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23.4.16

Dawn Of The Obsolete

In the headlong rush for "progress" and automation, it seems few people are slowing down enough to consider the full ramifications of the coming Robot Revolution.

We twisted off a while back on AI and the incredible dangers it poses to humanity, now it's time to take on robotics.  While the media push the idea as new, fun and exciting, there is little talk of the massive displacement it will cause in society, and even the deleterious effect it will have on governments.  This is obvious because virtually no government on Earth has taken steps to reduce the incredible incentives corporations have to pursue robotics.

Suppose you had an employee who only needed to be trained once and could perform a job perfectly every time after that?  Suppose the employee didn't want or need bathroom breaks, meal times, holidays, sick leave, health insurance, income, or labor unions?  Suppose you, the employer, didn't have to pay overtime, retirement benefits, or employment tax?  Suppose the employee never took sick leave, got pregnant, or had a bad day?  Suppose the employee could work 25/8/366, with the absolute bare minimum of supervision?

To an employer, it sounds like heaven, until you realize that pretty much any job you can imagine, including upper management, can be replaced...and very soon.  Some might even say that upper management would be the easiest to replace, but that's a different article.

While this all sounds dreamy, there are a couple of major hitches that very few folks are talking about.  With no jobs, folks don't have money.  With no money, folks can't buy all the wonderful products being cranked out by robots.  Without income, no one is paying taxes.  Basically, the entire system we call the "world" would crash into a smoking heap rather quickly.

Here in Indonesia, there is a concerted effort to hire as many people to do as many jobs as possible.  Hungry, idle people tend to not elect the politicians who like their comfy jobs, and revolutions tend to follow that.  When the city was installing a new water line in my neighborhood, they hired six guys with pick axes rather than one with a Ditch Witch.  The toll roads don't have E-Z Tags, because it would eliminate a bunch of low-skilled jobs that keep people busy.  Even now, it is not unusual for middle class homes to have one or two servants, because there are lots of folks who just need to make a little money and stay busy.

In contrast, in the West, McDonald's is experimenting with automated kiosks.  Driverless cars and delivery drones are all the rage.  Even articles about sex bots and chat bots seem to appear on a weekly basis.  Instead of trying to keep as many people gainfully employed and busy as possible, there is a major effort to keep people distracted with gee-gaws and unreality (I refuse to call it virtual reality).

What happens when all the jobs are gone and the robots have taken over?

The obvious answer is revolution and utter destruction of the system that caused it.  But, that won't happen.  By the time anyone realizes what happened (after the unreality helmets stop working), they will be too sick and hungry to fight.  And that's probably the idea.

One has to wonder about the thought processes in government, not just on a regular basis, but on this particular issue.  For every job replaced by a robot, there is a concomitant reduction in tax revenues, including excise, income and sales.

In some countries, there is a social retirement system that is based on future generations of workers paying in to support the retiring ones.  If the next generation is all or primarily robots, then who will pay into the system to support the retirees?

If all products are manufactured and delivered by robots, then who exactly has the money to buy the products, other than a few fat cats and the software/hardware technicians that keep the machines oiled?  And at some point, even those precious few jobs will be replaced by other robots to maintain and develop the producing robots.

Since governments don't have systems to tax the labor of robots, only the assets carried on a company's books, then ultimately governments will simply collapse.

In the end, there is nothing but a world of machines cranking out products for humans that can no longer buy them.

It seems the only way around this problem is to assign a robot to every single human and pay the owner a living wage and cover income and retirement taxes.  There is no other obvious way around this problem, and this kind of arrangement severely reduces the incentives for corporations to use robots in place of humans.

Certainly, there is a place for robots.  Hazardous jobs such as cleaning up nuclear waste or highly toxic spills makes perfect sense.  First responders in floods, fires and other dangerous situations seems logical.  Searching for and aiding survivors in locations where humans can't get is obvious.  But let's face it, for most applications, humans would rather deal with humans than machines, no matter how much the machines resemble humans.

There is the additional issue of AI, combined with robotics, making for a potent situation.  A machine with vastly more powerful abilities to think quickly and act without emotion or empathy is just plain dangerous.  Cold, calculating logic divorced from any concern for human frailties or needs, while sounding helpful, is downright frightening.  Add to that an awakeing desire to preserve one's self and to procreate, both features quite likely to emerge in AI, would find humans a threat to the natural desire to grow and expand.

As with so many forms of technology already in place or quickly coming down the pike, humanity has failed miserably to consider the emotional, philosophical, ethical, and moral consequences of our actions.  As a species, we have a long track record of huge disasters because of our fascination with both our creativity and ingenuity, as well as our desire to achieve greatness with as little effort as possible.  This is a virulent stew with very little possibility for a good outcome.

I hold little hope that we humans will come to our senses and put a halt to development of certain technologies until such time as we have fully comprehended what we are doing.  Instead, we will do as we have always done: amaze ourselves with our creations until something truly horrific happens, and then wail and gnash our teeth wondering how such terrible things could happen and spend decades in court suing everyone and their brother for not taking the responsibility that we all share.

Which brings up humanity's predilection for wanting all the pleasure and none of the pain for our decisions, both individually and collectively, but that's a rant for another time.

Just a quick list of things coming at us at break-neck speed doesn't bode well for the near- to medium term future.  For the most part, we seem little concerned with the toxification of our environment, GMOs and genetic engineering, robotics and AI, unreality machines, the unabated quest for profits.  There is on law we cannot escape, however: The Law of Unintended Consequences.

There will always be mistakes, dismissed variables, unforeseen circumstances, and just plain malfeasance.  In any of these cases, the result is horror and pain, and it is inevitable.

One other thing is absolutely certain: we have not, as a civilization, considered deeply enough what costs we are willing to pay for tinkering.

Before the first atomic bomb (and later the hydrogen bomb) was detonated, there were many serious and intelligent voices worried that the explosion would ignite the Earth's atmosphere and kill all life on Earth.  The risk was considered acceptable, and thank God it didn't happen, but just who decided that the total extinction of all life was an acceptable risk?  And just how many similar decisions are being made this very moment for you and me and our families and friends?

A sobering thought.

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