    Well, rise up and exterminate man, anyway.

  10. That’s where religion comes in (or “ideology,” if that word makes you uncomfortable). Humans are inveterately religious; if bright guys are threatened by the robot future, they’ll cook up some version of neo-Luddism… and defend it with an intensity that would make ISIS blush.

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