When my grandmother was young, she and her friends would go to the theater to see newsreels, which were the mass media of the age. The only other way to reach a lot of people was radio and newspapers. A common theme of newsreels was to talk about the glorious future of labor saving devices. A century ago, a new labor saving invention was coming every day so it certainly felt like humanity was accelerating forward.
The only reason I know about this is my grandmother would tell me about it when I was a boy. She liked to talk about how she would spend the day at the theater watching newsreels about the kitchen of the future that pretty much looked like her current kitchen. In 1920 having a blender in the kitchen was the driverless car of the day. By the time my mother was having kits, everyone had one.
The point my grandmother was making at the time is that the glorious future is never all that glorious when you get there. When she was a young girl, kitchen appliances would make being a wife and mother a breeze. That’s not how it happened. Being a wife and mother was pretty much the same, just with electric appliances instead of manual ones.
Of course, the American kitchen did not accelerate into the glorious future. It pretty much stopped around 1965 and has remained there every since. The fridge is a little better and dishwashers are better, but incrementally. The person of 1965 transported to today would not marvel at your Sub-Zero fridge. They would be stunned that it was unpainted, but that’s about it.
That’s something to keep in mind when listening to sermons on the robot future. The future is rarely as promised and when it is, it turns out to be rather mundane. My grandmother was promised a self-cleaning kitchen and instead got a dishwasher that required her to rise the dishes first. My mother was promised a kitchen that made food at a touch of a button, but only got a microwave out of it. The Jetson’s kitchen never arrived and probably never will.
The economics of technological innovation are what limit the result set. There’s not much to improve upon in a modern kitchen. The robot stove that delivers the turkey to the table would be really cool, but no one is buying one or reorganizing their house to accommodate it. The stove we have is good enough so there’s no reason to invent a new one. The microwave oven, the last great innovation in cooking, was an accident.
That’s what should limit enthusiasm for the robot future. Those self-learning machines from Skynet are going to enter a world of double-entry accounting. All of their advances will come with trade-offs. Those trade-offs are the boundary preventing you from having a jetpak and flying car. These things are possible, but the trade-offs make them unworkable. For as long as I have been alive men have been trying to solve the jetpak problem and all efforts have ended in tears.
The robot future will run into similar trouble as we see with the automated fast food restaurant. This is basically an Automat pitched as something new. When I was a kid, one of my memories was going to an Automat on a family excursion where you could buy food from a vending machine. By the time I hit adulthood, eating from a vending machine was for single men and drug addicts.
From the article:
On Tuesday, the Financial Times reported on an analysis by Deloitte that found that the UK had already lost 31,000 jobs in the legal sector to automation, and projected that another 114,000 jobs would be next.
It’s all happening very fast. In 2013, MIT engineering professor John Leonard told the MIT Technology Review that “robots simply replacing humans” would not happen in his lifetime. “The semi-autonomous taxi will still have a driver,” he argued. Today, Google’s autonomous cars have traveled more than 1m miles on public streets, and self-driving taxis seem all but inevitable.
Sharkey expects that the service industry will be particularly hard hit. He estimates that by 2018 there will be 35 million service robots “at work”.
A bartending robot named “Monsieur” is already on the market. A hardware store in San Jose, California has a retail associate robot named “Oshbot.” The UK salad bar chain Tossedreportedly announced this month that two outlets in London would have self-service kiosks instead of cashiers. On Thursday, Domino’s Australia unveiled a pizza delivery robot in Brisbane.
Notice no one every talks about the trade-offs. Let’s assume the Automat of the future is human-less, which is not the case, but we’ll pretend anyway. Who will be the customers for these things? Throw tens of millions out of work and they have no money to buy Extra Big-Ass Fries from the Hardees robot. That puts an end to the robot future in a hurry. Until that puzzle is solved, there will be no robot future.
Then there’s something else. I don’t want to buy food and drinks at the ATM. I rarely go out to eat for lunch, but when I do it is to get out among people. The girl at the local deli is cute and I enjoy ogling her. The waiter is friendly and I enjoy chatting with him. I like the fact that the Greek family that owns the deli is onto the third generation now. You don’t replace that with robots.
The future imagined at any time tells us more about the people imagining it than the people who will create it. In the 1950’s, fear of nuclear war drove sci-fi and horror movies to imagine all sorts of monsters born from technological error. In those newsreels a century ago, when people were more optimistic, the future was bright and happy for humans. Technological progress promises prosperity. The fact that we dream of electric sheep says a lot about us, but little about the future.
The robot future imagined by our overlords is nothing like that glorious future sold to my grandmother in newsreels. Her glorious future was a great time to be alive. American would be free from the mundane to conquer the world. The robot future sold today is sterile and joyless, a great time to take advantage of the suicide kiosk at the mall. The great minds of our age say the future is pointless. Instead of a singularity, it will be a nullity.
Unless humanity is hardwired to self-destruct, that will not be the future. Life always finds a way. If it is truly pointless, then we will follow the path of the panda, except we will have built our own enclosures. Then again, those young men streaming over the border are full of hope for their future so maybe they just displace the people working on the sterile robot future. It’s hard to know, but the future will not be what our overlords imagine, at least not for them.