The Automat of the Future

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.

24 thoughts on “The Automat of the Future

  1. I think you’re wrong about this. The reason is there is a gap between the amount of intelligence/computing needed to usefully automate task and present computer power. This gap is rapidly closing. You really should read “Dennis M. Bushnell, Future Strategic Issues/Future Warfare [Circa 2025] ” he goes over the trends of technology coming up and how they may play out. His report is not some wild eyed fanaticism it’s based on reasonable trends. Link.

    Page 70 gives the computing power trend and around 2025 we get human level computation for $1000. The only way that this can have no meaning is if computers go crazy with human or higher than human level computation. This idea comes from Larry Niven, Pournelle, etc. great Sci-Fi writers in the grand space opera tradition. I just don’t believe it. Every since this computer trend has been established Sci-fi has had a hard time dealing with it. Greg Egan has a great series “culture series” where the computers become partners with us but we have no assurance that this is the case.

    It may very well be that when the wealthy control this much computing power they just get rid of the rest of Humanity. Of course 2025 is bad but notice it says”…By 2030, PC has collective computing power of a town full of human

    The machines will get rid of the wealthy or they will merge with them. The real problem is not that the machine is smart it that it has no empathy for humans. How does empathy work? I don’t think anyone knows. It’s hard enough to program intelligence. We know people with no empathy cause all sorts of problems. What about psychopathic super machines. It’s frightening.

    • Just read this today. Look how fast computers are beginning to understand logical language. It’s very frightening. It wouldn’t be if we had decent people running things that wished well on all the people of the planet but we don’t. This intelligence will not be used to help us but to crush us.

  2. The only view of the future you need is Star Trek. A society where everyone is cared for, is never paid (but then everything is free) and is hopelessly ‘sharing and caring’ to the point of socialism. You always feel that if anyone on the crew disagreed with the captain it would be discussed and counselled to boredom while hurtling at faster-than-light speed towards some far flung planet where the inhabitants clearly do not understand the Prime Directive (and which the people in Star trek always ignore).

    But the synthetic food ‘n’ drink dispenser does Earl Grey Tea, so it must be civilised. In which case it will do heroin, too.

  3. When mobile phones were introduced, people assumed they would keep getting so small that it could just be implanted in your ear permanently. A local idiot I know bought a phone not much bigger than a pack of tic-tacs around 2007. It was horribly impractical and he lost it within a month. As I mentioned, he was and remains an idiot but phones began getting bigger after that. The humble book has survived because it is better than e-books. The toothbrush has survived the electric version because it is a better product. People will take a hand-made dinner over a Lean Cuisine any day of the week. Employers may like the sound of robot workers but unless he knows how to deal with them, he will stick with Johnny and Jenny. Customers too would prefer to deal with people they can interact with on a human basis.

  4. I remember the Automat very well, even though I was very young. And what I remember most was the cherry pie. What I can’t remember is whether it was a dime or a nickel, but I know I was thinking to myself that this was the greatest thing ever. Tim

  5. 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.

    Exactly. An automated future doesn’t work in our world. Our rules break down. If there are no customers, because no one has a job, then who buys those nifty new gadgets? Do you get the gadgets for free, if so then whats the benefit to making them? Capitalism, Marxism they won’t mean anything. However, that is not going to stop automation.

    He who automates first, automates best. Initially there will be a great deal of money to be made from automation, and will be as long as we have a mixed economy. You won’t wake up one day and nobody will have a job. You’ll wake up and a small specific group of people, that isn’t you, will cease to be employed, and since it doesn’t effect you, then you won’t care. This will happen every so often, until society can no longer take the strain.

  6. The problem with the ‘robotic future’ is that it assumes the economic models of today will exist then as they do now. That’s why the idea of an automated future seems impossible. Ultimately, wealth distribution is likely to become a greater part of future economies. The idea that multi-billionaires can off shore their earnings is incompatible with a future where the reality is a declining middle class, growing poorer class all with less disposable income. You can’t grow a consumer based economy when there’s no money to go around.

    The facts are unavoidable, there will be fewer and fewer jobs, either through automation or by outsourcing to cheaper labor locations. The reality of today is we already have a wealth distribution system in place in all industrialized countries in the form of welfare or the dole. Those who don’t or can’t work are supported by those of us fortunate enough to have jobs. I believe others in this blog have commented that the rate in the US it’s about 50/50 right now.

    As more unskilled people continue to immigrate into Western economies (which are more and more driven by technology) the not so distant future will find more of us displaced one way or anther. Many of us will find ourselves on the receiving end of wealth distribution scheme in some form such as early retirement, shorter working hours off-set by the state making up the difference as was done in California or in Germany as “kurzarbeit”. Both German and US workers have employers who subsidize our health care insurance, so the idea of wealth distribution from employers to employees isn’t some Marxists-socialistic idea, it’s a reality of the industrial age that’s been around since the turn of the last century. You can call it what you want; wealth distribution, welfare or subsidies, but the fact is, we all get some from some form of financial benefit which someone else contributes.

    The days of our grand-fathers and fathers working semi-skilled jobs at factories or assembly lines is a historic memory that will never be seen again at least on the scale it once existed. Amazon has replaced thousands of workers with warehouse robots that move shelves. Almost all automotive and major manufacturing companies have automated their assembly plants and minimized manual labor to those processes which can not be easily be replaced with robots. Foxconn in China is already looking to use robots and automation for 70% of its assembly line and eliminate as much manual labor as possible. Last year they already had a fully automated factory that runs 24-hours a day with the lights off.

    Just as governments can impose and control taxation to sustain the State, so too can they control the distribution of wealth on private industry in order to ensure the average person has money to spend, which will have to happen if a consumer driven economy is to continue.

  7. When we dream about future technology, we always think about it in terms of leisure and labor-saving. However, when the technology becomes available, the efficiency gains are put towards greater productivity and a concurrently higher standard of living, not more free time. The technology drives economic growth, but that growth will always require human ingenuity and sweat.

  8. Dishwashers today may be better than those of 1965, but they sure are worse than those of 2004 !!

    I just had to buy a new dishwasher – it was not a cheapo model – and basically it sucks.
    Apparently the EPA has established energy guidelines for them and the result is more hand rinsing of dishes prior to placement into the dishwasher and more hand washing of stuff because the dishwasher will simply not get many items clean.
    The end result is – for the first time in 10 years – I now have a dish rack sitting on the counter adjacent to the kitchen sink, more use of hot water and, of course, higher water and natural gas usage.
    You can always count on the EPA bureaucrats sitting in Washington ,DC to F’up everything.

    What did I have before? A circa 2004 “contractors model” that came with the house. It worked great until it just stopped working.

    • It’s not the dishwasher. It’s the EPA’s mandated removal of phosphates in the detergent that’s the problem. Same thing with laundry detergent.

      So, go down to your hardware store and buy a box of TSP (tri-sodium phosphate) and put about 1/3 TS in your dishwasher and you will see a huge difference. (A full TS for laundry).

          • Of course, adjust as needed. The mineral content of the water in your area might make a difference.

            It’s also a a great idea to run empty loads in both with a vinegar solution at least 3-4 times a year to clean out the alkaline deposits (don’t use that overpriced CLR crap).

  9. I stopped using my Microwave for its intended purpose years ago, when I finally admitted to myself that microwaves do an inexcusably crappy job re-heating things. So I went back to using the stovetop and the oven to reheat items. It takes longer but the food tastes much, much better. Upon reflection, I understood that the microwave oven is the epitome of modern values: a shitty result produced quickly is preferred to a good result produced slowly.
    My microwave still sits on my counter, taking up valuable space, but is now only occasionally used as the world’s biggest kitchen timer. I should probably get rid of it.

    • I’ve never been big on the microwave. It makes things weird in ways they should not be weird. Pizza becomes super elastic, like silly putty with toppings. It’s useful for steam veggies or making rice, but that’s about all I use it for. I used to date a woman who cooked everything in the damned thing. I never got the attraction.

      Dishwashers are not my thing either.

      • They are OK for heating or reheating liquidy things. Ours mostly gets used for reheating coffee from a large pot we make twice daily, and for soups, stews and so on.

        • A stew or soup that takes one minute to reheat in the microwave, takes about 7 minutes to reheat on the stove. The problem with using the microwave is that the stew comes out scalding, but is cold three minutes later. The stew I heat on the stove stays warm for fiftenn minutes. Really, the microwave is an almost useless device if you examine the results it delivers closely.

  10. Even if we do get to an era of having humanoid robot slaves, there will be new job markets of troubleshooting and repairing them, part suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, sales, programmers, robot junk yards, tune ups, chip mods, paint jobs, cleaning, disposal, new designs, simple maintenance, EPA regulations, Mothers Against Robot Porn, etc.

    • Have you met people? They simply don’t have the mental horsepower to do those jobs. Why not just imagine that we’ll all become painters, authors, and entertainers? It’s just as likely, besides expert data bases will take away much of those “intellectual” jobs.

  11. One possibility is that everyone will own a robot which they program to go to work for them. The bot works 24/7 with minimal supervision and you sit back and get the pay.

    • I’ve been seeing ads for this since WW2 ended. Mostly having to do with stocking and servicing vending machines, and coin-operated car washes.

  12. My father had a saying: It’s all bullshit. What he meant was there are so many fakers in the world, just ignore them and move on.
    P.S. “Life will always find a way.” This is what the Cult is fighting against, life. They will lose, but the collateral damage will not be pretty.

  13. The robot future is being pushed by guys at Google, Facebook etc. whose business model is essentially selling advertising.

    Right now, they seem to be scooping up all of the money while sharing a bit of it with employees lucky enough to snag a job with them.

    When the robots push everyone else out of work, who will have the money to buy the stuff the advertisers are pushing?

    Like they say in Z land, this will not end well.

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